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Sefardic Studies
The Customs and Practices of the Sefardim in Modern Times
by: Rabbi David Botton

The Customs and Practices of the Sefardim


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 obligations.


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 complete kadish.


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.

Focus Questions:


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 Selichot?


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?



(c) 2003-2008 All Rights Reserved - Rabbi David Botton

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