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Peninei Halakha > Days of Awe (Yamim Nora'im) > 02 – Seliḥot and Prayers

02 – Seliḥot and Prayers

01. Elul and Shofar Blowing

The month of Elul and the Ten Days of Repentance are particularly auspicious for repentance, as this is the period when God agreed to forgive the Jewish people for the sin of the Golden Calf. Forty days after the Torah was given, when Moshe had not yet descended from Mount Sinai, a group of sinners persuaded the people to make a golden calf as a replacement for God’s authority. At that moment, a great anger was kindled against Israel. It was serious enough that God said to Moshe, “Now, let Me be, that My anger may blaze forth against them and that I may destroy them, and make of you a great nation” (Shemot 32:10). Moshe prayed fervently and reminded God of the merits of the patriarchs and matriarchs, thus delaying the punishment. Then he descended the mountain, shattered the Tablets, and, together with the tribe of Levi, executed the sinners. He melted down and pulverized the calf, mixed the ash with water, and made all the Israelites drink from it. The water served as a litmus test, and those who had worshipped the calf died. Nevertheless, the threat of destruction still hovered over Israel. Displaying a spirit of self-sacrifice, Moshe stood before God and declared, “Now, if You will forgive their sin [well and good]; but if not, erase me from the record which You have written” (ibid. v. 32). Following this declaration, the decree was lifted. However, Israel was still disgraced and distant from God. It was as if they were no longer His children, His servants, or His special nation. Furthermore, the first Tablets lay in pieces.

On Rosh Ḥodesh Elul, Moshe once again ascended Mount Sinai to pray as Israel’s emissary, asking God to have mercy upon them and forgive them. On Yom Kippur, their repentance was fully accepted. Moshe descended to give the Jews the second set of Tablets and to inform them that they were forgiven. As an indication of their renewed closeness and specialness, God commanded them to erect a Mishkan (Tabernacle), through which the Shekhina would be revealed to them. Since the timing of important events is not accidental, we see that the forty days from Rosh Ḥodesh Elul until Yom Kippur are particularly auspicious for repentance.

This accords with the following midrash:

On Rosh Ḥodesh Elul, God said to Moshe, “Come up to Me on the mountain” (Shemot 24:12). The shofar was then blown in the camp, to let it be known that Moshe was ascending the mountain again and that Israel must not repeat their mistake. God ascended on that day through those same shofar blasts, as we read, “God ascends with a blast (teru’a); the Lord, with the sound of a shofar” (Tehilim 47:6). Therefore, the Sages ordained that the shofar be blown each year on Rosh Ḥodesh Elul. (Pirkei De-Rabbi Eliezer 46)

They chose to have the shofar serve as a wake-up call for the people, because it has the power to discourage people from sinning and to awaken the masses to repent (Tur and Beit Yosef, OḤ 581:1).

Accordingly, Jewish communities customarily blow the shofar during the month of Elul. Ashkenazic custom is to blow each day at the end of Shaḥarit. Sephardim, who recite Seliḥot all month, blow the shofar when they recite the concluding Kaddish of Seliḥot. Many Sephardim also blow the shofar when reciting the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy. Blowing the shofar in Elul is not obligatory, but it is proper for communities to try to do so. Nevertheless, an individual who did not hear the shofar blown does not need to search for someone to blow the shofar for him.[1]

[1]. Formerly, some Sephardic communities blew the shofar during Seliḥot, while others did not (Kaf Ha-ḥayim 581:13). Nowadays, almost all blow ten shofar blasts during Seliḥot (tashrattashattarat; see 4:4 below) as well as during the full Kaddish (which concludes the service); some also blow the shofar when reciting the Thirteen Attributes. Yemenites, too, blow at the end of Seliḥot, with some also blowing during the recitation of the Thirteen Attributes. In contrast, Ashkenazic custom is to blow four shofar blasts (tashrat) at the end of Shaḥarit. R. Waldenberg points out that this is the custom during communal prayer, not individual prayer (Tzitz Eliezer 12:48). From Rosh Ḥodesh Elul until Shemini Atzeret, Ashkenazim customarily recite Le-David Hashem Ori Ve-yish’i (Tehilim ch. 27) following the shofar blowing, as well as at the end of Ma’ariv (or Minḥa).

02. The Basis for the Custom of Reciting Seliḥot

Many Jews have a custom, extending back to the times of the Ge’onim, to wake up early during the Ten Days of Repentance to recite Seliḥot. This is done primarily to inspire people to repent, ask God for forgiveness and atonement, and beg Him to be merciful to His exiled and suffering people. We ask that He not look at our sins and transgressions, but rather that He remember His covenant with our ancestors and with us. We ask Him to remember the sacrifice of Yitzḥak and all the martyrs who sacrificed their lives to sanctify His name. We also pray for the ingathering of the exiles, the rebuilding of Eretz Yisrael, Jerusalem, and the Temple, and the return of the Shekhina to Zion. It is customary to recite Seliḥot specifically during the Ten Days of Repentance because it is a time of judgment and prayer is more readily accepted then. It is proper for every individual to join the community and pray fervently for the Jewish people, for the Shekhina to dwell among us, and for God’s name to be sanctified in the world. Through this, one’s personal prayers will be accepted as well.

Indeed, we find that the prophets encouraged the Jews to gather together in times of trouble to fast, pray, and beg God to have mercy on His people and His land. Thus, we read:

Blow a shofar in Zion; solemnize a fast; proclaim an assembly! Gather the people; bid the congregation purify themselves. Bring together the old, gather the babes and the sucklings at the breast. Let the bridegroom come out of his chamber, the bride from her canopied couch. Between the portico and the altar, let the priests, the Lord’s ministers, weep and say: “Oh, spare Your people, Lord! Let not Your possession become a mockery, to be taunted by nations! Let not the peoples say, ‘Where is their god?’” Then the Lord will be roused on behalf of His land and have compassion upon His people. (Yoel 2:15-18)

Together with reciting Seliḥot and prayers, we must repent and improve our behavior. Thus, during this time period, it is customary to recite Seliḥot, to study works of musar (ethical improvement), and to have sermons that exhort us to repent. Some have the custom to have sermons before Seliḥot, to rebuke and inspire.

03. Seliḥot Nowadays

Today, there is more reason than ever to recite Seliḥot. Now that God has had mercy on us and has begun to redeem us by gathering in the exiles and allowing us to settle Eretz Yisrael, we should be more inspired to repent. We must beg God to continue to have mercy upon us; to gather in the exiles, and settle them in the land that He granted to our ancestors and to us; to facilitate our repentance, which will draw us nearer to Him; to help us become greater Torah scholars and sanctify ourselves through mitzva observance; and to allow us to rebuild the Temple, illuminating the entire world with the light of His faith and His Torah.

When the Jews returned from Babylonia with Ezra, they had serious spiritual problems, similar to those we are experiencing today. Through repentance, though, they merited to build the Second Temple. The Book of Ezra makes this clear. Ezra left Babylonia for Eretz Yisrael only to discover that many Jewish men, including officials and dignitaries, had married non-Jewish women. In Ezra’s own words:

When I heard this, I rent my garment and robe, I tore hair out of my head and beard, and I sat desolate. Around me gathered all who were concerned over the words of the God of Israel because of the returning exiles’ trespass, while I sat desolate until the evening offering. At the time of the evening offering, I ended my self-affliction; still in my torn garment and robe, I got down on my knees and spread out my hands to the Lord my God, and said, “O my God, I am too ashamed and mortified to lift my face to You, O my God, for our iniquities are overwhelming and our guilt has grown high as heaven. From the time of our fathers to this very day, we have been deep in guilt. Because of our iniquities, we, our kings, and our priests have been handed over to foreign kings, to the sword, to captivity, to pillage, and to humiliation, as is now the case. But now, for a short while, there has been a reprieve from the Lord our God, Who has granted us a surviving remnant and given us a stake in His holy place; our God has restored the luster to our eyes and furnished us with a little sustenance in our bondage. For bondsmen we are, though even in our bondage God has not forsaken us, but has disposed the kings of Persia favorably toward us, to furnish us with sustenance and to raise again the House of our God, repairing its ruins and giving us a hold in Judah and Jerusalem. Now, what can we say in the face of this, O our God, for we have forsaken Your commandments…. After all that has happened to us because of our evil deeds and our deep guilt – though You, our God, have been forbearing, [punishing us] less than our iniquity [deserves] in that You have granted us such a remnant as this – shall we once again violate Your commandments by intermarrying with these people who follow such abhorrent practices? Will You not rage against us till we are destroyed without remnant or survivor? O Lord, God of Israel, You are benevolent, for we have survived as a remnant, as is now the case. We stand before You in all our guilt, for we cannot face You because of this.” (Ezra 9:3-15)

Ezra’s anguish, fasting, and prayers awakened the nation to repentance, as we read, “While Ezra was praying and making confession, weeping and prostrating himself before the House of God, a very great crowd of Israelites gathered about him, men, women, and children; the people were weeping bitterly.” They accepted God’s covenant, and the men agreed not to remain with the women and children who were unwilling to convert. “So Ezra at once put the officers of the priests and the Levites and all Israel under oath to act accordingly, and they took the oath” (ibid. 10:1-5). Nevertheless, since many Jews did not repent, and many did not come to Eretz Yisrael but remained in Babylon, the presence of the Shekhina was not as strong in the time of the Second Temple as in the First, and ultimately the Second Temple, too, was destroyed on account of our sins.

Certain passages in Seliḥot are appropriate for a period of exile, which makes it difficult for some people to identify with their content nowadays. Some are even worried that there is an element of falsehood in reciting such Seliḥot. However, if we see the Jewish people as a nation that transcends history, with each and every one of us linked to all Jews in all times and all places, we can recite even these exilic selections and identify deeply with them. For we identify with our ancestors who lived in exile and suffered such horrible tribulations and degradations that they almost lost hope. We identify with the Jews who experienced anti-religious persecution by Muslims and Christians, and who were tortured and martyred during the Crusades, the Inquisition, and the Chmielnicki Massacres. Most recently and most devastating of all, we identify with the victims of the terrible Holocaust which took place less than eighty years ago. How can we be so complacent as to say that the supplications of the Seliḥot are no longer appropriate, when there are still survivors among us who endured the ghettos and the concentration camps, and the world is still filled with monsters who openly proclaim that they hope to continue the work of the Nazis? In light of all this, we can still recite the Seliḥot and identify deeply with them.

4. The Contents of Seliḥot

Because the Sages did not explicitly ordain the recitation of Seliḥot, there is no standard rite, and each community added its own supplications and piyutim (liturgical poems). Nevertheless, there is a basic framework that all communities follow and which appears in Seder R. Amram Gaon. We begin with the recitation of Ashrei (Tehilim 145), as every prayer service begins with praise of God. This is followed by a half Kaddish and the paragraphs that begin “Lekha Hashem Ha-tzedaka” (“To You, O Lord, is righteousness”) and “Shome’a tefila adekha kol basar yavo’u” (“Hearer of prayer, all humankind comes to You”; Tehilim 65:3) and additional verses of petition and supplication. We then recite the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy, the standard confession (“Ashamnu” – “We are guilty”) and the longer confession (“Ashamnu mi-kol am” – “We are the guiltiest of all peoples”). Toward the end, we recite “Aneinu” (“Answer us”) and “Asei le-ma’an shemekha” (“Act for the sake of Your name”). The service concludes with Taḥanun and the full Kaddish.

  1. Amram Gaon writes that additional verses, piyutim, and supplications may be added to the basic outline. In fact, Jewish communities have added many piyutim to Seliḥot, with the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy repeated in between them. There are differences between the Ashkenazic and Sephardic rites of these additional piyutim. Also, while Sephardim recite the same Seliḥot every day, Ashkenazim have different piyutim for each day.

When time is short, worshippers may skip the additional piyutim and recite just the basic order set out by R. Amram Gaon. If a congregation is selecting which piyutim to say, they should opt for those that inspire repentance.[2]

[2]. Some say that it is forbidden to recite piyutim that address various angels, as one may turn in prayer only to God (Rambam; Ramban). Accordingly, one should not recite “Makhnisei Raḥamim” (“Purveyors of Mercy”), which is mentioned in Seder R. Amram Gaon and which Ashkenazim usually say at the end of Seliḥot, as it is addressed to angels. Likewise, according to this view, one may not recite the piyutMidat Ha-raḥamim aleinu hitgalgeli” (“Attribute of Mercy, Descend upon Us”) as it is addressed to a divine attribute and not directly to God. However, most poskim permit the recitation of these piyutim, which were composed long ago by Torah giants, and which Jews have been reciting for hundreds of years. The rationale seems to be that as long as the supplicant knows that everything is in the hands of God, he may ask the angels to fulfill their mission, namely, to transport our prayers to God and remind Him of our merits (R. Sherira Gaon; R. Eliezer of Worms; Shibolei Ha-leket §252: Mahari Bruna). Indeed, this is the practice of most communities, which have not expunged such piyutim from the siddur. Others maintain that fundamentally the stringent position is correct. Nevertheless, they do not want to eliminate these piyutim entirely, because of the long-standing custom to recite them. To resolve the dilemma, they adjust the formulations of the prayers slightly, rephrasing them so that it is clear that the prayers are addressing God, asking Him to teach the angels how to transport our prayers to Him (Maharal, Netivot Olam, Netiv Ha-avoda ch. 12; this was the practice of R. Zvi Yehuda Kook). Alternatively, some rabbis took their time reciting the prayers earlier in Seliḥot in order to ensure that they would not have time to recite the problematic ones. Nevertheless, they did not object to the congregation saying them (Ḥatam Sofer OḤ 166).

05. The Days on Which Seliḥot Are Recited

In Geonic times, the custom in both of the prominent yeshivot in Babylonia was to recite Seliḥot during the Ten Days of Repentance. In a few places, Seliḥot were recited during the entire month of Elul. By the end of the medieval era, Sephardic communities had accepted the practice of reciting Seliḥot throughout Elul (SA 581:1). On Rosh Ḥodesh Elul itself, though, Seliḥot are not recited (Responsa Rama Mi-Fano §79; Kaf Ha-ḥayim 581:1). As Rosh Ha-shana draws near, more and more people make sure to attend Seliḥot, and people are especially meticulous about doing so during the Ten Days of Repentance. The Ashkenazic custom is to begin reciting Seliḥot on the Saturday night before Rosh Ha-shana, provided that there will be at least four days of Seliḥot prior to the holiday. This means that if Rosh Ha-shana starts on Thursday or Shabbat, Seliḥot begin the Saturday night before the holiday, but if Rosh Ha-shana starts on Monday or Tuesday, Seliḥot begin the previous Saturday night.[3]

While the Sages did not make reciting Seliḥot mandatory, it is the predominant Jewish custom. Nevertheless, one who finds it difficult to wake up for Seliḥot need not do so during Elul. During the Ten Days of Repentance, though, he should make serious efforts to recite Seliḥot, as these days are auspicious for repentance and forgiveness. (See Rosh Ha-shana 18a; MT, Laws of Repentance 2:6.) If one is unable to go to sleep early, and waking up for Seliḥot would result in his being too exhausted to fulfill his work obligations, then he should not wake up early, even during the Ten Days of Repentance. Rather, he should try to recite chapters of Tehilim, and during the course of the day he can recite those sections of the Seliḥot that an individual may recite alone. (See section 7 below.)

The accepted ruling is that even very diligent Torah scholars should recite Seliḥot (Birkei Yosef and Sha’arei Teshuva 581:1). Indeed, this is the custom in all yeshivot, even though reciting Seliḥot takes time away from Torah study. However, if one finds that waking up early makes him lose even more time than the time taken by the recitation of Seliḥot because he cannot concentrate on his studies later on, it is better for him not to wake up early for Seliḥot.

[3]. In the past, many people had a custom to fast for ten days as part of their repentance (as will be explained in section 9). Only on six of the Ten Days of Repentance is it permissible to fast (because there is a mitzva to eat on both days of Rosh Ha-shana, Shabbat Shuva, and Erev Yom Kippur). Accordingly, it was important to have four days before Rosh Ha-shana during which fasting and reciting Seliḥot were permissible. Nowadays, the widespread practice is not to fast for ten days. Nevertheless, we continue the custom of starting Seliḥot at least four days before Rosh Ha-shana. An additional reason to have at least four days of Seliḥot before Rosh Ha-shana is that we imagine that we are offering ourselves to God. As we know, offerings must be prepared and checked for imperfections at least four days before they are sacrificed.

Why then do we always begin Seliḥot on Saturday night rather than beginning four days before Rosh Ha-shana? Some suggest that always beginning Seliḥot on the same night is less confusing (Tur and Rema 581:1; MB ad loc. 6). Others suggest that the point of beginning Seliḥot on Saturday night is in order to start our supplications as we exit the holy Shabbat. During Shabbat, people study Torah joyfully, which allows the Shekhina – which only rests where there is the joy of a mitzva – to rest upon them (Leket Yosher).

06. When to Recite Seliḥot

The best time to recite Seliḥot is the last ashmoret (“watch”) of the night, just before morning, which is a time of mercy and acquiescence, a time of anticipation for the dawn of new light and the revelation of God’s word in the world. At this time, everyone is asleep; the world is pure and unsullied by evil thoughts and deeds. Prayer bursts forth from the depths of the heart, breaks through all barriers, and is accepted on high. Any time after midnight is also appropriate for reciting Seliḥot, as that is when people begin to look forward to dawn; it is also a time of mercy and compassion.

Nowadays, people generally go to sleep relatively late, and wake up between six and seven in the morning, which is generally about two hours after the end of the last ashmoret in Israel. Were they to get up during the ashmoret, they would be tired all day and their work or studies would likely suffer. Therefore, many people wake up a half hour or an hour earlier than their usual time and recite Seliḥot before Shaḥarit. Even though it is past dawn, Seliḥot may still be recited then. Nevertheless, it is better to recite Seliḥot after midnight when possible. In any case, a person should make sure that the recitation of Seliḥot does not leave him so exhausted that he cannot meet all his work or study obligations.

There are those who say that a community that cannot get a minyan for Seliḥot in the morning may, on a temporary basis, recite them before midnight – at 10:00 PM, for instance. (See Igrot Moshe OḤ 2:105.) In practice, however, it is better to say Seliḥot on one’s own at the proper time, since the kabbalists and many poskim say that it is not appropriate to recite Seliḥot before midnight. During the first part of the night, the attribute of justice is dominant, and the world is full of worries and sullied by all sorts of evil thoughts and deeds (Birkei Yosef 581:1-2; Sha’arei Teshuva ad loc. 1; MB 565:12).

There are Seliḥot that refer to waking up at dawn. Some maintain that one who is reciting Seliḥot at a different time must skip these piyutim (AHS 581:4). However, the custom is not to be too exacting about this, because the prayer was instituted for the entire Jewish people, and every day there are some who wake up before dawn to recite Seliḥot.

07. Laws of Seliḥot

Seliḥot are recited with a minyan, because the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy are “devarim she-bikedusha” (holy words), which may only be recited in a quorum of ten (SA 565:5). Of course, a minyan is also required for the recitation of the half Kaddish at the beginning of Seliḥot and the full Kaddish at the end. If the time to recite Seliḥot arrives and there is no minyan yet, the congregation should recite Ashrei, the supplications, and the piyutim while skipping the Thirteen Attributes and the paragraph that introduces them. When the tenth man arrives, the congregation should first recite three verses, follow them with the half Kaddish, and then say the Thirteen Attributes from then on, in their assigned places (MB 581:4).

One who is in a place without a minyan for Seliḥot may recite them on his own. However, he must either skip the Thirteen Attributes or read them with the cantillations, as if he were reading from the Torah. Some say he should also skip the Aramaic prayers (SA 565:5; MB 581:4), while others disagree (Kaf Ha-ḥayim 581:26; see Harḥavot).

Even though there is no mitzva to wear a talit at night, according to Ashkenazic custom the ḥazan for Seliḥot wears a talit to honor the prayers and the congregation (MA 18:2; SHT 581:3). Yemenite custom is for all male participants to wear a talit. According to Sephardic practice, the ḥazan for Seliḥot does not wear a talit. After all, he does not wear it for Minḥa, and certainly not for Ma’ariv and Seliḥot, which are recited at night. However, if the ḥazan is not dressed respectably, for example if he is not wearing a jacket, it is proper for him to put on a talit (R. Eliyahu, cited in Mikra’ei Kodesh: Rosh Ha-shana, p. 72, n. 35).

If the service is at night, the ḥazan does not recite a berakha when putting on the talit, as there is uncertainty. According to Rosh, one recites a berakha when putting on a talit at night, whereas according to Rambam, one does not, and in cases of uncertainty about berakhot, we are lenient and do not recite them (Levush 581:1; see MB ad loc. 6). Some ḥazanim make a point of borrowing a friend’s talit (having in mind not to acquire it); since a borrowed talit does not require tzitzit, everyone agrees that a berakha is not recited over it (Taz 581:2).

Even in the presence of a bridegroom or the father (and other honorees) of a child on the day of his brit mila, the vidui and Taḥanun of Seliḥot are nevertheless recited. Some disagree with this; nevertheless, it is the common practice. Since reciting Seliḥot is not absolutely obligatory, it is preferable for a newlywed or someone making a brit not to attend. This way, the congregation does not face uncertainty.

Sephardim say some of the Seliḥot sitting and others standing. Yemenites recite most of them while sitting, while Ashkenazim stand for all of them. Those who find it difficult to stand may sit. They should try to stand when reciting vidui and the Thirteen Attributes, as well as when the ark is open. The elderly, the weak, and the sick who find even that too difficult may sit for the entire service. (See section 12 below.)

08. The Thirteen Attributes of Mercy

The pinnacle of the Seliḥot service is the recitation of the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy, the divine attributes through which God governs the Jewish people. God revealed these attributes to Moshe Rabbeinu after forgiving the Jews for the sin of the Golden Calf. At that point, Moshe requested, “Let me behold Your presence” (Shemot 33:18). God replied, “I will make all My goodness pass before you, and I will proclaim before you the name ‘Lord’” (ibid. 19). In other words, “I will reveal to you the attributes with which I relate to Israel.” Then:

The Lord came down in a cloud; He stood with him there and proclaimed the name Lord. The Lord passed before him and proclaimed: “The Lord! The Lord! A God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin, and absolving them.” (Ibid. 34:5-7)

  1. Yoḥanan commented:

Had the verse not stated this, we would not have been able to say it. God wrapped Himself in a talit like a ḥazan and showed Moshe how to pray. God said to him: “Any time the Jews sin, they should recite these words, and I will forgive them.” (Rosh Ha-shana 17b)

We therefore recite the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy frequently during Seliḥot, on fast days, and on Yom Kippur.

Following the terrible sin of the Golden Calf, it became clear that the connection between God and the Jews is eternal and cannot be negated, no matter how sinful we are. Sins will indeed lead to punishment and terrible suffering, but the deeper connection between God and the Jews remains. Therefore, it is always possible to repent. By reciting the Thirteen Attributes we deepen our faith, connecting with God in such a profound way that it becomes clear that our sins are peripheral and external to us, and thus we can easily repent for them. Because the Thirteen Attributes reveal the exalted status of the Jewish people, they may be recited only with a minyan (SA 565:5; see section 7 regarding an individual praying alone).­­­[4]

[4]. To understand the power of the Thirteen Attributes, we must first explain that there are two ways in which God relates to the world. Kabbalistic sources usually call them ze’er anpin (smaller face) and arikh anpin (greater face). In Da’at Tevunot §134 and many other places, Ramḥal calls them governance through law (hanhagat ha-mishpat) and governance through unification (hanhagat ha-yiḥud). Normally God relates to Israel through law, according to which everything depends on a person’s actions. If he chooses good, he receives blessing; if he chooses evil, God’s shefa is withheld from him. However, God also relates to the world in a more elevated, hidden way. It is through this relationship, referred to as unification, that the world constantly advances and progresses toward its redemption. Even at low points of sin and punishment, God directs matters behind the scenes to ensure the continued elevation of the world. This relationship is dependent upon God’s covenant with Israel, which is expressed in the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy. The more connected we are to the relationship of unification, the more our faith grows, and the more we can connect the world to its purpose. In a sense, this is repentance on the global scale. Forgiveness and atonement ensue, the heavenly prosecutors disappear, and blessing flows to the world.

09. Penitential Fasting

In the past, many people fasted on Erev Rosh Ha-shana, to accept suffering for their sins, for when a sinner accepts suffering as part of repentance, he is granted atonement and exempted from more severe punishments warranted by his sins. The same applies to public fast days; they atone for sins and exempt the community from further punishment. The Sages offer a parable:

To what can this be compared? To a city that owed a large amount of tax to the king. The king sent agents to collect it, but they were unsuccessful. The city could not pay because the debt was so large. What did the king do? He told his servants and soldiers, “Let’s go there!” By the time the king and his entourage had traveled ten parasangs, the residents heard of his journey, and were frightened. What did they do? Their leaders went out to greet the king. He asked them, “Who are you?” They replied, “We are residents of such and such a city, the one to which you sent tax collectors.” He asked them, “What do you want?” They replied, “Please do us a kindness, as we have nothing to give.” He said to them, “For you, I will reduce the amount by a third.” When the king got closer to the city, ordinary residents went to greet him. He asked, “Who are you?” They responded, “We are people from such and such a city, to which you sent tax collectors, but we cannot pay. We ask that you take pity on us.” The king reduced the payment by another third. He got even closer, and all the residents came out to greet him, young and old. He asked them, “What do you want?” They responded, “Our master and king, we are not able to pay what we owe.” He forgave the final third.

The king in this parable refers to the King of kings, the Holy One, blessed be He. The people of the city are the Jews, who accumulate sins all year long. What does God do? He tells them, “Repent, starting on Rosh Ha-shana.” What do they do? On Erev Rosh Ha-shana the leaders of the generation fast, and God forgives a third of the sins. From Rosh Ha-shana until Yom Kippur, individuals fast, and God forgives another third of the sins. On Yom Kippur, all Jews fast and beg for mercy – men, women, and children – and God forgives them completely. Thus we read (Vayikra 16:30), “For on this day, atonement shall be made for you to purify you of all your sins; you shall purify yourselves before the Lord.” (Tanḥuma Emor §22)

Since the Sages said that fasting before Rosh Ha-shana is very effective, most Jews in the medieval era fasted on that day (see the next section). So states Shulḥan Arukh: “It is the custom to fast on Erev Rosh Ha-shana” (581:2). Since the fast is not mandatory (as are the fasts which commemorate the destruction of the Temple), many fasted only half the day or until plag ha-minḥa (1.25 seasonal hours before sunset). They did not fast the whole day so as not to start the holiday in a state of deprivation (Rema ad loc.; MB 562:10).

Some people fasted for ten days, as Rema writes (ad loc.): “Those who are meticulously observant customarily fast for ten days, and it is proper to do so.” They would fast for six of the Ten Days of Repentance (as it is forbidden to fast on the two days of Rosh Ha-shana, Shabbat, and Erev Yom Kippur), as well as four days prior to Rosh Ha-shana.

In recent times, far fewer people follow customs that involve fasting; even on Erev Rosh Ha-shana, most do not fast. Some suggest that people are weaker and softer than they used to be, so it is not fair to demand that they deprive themselves as an expression of piety (Ḥayei Adam 138:1). The great Hasidic masters maintained that the primary mode of worship in our generations should be joyful, so customs that detract from joy should be avoided. If someone would like to maintain the custom of fasting on Erev Rosh Ha-shana, but he finds it difficult, he should give charity instead. The amount should be either what he would be willing to pay to avoid needing to fast, or minimally, what he would spend for food on an ordinary day.

10. Erev Rosh Ha-shana

As mentioned, in the time of the Rishonim, most Jews fasted on Erev Rosh Ha-shana (SA 581:2; MB ad loc.16), while today most do not. A few people still fast half the day or until plag ha-minḥa. Others give charity in place of fasting.

Ashkenazic custom is to recite many more Seliḥot on Erev Rosh Ha-shana than on other days. If Seliḥot begin before dawn, Taḥanun is recited at the end of the Seliḥot service. Even then, Taḥanun is not said following Shaḥarit, as Taḥanun is normally not recited on Erev Yom Tov. If Seliḥot begin after dawn, Taḥanun is not recited at the end of Seliḥot either (MB 581:23).[5]

On Erev Rosh Ha-shana we do not blow the shofar, so as to distinguish the custom-based blasts of the month of Elul from the obligatory blasts of Rosh Ha-shana (SA 581:3; Levush). Some are stringent and do not even practice blowing the shofar on Erev Rosh Ha-shana. However, one who wants to practice may do so in a closed room (MA ad loc. 14; Eliya Rabba ad loc. 4; MB ad loc. 24).

Since Rosh Ha-shana is called a sacred occasion (mikra kodesh), we honor it as we do Shabbat and holidays. We prepare for it by cleaning the home, doing the laundry, showering, preparing festive meals, and setting the table nicely. If one needs a haircut or a shave, it is a mitzva to take care of it beforehand, in honor of the holiday (SA 581:1; below, 3:4).

As a good omen, in hopes that the upcoming year will be filled with abundance, it is customary to make particularly good and plentiful food for Rosh Ha-shana. To enable this, common practice was to slaughter many animals before Rosh Ha-shana, for the festive meals. In fact, Erev Rosh Ha-shana is listed in the Mishna as one of the four days of the year on which the most animals were slaughtered. Therefore, special care had to be taken to avoid slaughtering an animal and its offspring on the same day, which is forbidden (Ḥullin 83a).

Some have the custom of going to mikveh on Erev Rosh Ha-shana, to purify themselves in anticipation of the Day of Judgment (Rema 581:4). One who wishes to follow this custom but finds it difficult may wash with nine kavim (approximately 11 liters) of water instead (MB ad loc. 26). That is, he should stand in the shower while nine kavim of water streams down on him without interruption. He should ensure that this water comes into contact with his entire body (Peninei Halakha: Festivals 1:16 and n. 8).

It is customary to do hatarat nedarim (nullification of vows) on Erev Rosh Ha-shana. During the recitation, future vows are disclaimed as well (as we will explain below, 5:11-12).

[5]. Some customarily give charity on Erev Rosh Ha-shana. Others visit cemeteries (Rema 581:4) so that the merit of the righteous buried there will help their prayers to be accepted. However, those who visit a cemetery must be careful not to ask the dead to pray on their behalf; they must turn to God alone (Maharil; Maharal, Netivot Olam, Netiv Ha-avoda ch. 12; Ḥayei Adam 138:5; MB 581:27). But some say that one may ask the deceased righteous to pray to God on our behalf (Pri Megadim, Eshel Avraham 581:16; Responsa Maharam Schick OḤ §293). Individuals should follow their family’s custom. Some people also visit graves before Yom Kippur (Rema 605:1). However, in practice, almost no one does so, since Erev Yom Kippur is a Yom Tov in some respects. In fact, even on Erev Rosh Ha-shana the custom is not widespread.

11. The Ḥazan on the Days of Awe

The ḥazan plays a central role during the Days of Awe, since he leads the prayers. Sometimes the whole congregation recites the prayers along with him, while he sets the pace, and at other times he recites the prayers alone, serving as the representative of the congregation (shli’ah tzibur), while the congregation then responds with “amen” (such as during the repetition of the Amida and the recital of Kaddish). Thus, it is important to make sure that the ḥazan is worthy of this sacred task. He must be upright, meaning he should not be a sinner, and especially not a thief. He should have a good reputation and should not have been known as a wanton sinner even in his youth. He should be humble, and the congregation should be happy with him, as he is their representative. He should know how to recite the prayers with precision and should be someone who regularly studies Torah and rabbinic texts. He should know how to perform the proper melodies and should have a pleasant voice, as this allows him to honor his Creator and to engage the congregation, inspiring the people and improving their concentration. If they are unable to find someone who has all these virtues, they should choose the wisest and best person available (Ta’anit 16a; SA 53:4-5).

It is proper that the ḥazan be married, just as the Kohen Gadol had to be married, and that he be at least thirty years old, just as the Levites began to serve at the age of thirty (Rema 581:1). Someone dedicated to Torah who is young and single should be given preference over a thirty-year-old, married ignoramus. Even if the choice is between an older man who has a good voice and is well-liked but is ignorant, does not understand the prayers, and makes mistakes reciting them, or a youth of thirteen who does not know the melodies but understands the prayers, the youth is preferable. A long-standing ḥazan should not be replaced even if a better candidate is available, unless there is something specific which now disqualifies him (SA 53:25).

Depending on the circumstances, there may be additional qualities to look for in a ḥazan. For example, if a community is fasting because of a drought, it is proper to look for a ḥazan who is poor, who has young children whom he has difficulty feeding, and who works hard in the field, as the drought causes him great suffering. In general, if the congregation is praying due to some threat, it is good to choose a ḥazan who is personally affected by it, or a leader who truly feels the suffering of the congregation (Ta’anit 16a; MB 581:10).

During the time of the Sages, it was forbidden to write siddurim because it was only permitted to put the written Torah – the Tanakh – into writing. It was forbidden to write down any orally transmitted material, including prayers and blessings instituted by the Sages (Temura 14b). Therefore, it was necessary for a ḥazan to recite all the prayers out loud, in order to fulfill the prayer obligation of the people who did not know them by heart. Thus, a community would appoint a ḥazan for the entire year, making sure that he had all the virtues discussed above. According to Sefer Ḥasidim (§758; MB 581:10), anyone who helps get an unworthy ḥazan appointed deprives the congregation of a worthy advocate and will be called to account for it in the future.

Over the course of time, the Sages permitted writing down the Oral Torah. With the advent of the printing press, siddurim became widely available. It was no longer necessary to appoint a regular ḥazan for all the prayers, because everyone prayed from their own siddur. Therefore, a different ḥazan now leads each service, and we are not as particular about his qualifications.

Nevertheless, on the Days of Awe, when we are begging God to forgive our sins, deliver us from troubles, and hasten the redemption, a community should be careful to select a ḥazan who meets all the criteria mentioned above. This is especially important for the Musaf service, as it is during Musaf of Rosh Ha-shana that we blow the shofar, and it is during Musaf of Yom Kippur that we recite the Kohen Gadol’s avoda (Temple service). If someone knows that he is not fit to be a ḥazan, he should turn down the honor if approached, because heaven promptly punishes an unfit ḥazan for his sins (Eliya Rabba; MB 581:10).

Even if an unfit person is chosen, it is not appropriate to have a quarrel over it. First of all, a quarrel is a serious sin in its own right. Second, even on the Days of Awe, all have maḥzorim and need not rely on the ḥazan to fulfill their obligation (Ḥatam Sofer OḤ 205; MB 581:11).

It is extremely important for a ḥazan to have a pleasant voice and familiarity with the melodies, and to use them for the glory of God. He should not engage in flourishes to show off his voice. A ḥazan who arrogantly extends the prayers is addressed in the verse, “They roar at Me, so I hate them” (Yirmiyahu 12:8). But if he uses his sweet voice and pleasant melodies to make the prayers beautiful in order to honor God and help the congregation focus, he will be blessed and his reward will be great (Rashba; SA 53:11).

12. Praying Out Loud and Standing Up When the Ark Is Open

As a rule, the Amida is supposed to be recited quietly (Peninei Halakha: Prayer 17:7). However, on Rosh Ha-shana and Yom Kippur, there were those who recited the Amida out loud in order to improve their concentration. Even though it is not permissible during the rest of the year, as it may confuse other worshippers, this is not a concern on Rosh Ha-shana and Yom Kippur because everyone has a maḥzor (SA 582:9). Nevertheless, people should not pray too loudly, both to avoid disturbing other worshippers and to avoid appearing like the prophets of Ba’al, who screamed at their gods (Rema 101:3; MB ad loc. 12).

Another reason to recite the Amida quietly is its exalted nature, which dictates that it be kept private (MA OḤ 101:4; MB ad loc. 11). On the Days of Awe, it makes sense to be even more careful about this. Where almost everyone prays silently, as is the case in most congregations today, one may not pray out loud. Even though there is no concern that people will make mistakes, as they have maḥzorim before them, nevertheless, when one prays aloud, it distracts worshippers and disrupts their concentration.

As maḥzorim note, it is customary to open the ark during the recitation of certain prayers. At those times, it is customary for everyone to stand in order to give honor to the Torah, which is on display. However, according to the letter of the law, the obligation to stand is limited to the time when the Torah scroll is in motion. When it is stationary, whether in the ark or on the podium, one is not required to stand. Therefore, the elderly, the weak, and the sick, who find it difficult to stand up, may sit even while the ark is open. Nevertheless, when the Torah is in motion, they should make extra efforts to stand.[6]

[6]. According to Taz, when the Torah is resting in the ark or on the podium, it is unnecessary to stand since it is in a different domain (Taz YD 242:13), i.e., an area over ten tefaḥim high (76 cm) and four tefaḥim wide (30.4 cm), which constitutes a private domain on Shabbat. According to Pri Megadim, if the Torah scroll is in its place of honor on the ark or podium, even if they are less than ten tefaḥim high or four tefaḥim wide, it is not necessary to stand. In reality, every podium and almost every ark nowadays is at least ten tefaḥim high and four tefaḥim wide.

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