April 14, 2024
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Sephardic Selihot–An Option to Consider

In last year’s Bergen County Jewish Link, an article appeared articulating dissatisfaction with the recitation of Selihot in the synagogues the author attends. Those who share this view might consider joining a Sephardic Selihot service which offers a far different experience. The Sephardic service, although longer than the Ashkenazic version, is a far more melodic, participatory and (some might argue) uplifting experience to launch our Neshamot into the Yamim Noraim (High Holidays).

Whereas Ashkenazic Jews begin reciting Selihot the Saturday night just before Rosh Hashana, in Sephardic circles their own flavor of Selihot are said beginning on the second of Elul and continues through Yom Kippur. In doing so, Moshe Rabbeinu’s successful forty days of prayer for forgiveness of the Cheit HaEigel is reenacted. At Congregation Shaarei Orah, the Sephardic Congregation of Teaneck, Selihot are recited before Shaharit each day. Coffee is made available for those who need a little eye opener before trotting off to work. The beautiful melodies, occasionally punctuated by the blowing of multiple Shofars, that can be heard coming from the sanctuary are inspiring and touch the deepest part of one’s soul. The Gabbai distributes opportunities to lead different parts of the Selihot to men who wish to do so.

The melodies are optimistic and upbeat since Sephardic tradition guides us to approach the Yamim Noraim with confidence that the all merciful Hashem accepts sincere Teshuvah and will grant us a good year. The Selihot are written in a straightforward style in Hebrew that is not difficult to understand and allows us to connect to the prayers and the Borei Olam (Creator).

One significant and illuminating textual difference is that Sepharadim ask Hashem to answer us as He answered Honi the Circle Drawer. Hazal (Mishnah Ta’anit 3:8 and Ta’anit 23a) relate that on one occasion when God did not send rain well into the winter (in the geographic regions of Israel, it rains mainly in the winter), Honi drew a circle in the dust, stood inside it, and informed God that he would not move until it rained. When it began to drizzle, Honi told God that he was not satisfied and expected more rain; it then began to pour. He explained that he wanted a calm rain, at which point the rain calmed to a normal rain.

Honi was almost put into Herem (excommunication) by Rabi Shimon ben Shetah for the above incident in which he showed “dishonor” to God by placing a demand upon Him. However, Rabi Shimon ben Shetah, excused him, saying that he was Honi and had a special father-son type relationship with God.

Ashkenazic Jews do not refer to Honi in their Selihot as they adopt a more formal Rabi Shimon ben Shetah type of relationship with Hashem. Sephardic Jews do invoke Honi, as the Sephardic Selihot emphasize the loving parent child aspect of our relationship with Hashem.

Another ritual difference sheds light into to the different moods on Yamim Noraim adopted by Sepharadim and Ashkenazim. On Shabbat Shuvah both groups begin the Haftarah with a selection from Hoshei’a chapter 14 calling on the Jewish People to repent. The communities diverge, however, as to which selection supplements the Hoshei’a reading. Ashkenazim read a selection from the Navi Yoel (chapter two) calling upon the Jews to assemble and engage in repentance that includes fasting and crying. Sephardic Jews, though, read a portion from the Navi Micah (chapter 7) which emphasizes the kindness of Hashem in his merciful acts of forgiveness. Unlike Ashkenazim who choose a prophetic reading which stresses solemnity and somberness, Sepharadim focus on Hashem’s kind characteristics and forgiving nature. Sephardic Selihot adopt a similar upbeat and optimistic approach where somber tunes are out of place.

For those Ashkenazim who struggle with their Yoel/Rabi Shimon ben Shetah type of Selihot, an answer might be to join a Michah/Honi inspired Sephardic service. A good time to do so, at least at Shaarei Orah (www.sephardicteaneck.org), is on a Sunday morning when Selihot begin at 7 A.M. We at Shaarei Orah welcome you to join us and we hope you will rave about the beauty and attractiveness of the Sephardic.

By Rabbi Chaim Jachter

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