By Joseph Mosseri
The month of Eloul is known as the month of Rahamim. This is the time that is most opportune for requesting Bore Olam's mercy and kindness. The custom of the Sepharadim is to rise at dawn each morning from the 2nd of Eloul until Ereb Yom Kipour (except for Shabbat & Rosh Hashanah) to recite Selihot. That is a total of 30 days of waking up in darkness for Selihot.
The earliest origin we know of for this custom goes back to the days of Rab Ha-a-yeh Gaon and Rab Amram Gaon who refer to this custom of Selihot but only during Aseret Yeme Teshoubah, the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kipour. Our custom though goes way back in Spain, Rabbi Yisshaq ibn Giat (born circa 1020 Lucena died 1091 Cordova) who was a great Rishon mentions the custom in his day in Spain was to begin Selihot from Rosh Hodesh Eloul.
Rabbi David Aboudirham also refers to the custom beginning from Rosh Hodesh Eloul. One of the reasons given as to why we begin from Rosh Hodesh Eloul is because that is when Mosheh Rabenou went up the mountain to get the 2nd set of Louhot (tablets) from God. On the 40th day which was Yom Kipour, God told him SALAHTI KIDBAREKHA!
The custom among many but not all Sepharadim of Turkey and the Middle East is to blow the Shofar during all the days of Selihot during the 5 times that the Yag Midot (13 attributes of God) are proclaimed and during Qadish Titqabal.
The custom among the Spanish & Portuguese communities of London, Amsterdam, New York, etc.. is only to blow 10 sounds from the Shofar at the end of the Selihot during Aseret Yeme Teshoubah.
The Ashkenazim, even though they only begin Selihot the Saturday night prior to Rosh Hashanah, they blow the Shofar each day beginning from Rosh Hodesh Eloul, after Shahrit & Arbit. Even though it would seem like most Jews blow the Shofar at some point during these 40 days, the custom of Aleppo, Syria is not to blow at all!!
Does anyone know of other groups which do not sound the Shofar?? And Why??
The Spanish & Portuguese communities have an additional custom of reciting an abridged version of Selihot during these days each night after Arbit. According to the Qabalah (Zohar) it is very bad to say Selihot at night and the Cabbalist Rabbi Mosheh Zakouto of Venice and Rabbi Haim Yosef David Azoulai have shambled the minhag. Hakham Obadiah Yosef also followed their position and reiterated their words that if you find yourself in such a place you should not even answer Amen.
Rabbi Shem Tob Gaguine (a descendent of a long line of Cabbalists including HaRaShaSh) defended them and their custom saying that everything they do is as their fathers did when they left Spain & Portugal and they never were influenced by the Zohar and it's teachings so why should the qabalah play a role now!!
In "the old countries" Selihot began anywhere between 2:00 and 3:30 A.M. Here in Brooklyn, New York the earliest Selihot begins at about 4:30 A.M., approximately 1 1/2 hours before sunrise.
Even though it is not forbidden to say Selihot after Sunrise it has always been the custom to say selihot during the dark pre sunrise hours. This is based upon the pasouq in Eikhah 2:19 which says "Arise, cry out in the night, as the watches of the night begin; pour out your heart like water in the presence of the Lord"
As difficult as it sounds I honestly do not think it impractical to attend pre-sunrise selihot. I think the timing is perfect. It is not Hassot or even a couple of hours after. It is already immediately prior to daybreak. I think it is a wonderful time to concentrate meditate and reflect. What an excellent time to arise and pour out one's soul to God. Yes, it demands a lot of diligence and effort to get up that early and some may not be able to do it everyday but at least give it a chance. I don't think it would have existed this long if it was so terrible.
There is a new practice here in NY that never existed in the "old country" which is to have minyanim of Selihot after sunrise and begining even as late as 8:30 A.M. This practice according to some has been around for close to 50 years with Rabbis in attendance.
I do not know who started that custom or exactly when but it's possible that like other customs it developed because people weren't willing to get up so early. Instead of seeing the custom completely disappear the Rabbis changed the time to fit their congregants schedules. Others postulate that since people generally arise later than they used to and they also go to bed much later, the time for selihot had to change to suit the social setting of the day and place. It is also possible that they are following the precedence as established in London by the Spanish & Portuguese Congregation of having morning Selihot at 7:00 A.M. because there the dawn hours are very foggy, damp & chilly and people didn't want to take a chance and fall ill.
Personally I do not support the concept of post-sunrise Selihot. Those people who are willing to get up at that hour to pray with a minyan should forget about Selihot and instead pray from the very beginning in a slow concentrated fashion, instead of their usual habit of not praying with a minyan, or going to a later minyan, or showing up late to their regular minyan, or praying in a rushed fashion. Each person should improve upon what he is doing or still needs to do.
IMPORTANT REMINDERS FOR PRE SUNRISE & POST SUNRISE:
Everybody who attends pre-sunrise selihot should make sure to sleep early at night. Those who work for others are required to get a full night's sleep so they can be alert and give a proper day's work for their wages as stated in Hoshen Mishpat. Those who are sleepy during the day should not drive as the danger is well known & in such cases we do not say one may rely on the missvah for protection. Additionally, they should be cautioned not to wake their wives or children who are not accustomed to rise so early, as it can interfere with their day and that may cause some resentment towards those who are scrupulous with the performance of missvot. We do not want to promote one misvah and create more serious transgressions.
Those who do decide to recite Selihot after sunrise must be very careful to change the words of the Selihot so they will be in tune with the timing of the late recitation. Many phrases discuss rising at night or in the dark or pre day break. How can one who arises to say Selihot after sunrise say such things it makes him look, God forbid, as a liar.
Rabbi David Sheloush in his introduction to his commentary on Selihot says that the proper time for reciting Selihot is after midnight as David HaMelekh said: Hassot Layla Aqoum Lehodot Lakh. He then quotes verses from a bunch of Selihot that mention the later part of the night. He also quotes Shoulhan Aroukh that customarily we arise at dawn to say Selihot and that according to the Qabalah after midnight is 'Et Rahamim, a time of mercy and compassion.
Whatever the case may be for those who have decided to recite post sunrise selihot, everyone should make the utmost effort and strive to wake up as early as possible to pour forth our supplications and prayers before Bore' Olam in preparation for Yamim Noraim. To further prove this point I present the opinions of two great Sephardic Hakhamim on the importance of rising early and reciting Selihot.
The following is from Mayim Hayim (Fez, 1933)(page 92) by Rabbi Yosef Messas. A question was asked of him in 1928, this was his response:
What is the law for someone who rises at dawn during the month of Eloul, is it better to study Gemara, Halakhot, Zohar, etc. or to recite Selihot and supplications?
Simply said that we must follow the custom and recite Selihot. This custom is correct and extremely old going back to the days of the Geonim. The month of Eloul is especially opportune for repentance and reciting Selihot slowly and with concentration can only help to awaken the heart and soul to shed their misgivings and repent fully as no learning can ever do.
He continues and says that we have heard and seen numerous cases of pious ones and men of stature that shed much tears during Selihot and it helped them and those around them who witnessed and felt the words and concepts of the Selihot cut through their iniquities. Therefore we should all only say Selihot during this time, because there is nothing better than the proper item at the proper time, (dekhol dabar be'ito mah tob)!
He then quotes the Hid"a (Rabbi Haim Yosef David Azoulai) who says that it is better during these days to say Selihot and additional supplications than to study Torah. It is of course better to go to the Synagogue to say Selihot with the congregation but if one is unable to , it is still better to say Selihot individually than to study Torah. Again the reason being that the words of the Selihot can help a person distance himself from sins and transgressions better than anything else.
He continues to quote the Hid"a who says I have seen Rabbis who always studied but during the month of Eloul they put aside their learning for a while in order to say Selihot. Rabbi Messas finishes off by quoting an old manuscript from Spain in which is written "that our custom is to always study in the Yeshibot, but during Eloul we all put aside our studies in order to say Selihot, because they help a person pour forth his true feelings before God, expressing remorse over the sins of his youth and his unkind deeds, and such is proper to do."
Hakham Obadiah Yosef in Yehaveh Da'at volume 3 page 132 deals with a similar situation:
The question is: Yeshibah students who study Torah late into the night, and if they wake up so early for Selihot, it will interfere with their day time studies. Must they still get up so early to recite Selihot with the congregation?
His response is: That these Rabbinical students who study late into the night should make an effort to say Selihot with a minyan after midnight. If they still have difficulty with that they must make a major effort at the very least to say Selihot with the congregation during the 10 days of repentance from Rosh Hashanah until Yom Kipour.
Most importantly, let us not forget the message of the selihot. Repenting, asking forgiveness from God and granting it to our fellow man, and improving ourselves as decent human beings and as Torah observant Jews