May 30, 2024
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It is one of the most well-known differences between Sephardic Jews and Ashkenazic Jews. The Sephardic minhag, on one hand, is to recite Selichot beginning the day after Rosh Chodesh Elul. The minhag Ashkenaz, on the other hand, is to start saying Selichot from the Sunday before Rosh Hashanah unless Rosh Hashanah falls out on Monday or Tuesday, in which case, Ashkenazim start from two Sundays before Rosh Hashanah. What is the basis for these two differing practices?

Geonim, Rishonim, Shulchan Aruch and Rama

The Rosh (Rosh Hashanah 4:14) records that a number of Geonim had the minhag of reciting Selichot during the Aseret Yemei Teshuva, while other places said them from Rosh Chodesh Elul because that is when Moshe was on Har Sinai receiving the second luchot (see Rashi to Devarim 9:18). While the Rambam (Teshuva 3:4) follows the minhag of the Geonim, Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 581:1) writes that the Sephardic minhag is to say Selichot from Rosh Chodesh Elul. Rama, however, records that the minhag Ashkenaz is to start saying Selichot from the Sunday before Rosh Hashanah unless Rosh Hashanah falls out on Monday.

The Classic Explanations for the Ashkenazic and Sephardic Customs

Mishna Berurah 581:6 explains that the reason for the Ashkenazic custom is that some had the custom to fast for 10 days prior to Yom Kippur. However, since it is not permissible fast on the two days of Rosh Hashanah, Shabbat Shuvah and Erev Yom Kippur, one had to begin fasting four days prior to Rosh Hashanah. The Mishnah Berurah offers another reason based on the halacha that four days are required to inspect a korban for blemishes (Pesachim 96a). Since on Rosh Hashanah we offer ourselves to Hashem as a metaphoric korban (sacrifice) we should “inspect” ourselves with the recitation of Selichot for a minimum of four days before Rosh Hashanah. The Vilna Gaon (Biur HaGra to OC 581:1) adds that the Ran (Rosh Hashanah 3a in the pages of the Rif s.v. B’Rosh Hashanah) adds that while the human being was created on Rosh Hashanah (in accordance with the view of Rabi Eliezer), the world was created on the 25th of Elul. Therefore, Ashkenazim begin Selichot near this date.

The Vilna Gaon cites the Rosh’s explanation of the Sephardic practice to begin reciting Selichot on the second day of Elul as a reenactment of Moshe Rabbeinu’s 40 days of praying for forgiveness for the Cheit HaEigel. This is a most compelling reason since Yom Kippur (as Rashi op. cit. notes) is the date in which Moshe Rabbeinu descended with the second luchot, signaling Hashem granting us atonement for this grievous sin.

A New Explanation for the Sephardic Practice

I suggest a new reason for the Sephardic practice. It is based on Yonah’s call to Nineveh, “In 40 days Nineveh will overturn” (Yonah 3:4). Rashi (op. cit.) explains that the word overturned (nehepachet) has two potential meanings. One meaning is of destruction and the other is improved for the better. Yonah is essentially communicating that either the residents of Nineveh will improve or will be destroyed.

I suggest that the Sephardic practice reflects this warning, in that either we improve during the 40 days between Rosh Chodesh Elul and Yom Kippur or Hashem will judge upon us an unpleasant future. Indeed, Sephardic Selichot begins by echoing the captain of the ship upon which Yonah sailed, asking, “Ben adam, ma lecha nirdam” (Yonah 1:6), how can you be sleeping in the middle of a storm, wake up and cry out to your God! This liturgical poem also warns us “Ufchad mei’asonim,” fear catastrophes that might (heaven forfend) strike if we do not improve. Thus, the Yonah motif is certainly one that fits with Sephardic Selichot.

Why the Number 40?

Why is the number 40 chosen as the time for the people of Nineveh (and for us as well) to perform teshuvah? One may answer that it certainly evokes thoughts of the 40 days of destruction during the time of the mabul and the 40 years in the midbar when the older generation was eliminated. Thus, the number 40 is associated with total destruction and elimination, for which we are forewarned to repent and avoid.

We may add to this the idea expressed by Rav Zvi Grumet in his work “Genesis” (Jerusalem: Maggid Books, 2017, 86-87), that the number 40 in Torah literature expresses an opportunity for rebirth:

“In both biblical and rabbinic literature, the number 40 represents birth or rebirth. In the Bible, Moses is on the mountain for 40 days and emerges as a man reborn with a radiant face. The spies enter the land as princes and 40 days later return with the self-image of grasshoppers. The Israelite nation spends 40 years in the desert and is transformed from a fractured nation of refugees into a unified nation of conquerors…In rabbinic literature, there are 40 minus one categories of prohibited (creative) work on Shabbat, a child is considered to be ‘alive’ in the womb after 40 days, and pregnancy lasts for 40 weeks.”

We may add to this list that grape juice ferments into wine 40 days after it is squeezed from the grape (Eiduyot 6:1). Malkot are also “40 minus one,” as they are intended to spur the emergence of a new personality after the traumatic experience. Similarly, the goal of Selichot is to emerge as a new and improved person by its culmination on Yom Kippur.

Conclusion

Accordingly, the number 40 conveys a similar message as the word “nehepachet.” It can refer to utter destruction or rebirth. The people of Nineveh and every Jew from Rosh Chodesh Elul until Yom Kippur are faced with the same stark choice as to which path we will choose—falling into the abyss or redeeming ourselves and restarting our lives.

By Rabbi Haim Jachter


Rabbi Haim Jachter is the spiritual leader of Congregation Shaarei Orah, the Sephardic Congregation of Teaneck. He also serves as a rebbe at Torah Academy of Bergen County and a dayan on the Beth Din of Elizabeth.

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