The Month of Elul, Selichot
Five hundred years ago, the chances that I would exist in
the manor that I do would be next to impossible. I am not referring to the
large gut that is the product of refined sugars and fatty fast foods, but about
my parents. Like many people here and all over the world, I am the child of a
Sephardi father and an Ashkenazi mother. Technically speaking that makes me
100% Sephardi, but the reality is that I am a product of a new generation that
we are all part of, regardless of our parent’s origins, a meeting of worlds.
For many people this is seen as a collision course, and they posses an extreme
amount of anxiety over the disappearance of the majestic cultures be it Sefardi
or Ashkenazi in origin. This course of cultural change is inevitable as
communications broaden and the world globalizes, people adapt to the new
environment, first Spain and Poland, yesterday the US and Israel, today the
global world culture fostered by the Internet. Cultural change is inevitable
and there is no use in fighting to maintain the cultures of old, but how we
react to the changes and how we contribute to the changes is in our hands and
our past is the key to a positive future.
Instead of looking at the shape and ingredients of your
mothers Kibbe or Matza Ball, we need to look at what they contributed to the
individual, home and community. More importantly we need to see the relationship
of the Halachah, i.e. the laws and customs together, in the light of this past
culture in order to see the full function of what it means to be a Jew in that
culture. The lessons we learn from seeing this contrast is how the Torah
teaches us to react in the face of our new environment and the budding global
culture. These are universal lessons that we can apply to our daily lives and
with in our communities to insure that we will walk in the path of Torah.
We will be dealing with the contrasts of the Sephardi
cultures and Halachah in that they are the most foreign to the culture most of
us here in the United States grew with.
The word Sephardi today has come to mean for most anything
or anyone that is not Ashkenazi. This is a mistake as there are many different
non-Ashkenazi communities, such as the Yemenites, that posses cultures highly
different from any of the Sephardi cultures and each of them deserves a careful
analysis of its own.
For our purposes we will use the term Sefardi for those
Jewish communities that have accepted Rav Yosef Karo’s Shulchan Aruch as its
chief authority. This includes, Spain, Morocco, North Africa, Israel and its
bordering countries, the Arab lands and the Baltic and southern regions of what
were the Soviet Union. This is a broad region, but do to subscribing to the
same Halachic authority they all share a strong bond and so similar reactions
took place to cultural developments arising in their communities and the
resulting similar cultures.
The month of Elul:
One of the best memories of my life is rising in the early
hours before dawn to join the old Baghdadi Jews in Makor Baruch in Yerushalaim
to recite Selichot, prayers for forgiveness and mercy. From the first day after
Rosh Chodesh Elul, the new month of Elul, the month preceding Rosh Hashanah,
until Yom Kippur, every day Selichot are recited and should be completed
ideally before the earliest lights of dawn. In most communities Selichot would
be preceded by recitation of Tikun Chatzot, the Rectification at Midnight,
morning and supplications for the restoration of the Beit Hamikdash, over the
death of the righteous and the exile of the Shechinah.
It was an awesome experience being in the presence of these
older men. Each one, with out question, in their 70s and beyond. I would walk
down three or four steps in to the small synagogue and be greeted with glowing
smiles and immediately receive an offer from at least one of them for a glass
of Nanna tea, mint tea. I would always accept as I considered it a tremendous
Berachah, blessing, to partake of something made by one of these men. With each
swallow of the warm tea I would be overwhelmed with the thoughts that many of
the men at this minion, prayer group, were likely great unknown Talmidei
Chachamim, Torah scholars, and even hidden Tzadikim, righteous men, of whom
many stories would be told over in their passing.
After a few minutes of sipping the tea and relaxing on one
of the synagogue benches, the words would begin to float in the air “Yehi
Chasdechah…” and “Ashrei…” the opening verses and tehilim, psalms, of the
selichot service. Then the thunder
of the Kadish and the answers of the minyan would be heard. Soon the cheery
melodies, “Ben Adam…”, reminding every one of their duty to awaken and repent.
“Lechah Adonay HaTzedakah, VeLanu Boshet HaPanim”, How Hashem is righteous in
all his ways and we should be embarrassed, how Hashem has not snuffed us out of
existence and has bestowed good to us despite our not living up to our
After a few more tefilot, prayers, would be recited, the
proclamation of Hashem’s position of king in the world that acts with
compassion to his subjects forgiving them of their transgressions, “El Melech
Yoshev” would begin to take off and swing us in to the heavens. Then the chazzan,
the reader, and the minion together would bow as the words “Vayavor” would be
heralded, we would then all rise to the blasts of the Shofar booming and the
chazzan’s shrill voice with ours accompanying to pronounce the thirteen Middot
of Rachamim, traits of compassion that were revealed to Moshe Rabbenu as a gift
from Hashem that have the power to awaken compassion in the heavens and
forgiveness of all sins. These words and the blowing of the shofar are repeated
five times in the service.
In between the first four we would recite a series of
prayers, first following the order of the Aleph Bet, then the order of the
Aleph Bet in reverse, then the combination in the order of the AtBash, dirst
Letter followed by last, than the second letter followed by second to last and
so on. The prayers parallel the three relationships with Hashem, Hashem to man,
man to Hashem and the combined meeting.
We then did Vidui on our own, confessing our many sins
before Hashem. A number of supplications would then follow begging for
forgiveness. Then the cries for Hashem to answer us in the merit of our
forefathers, “Anneinu ….”, taking turns each would recite one of the
supplications and the congregation would answer in turn.
The beautiful piut, “Im Afes Rovah HaKen” would then be sung
in turn, reminding Hashem of the ordeal of the Akedat Yitzchak, the binding of
Yitzchak, and the extents our forefathers would go in their faith and trust in
Him to garner merit for the forgiveness of our sins.
Finally the selichot would wind down with tachanun and the
The experience was cleansing, it was one of joy that follows
being broken heart, not powerless after depression. The selichot took as long
as an hour, but you are sorry to see them go when you are done. Time didn’t matter,
only you and Hashem.
In this way every day for a month, one felt the coming of
Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. We were prepared through action and emotion.
What is the value of the elderly in Sefardi culture and the
halachah that relates to them?
Why is Rosh Chodesh Elul the start time for Selichot?
Why an entire month + the ten days for Selichot?
Why is Tikun Chatzot a community-oriented service?
Why is the synagogue under the street level?
Where does Joy fit in to the synagogue experience? In to
What is the idea of a Berachah in accepting something from
one of these older men?
What is the importance of stories of the Tzadikim?