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The Recitation of Selichot

Author: Rabbi Josh Flug
Article Date: Tuesday September 11, 2007

 
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There is an ancient tradition to recite Selichot, prayers for forgiveness, during the days leading up to Yom Kippur. This tradition has become widespread among Jewish congregations throughout the world. This week's issue will discuss some of the traditions surrounding the recitation of Selichot, including when the period of recitation begins, and the proper time of day to recite Selichot. We will also discuss some issues that relate to the actual recitation of Selichot.

The Time Period for Reciting Selichot

Tur, Orach Chaim no. 581, notes that there are three traditions regarding when one should begin reciting Selichot. Rav Amram Gaon records the practice of reciting Selichot between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. Rav Hai Gaon records a practice of beginning the recitation on Rosh Chodesh Elul. Tur then notes that Ashkenazic tradition is to begin the recitation on the Sunday (Saturday Night) prior to Rosh HaShanah when Rosh HaShanah begins on Thursday or Shabbat. If Rosh HaShanah begins on Monday or Tuesday, Selichot begin on the Sunday prior to that. [Rosh HaShanah cannot begin on Sunday, Wednesday or Friday.]

The Proper Time of Day for Selichot

Maharil, Hilchot Yamim HaNoraim states that the Selichot should be recited at ashmoret haboker (the last third of the night). He explains (based on the Gemara, Avodah Zarah 3b) that during the last three hours of the night, the Almighty focuses on olam hazeh (the physical world) and therefore it is an auspicious time for prayer. The Arizal (cited in Sha'ar HaKavanot, Derushei Tefilat Arvit no.1) states that one should never recite Selichot prior to (halachic) midnight. This statement is codified by Magen Avraham 565:5. R. Ovadia Yosef, Yechaveh Da'at 1:46, suggests that the source for setting the proper time for Selichot after midnight is based on the comments of the Zohar, Parshat Chayei Sarah 132b, that the time period from midday until midnight is a time of judgment and from midnight to midday is a time of mercy. Therefore, we recite Selichot during the time of mercy. Although, R. Yosef agrees that ashmoret haboker is the optimal time to recite Selichot, he concludes that one may recite them from midnight until midday.

R. Efraim Z. Margulies, Mateh Efraim 581:1, notes that although it is preferable to recite the Selichot at ashmoret haboker, on the first day, the Selichot should be recited after midnight on Saturday night as is reflected in the specific prayers for the first day of Selichot. He adds (Elef L'Mateh, ad loc.) that if one does not recite the Selichot on Saturday night, rather at ashmoret haboker, he may still recite the words that refer to Saturday night. However, if he recites the Selichot after dawn, he should omit the references to Saturday night.

In certain communities it is difficult to find a minyan to recite Selichot between midnight and midday. R. Moshe Feinstein, Igrot Moshe, Orach Chaim 2:105, rules that in such a situation, if there is no other option and the Selichot would otherwise be omitted altogether, one may recite Selichot prior to midnight. He explains that since there is no halachic prohibition against reciting Selichot before midnight, rather a kabbalistic tradition that prior to midnight is not as beneficial, one may be lenient on a case-by-case basis. R. Feinstein notes that if one is going to do so, he should at least recite Selichot during the transition of the first third of the night to the second third of the night as Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 1:2, also classifies this time as an auspicious time.

R. Yosef, op. cit., cites one opinion that presents an alternative justification for those who recite Selichot prior to midnight. According to this opinion, one may recite Selichot as long as midnight has already occurred in Jerusalem. Therefore, those who live to the west of Jerusalem may recite Selichot at an earlier hour. Nevertheless, R. Yosef notes that most Acharonim are of the opinion that one follows the midnight of that specific location.

R. Yosef himself concludes that one should not recite Selichot prior to midnight even if one is in a pressing situation. He suggests that in a pressing situation, one should recite Selichot prior to Mincha. Although the time in which Mincha is recited is also between midday and midnight, he considers the daytime hours during this period preferable to the nighttime.

Machnisei Rachamim: The Controversial Prayer

There is a prayer printed in many prayer books titled "Machnisei Rachamim." This prayer calls upon the angels (those who bring in mercy) to beg for forgiveness on our behalf. Maharal of Prague, Netivot Olam, Netiv Ha'Avodah no.12, objects to reciting this prayer because it appears as if we are praying to the angels and not to the Almighty. He therefore amends the text from "machnisei rachamim hachnisu rachameinu" (those who bring in mercy bring in our plea for mercy) to "machnisei rachamim yachnisu rachameinu," (allow those who bring in mercy to bring in our plea for mercy) which is directed towards the Almighty. R. Moshe Sofer, Chatam Sofer, Orach Chaim no. 166, records his personal practice to skip that prayer. He implies that it is not sufficient to amend the text because the notion that the angels should serve as ambassadors is objectionable even if we don't pray directly to them.

The opinions of Maharal and R. Sofer notwithstanding, a justification for this prayer can be found in Shibolei HaLeket (R. Binyamin HaRofei, 13th Century) no. 282. He notes the existence of this prayer and notes the same question that Maharal would ask three hundred years later. He then quotes his teacher, R. Avigdor who explains that although there is a prohibition against praying to angels, one may directly address the angels and request that they pray on our behalf.

The Thirteen Attributes of G-d

The centerpiece of Selichot is the recitation of the thirteen attributes of G-d (Shemot 34:6-7). The Gemara, Rosh HaShanah 17b, states that G-d instructed Moshe that these thirteen attributes should be recited when requesting atonement for transgressions. Rabbeinu Natan (cited in Seder Rav Amram Gaon no. 59) rules that one may only recite the thirteen attributes in the presence of a minyan. Tur, Orach Chaim no.565, questions this ruling, contending that there should not be anything wrong with reading verses from the Torah. Rashba, in his responsa (1:211), implicitly asks Tur's question and answers that if one recites the thirteen attributes in the form of a prayer, a minyan is required. If one recites the thirteen attributes in the manner in which he reads verses from the Torah, it is permissible. Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 565:5, codifies Rashba's opinion. R. Yitzchak Tirnau, Sefer HaMinhagim, Elul, rules that during the days between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, one may recite the thirteen attributes without a minyan. R. Eliyahu Shapira, Eliah Rabbah 565:6, rules that R. Tirnau's opinion is not accepted. Mishna Berurah 581:4, codifies Eliah Rabbah's ruling.

Rashba claims that the reason why recitation of the thirteen attributes requires a minyan is that the Gemara, Rosh HaShanah 17b, states that when Moshe received the thirteen attributes, G-d appeared to him as a chazzan donned in a talit. The implication is that the thirteen attributes are meant to be recited in a congregational setting. [Taz, Orach Chaim 581:2, notes that based on the same comment of the Gemara, one should deduce that the chazzan wears a talit during the recitation of Selichot. Taz notes a technical problem regarding recitation of a beracha on the talit, which was addressed in a previous issue.]