Rosh Hodesh Elul and Selihot


Rosh Hodesh Elul and Selihot

a.       The month of Elul is a time of compassion and forgiveness. This tradition has its source at the time of the sin of the golden calf: Moshe’s final ascent of Mount Sinai to plead for forgiveness on behalf of the nation took place, according to tradition, on Rosh Hodesh Elul. He remained there for forty days, until Yom Kippur, when Bnei Yisrael were finally forgiven for their sin.

b.      Our Sages associate many concepts with the month of Elul, including some verses in which the name “Elul” (i.e., the letters alef, lamed, vav, lamed) appears as a mnemonic: the words “I am my Beloved’s, and my Beloved is mine” (“ani le-dodi ve-dodi li” – Shir ha-Shirim 6) hint to prayer; “The Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants (“et levavkha ve-et levav zar’ekha” – Devarim 30) alludes to repentance; “from one person to the other, and gifts to the poor” (ish le-re’ehu u-matanot le-evyonim – Ester 9) refers to charity. These three concepts are central to the process of repentance and forgiveness, as we declare: “And repentance and prayer and charity overturn the evil decree”.

c.       It is customary, throughout Jewish communities everywhere, to perform mitzvot with special attention to detail during the month of Elul, as well as to increase one’s Torah study and to pray with extra concentration and fervor. Such conduct represents worthy preparation for the High Holy Days at the beginning of the month of Tishrei.

d.      Sefardi communities recite selihot every day before shaharit, starting from Rosh Hodesh Elul, in accordance with the ruling of the Shulhan Arukh (Orah Hayim 581:1). Some begin from the first day of Elul (as the Shulhan Arukh prescribes) while others begin on the second day of Elul (the variation here appears to arise from different traditions as to whether Moshe ascended Mount Sinai on the first or second day of Elul). Ashkenazi communities “gather in the early hours to recite selihot on the Sunday preceding Rosh ha-Shana. If Rosh ha-Shana falls on a Monday or Tuesday, then we begin from the Sunday of the previous week”, according to the Rema (ad loc.). Hence, this year Ashkenazi communities will commence selihot on Motzei Shabbat Parshat Nizavim Vayelech (or, alternatively, early Sunday morning – 26th Elul).

e.       The Shulhan Arukh speaks of the “early morning” (ashmoret). The Mishna Berura (as well as other later authorities) explains that “at the end of the night, the Holy One, blessed be He, goes about in this world, and it is a time of favor”.  Although the meaning of this statement is not altogether clear, its message is that the optimal time for reciting selihot is the early morning (seemingly, just prior to the dawn. According to the Magen Avraham, the “early morning” means the last three hours of the night.)

f.        As to reciting selihot before midnight, the Sha’arei Teshuva (Shulhan Arukh, ad loc.) rules against this practice: “For it is not proper to mention the Thirteen Attributes except at a time of favor. A person who is sitting there (in a synaoguge that follows this custom) while they recite should remain silent, or recite Tehillim. He may, however, recite the vidui (confession) (with them). However, on Motzei Shabbat it is forbidden (to recite selihot) until after midnight, out of deference to the sanctity of Shabbat.” In other words, the Thirteen Attributes – representing the crux of the selihot service – should not be mentioned before midnight, but one may recite the vidui before midnight (except on Motzei Shabbat). Rav Moshe Feinstein (Igrot Moshe, Orah Hayim 2:105) writes that “if it is impossible to arrange (selihot) after midnight, and the community will otherwise cancel selihot, it may be permitted in that particular circumstance, le-khat’hila, for there is no source for these matters in the Gemara; rather, they are based on the teachings of later authorities, on the basis of kabbalistic works. (Hence,) there is no actual prohibition involved; it is simply that (when recited before midnight) the Thirteen Attributes – concerning which we are promised that their recitation will not go unanswered – do not have the same power; they are then like any regular prayer. Therefore, in order that (the community) not miss out on selihot altogether and have no awakening to teshuva at all, it is preferable that they recite (selihot), (and it may be considered) even as a proper measure, in this particular circumstance.” He goes on to add: “If possible, they should try to do this at the end of that section of the night, for the Shulhan Arukh (1:2) states that it is good to offer supplication at the times when the sections (of the night) change over, for then prayer is accepted with favor… In a difficult situation such as this, one may rely on this.” The “Yalkut Yosef” rejects this view out of hand: “Anyone… who is familiar with kabbala knows… therefore, in a place where it is customary to recite selihot during the early part of the night, it is proper to stop them and to put an end to their practice, since it is a mistaken custom that has no basis or support.”     

g.      As for the possibility of reciting selihot later on in the morning, the Arukh ha-Shulhan writes (581,4): “There are many references in the selihot to the fact that we are reciting it at night, prior to the dawn… and now, since in many places people recite selihot in broad daylight, they would be uttering untruths (were they to utter them). Therefore, they should skip over such phrases.”

h.      From all of the above we conclude that the order of preferences as to when to recite selihot is as follows:

·         The ideal time is at the very end of the night, aiming to conclude before sunrise. (On Rosh Hodesh, this means before 06:05; by the of Elul this would be at 06:20).

·         It is also possible to recite selihot at night, after the middle of the night. (During the last week of Elul, the “middle of the night”, in halakhic terms, is at 00:33)

·         It is better to recite selihot later on in the morning (i.e., after sunrise) than before the middle of the night. (Even those authorities who are more lenient allow for the latter possibility only where absolutely necessary.)

i.        A point to ponder: it is difficult to justify seeking forced halakhic solutions simply for the purposes of convenience and a little more sleep. On the contrary, specifically during this period we are required to sacrifice a little in order to sense the atmosphere of the approaching Days of Judgment and to prepare for them properly.

j.        According to Ashkenazi custom, the shofar is sounded every morning after shaharit, starting from the second day of Rosh Hodesh Elul, but not including Erev Rosh ha-Shana. The Sefardi custom is to sound three sets of shofar blasts during the recital of the Thirteen Attributes, as part of the selihot service.

k.      Likewise it is customary to add “le-david hashem ori ve-yish’i”, in the morning and in the evening (some add it at the end of minha; others at the end of ma’ariv), up until Hoshana Rabba. In many Sefaradi communities this psalm is recited throughout the year, but even where it is not, it should be added during Elul.

Erev Rosh ha-Shana

a.       On Erev Rosh ha-Shana the selihot service is extended and elaborated upon; even a mourner is permitted to leave his house on this day to join in the recital of selihot.

b.      After shaharit it is customary to perform a hatarat nedarim (annulment of vows); some wait until Erev Yom Kippur. According to Ashkenazi custom, any three men can serve as a panel of “judges” for this purpose. There are two main approaches to the procedure: one is that each person stands in front of the panel of three and asks to annul his vows; the other is that a number of people can stand together in front of the three (following which they may exchange roles). The Sefardi custom is to appoint three important community personages to serve as the “judges”; the entire congregation stands in front of them, with one reciting the declaration aloud and the others following along in a whisper.

c.       Tahanun is not recited on Erev Rosh ha-Shana during shaharit and minha, but it is recited at the end of the selihot service, even if selihot ends after daybreak.

d.      Some men immerse in a mikveh before every Shabbat and festival. Even those who do not, however, should certainly do so on Erev Rosh ha-Shana and on Erev Yom Kippur.

e.       This year, since Rosh ha-Shana falls on Thursday and Friday, an eruv tavshilin should be performed on Erev Rosh ha-Shana to allow preparations for Shabbat. The halakhic principles of the eruv are as follows:

1)      According to the Torah, one is allowed to cook and bake food on Yom Tov to be consumed on Shabbat. However, our Sages prohibited this, fearing this might be construed as permission to cook on Yom Tov for a weekday (some hold that this is a Torah prohibition and a penalty bearing transgression), though they rendered it permissible through the eruv tavshilin, performed Erev Yom Tov.

2)      The guiding principle of the eruv is that the individual seemingly begins his preparations on Erev Yom Tov while on Yom Tov itself he merely continues and completes these preparations.

3)      The eruv tavshilin is performed using bread (a Ke’zayit according to the Shulhan Arukh, the equivalent of an egg according to the Rema) and a cooked dish (a Ke’zayit). These measurements apply even when there are many family members. A roll and a hard-boiled egg (that can be eaten on Shabbat) are customarily used. It is recommended and proper that the eruv be consumed during the course of Shabbat (according to the Mishna Berura the bread should be used as the lechem mishneh at the Shabbat meals and consumed at seudah shlishit). 

4)      In the event that the eruv is misplaced before the start of Shabbat: if the bread cannot be found while the cooked dish remains – Shabbat preparations during Yom Tov may still be undertaken. If, however, the cooked dish cannot be found and a ke’zayit does not remain, food for Shabbat may not be prepared.

5)      Each individual is commanded to perform an eruv tavshilin, while the rabbi of a community must perform a communal eruv for the entire city (according to the version found in most sidurim, each individual effectively performs an eruv for the inhabitants of the entire city). In this event the rabbi should grant the eruv through another person (preferably not a family member), in favor of all the city’s residents.   

6)      A person who forgot to perform an eruv tavshilin may rely, post facto, on the rabbi’s eruv, though if he forgot to do so on two consecutive occasions, he is considered a “transgressor” and does not fulfill his obligation relying on the rabbi’s eruv.  According to Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, in modern times the rabbi’s intention is to also include “transgressors” within his eruv, and thus even an individual who forgot to perform the eruv several times can rely on the rabbi’s eruv.

7)      The Shulhan Arukh (527:13) determines “even if he performed the eruv, he cannot cook on the first day of Yom Tov for Shabbat,” i.e. it is permitted to prepare food for Shabbat on Friday only and not on Thursday (first day of Rosh ha-Shana). Nonetheless, if food was thus prepared, then according to the Mishna Berura it may, post facto, be consumed if no other food is available for Shabbat.

8)      A person who prepared all the food for the holiday and Shabbat by Erev Rosh ha-Shana seemingly has no need to perform an eruv tavshilin. Nonetheless, since the requirement to light Shabbat candles while it is still daylight is universal, most poskim hold that the eruv tavshilin should be performed without the bracha. Obviously, a person who intended to prepare even one dish on Rosh ha-Shana itself, is obligated to perfume the eruv tavshilin with a bracha.


Rosh ha-Shana

  1. On the first night of Rosh ha-Shana, candles are lit with the blessing, “le-hadlik ner shel yom tov” as well as “shehehiyanu”. (A woman who has already lit with the blessings does not say “shehehiyanu” again as part of Kiddush.)
  2. On the second night, “shehehiyanu” is recited again. Owing to the question as to whether this blessing is actually necessary on this night, it is customary to wear a new garment (while lighting candles) or to have a new fruit to eat (after Kiddush).
  3. When leaving the synagogue, on both days of Rosh ha-Shana, it is customary to wish others, “le-shana tova kikhatev” – some also add “ve-tehatem” (may you be inscribed [and sealed] for a good year).
  4. After Kiddush various symbolic foods are eaten, expressing our wishes for a good year. The foods differ from one community (and even one family) to another.
  5. After minha on the first day of Rosh ha-Shana it is customary to visit a spring of water and to recite Tashlikh. (The Vilna Gaon did not follow this practice.)
  6. Ideally, one should not sleep on Rosh ha-Shana (and for this reason shaharit begins immediately at dawn). If one is extremely tired, he may sleep after the middle of the day. A person who sits doing nothing is like one who sleeps. It is therefore a good idea to spend time studying Torah or reciting Tehillim.
  7. No preparations for the second night of Rosh ha-Shana may be undertaken – including candle-lighting - until the first day ends, at nightfall (19:13). It is a good idea to schedule ma’ariv for the second night a little late, preceded by a shiur on a topic relevant to Rosh ha-Shana, so that there is enough time (starting after nightfall) to prepare everything necessary for the evening meal.
  8. Motzei Rosh ha-Shana (2nd day) falls this year on Friday night; therefore, Havdalah is not recited, only Friday night Kiddush. Kabbalat Shabbat - the shortened version, as recited on chagim and chol hamoed - may be said earlier, from plag hamincha on. Due to the eruv tavshilin (detailed above), preparations for Shabbat are permitted on Rosh ha-Shana. Candle lighting is at the “normal” time – 18:20.


Sounding of the Shofar

  1. Sounding the shofar is the central mitzva of Rosh ha-Shana. In order for everyone to fulfill their obligation properly, it is vital that the person appointed to sound the shofar is knowledgeable in all the relevant laws.
  2. Prior to the first set of blasts, he recites two blessings: “lishmo’a kol shofar” and “shehehiyanu”. He must intend that his blessings and shofar blasts will fulfill his own obligation and that of the entire congregation. The listeners must likewise intend to fulfill their obligation through his blessings and shofar blasts. After the blessings one should answer “amen”, but there should be no interruption of “barukh hu u-varukh shemo”.
  3. One should not talk about any matter not directly related to the prayers or the shofar blasts, from the time that the blessings are recited until the last of the blasts.
  4. The shofar blasts are divided into three “groups”:

·         The first group of 30, before mussaf, are called teki’ot di-meyushav.

·         The next groups, sounded as part of the three special sections of prayer that are the crux of mussaf (malkhuyot, zikhronot, shofarot), are called teki’ot di-me’umad. In some communities the shofar is sounded both during the individual, silent amida (30 blasts) and again during the repetition (30 blasts); in others, only during the repetition (30 blasts).

·         After the end of the repetition, the final group of blasts is sounded, to reach a total of 100.

f.                    Although women are technically exempt from the obligation of shofar (since it is a time-bound mitzva), they have traditionally taken this upon themselves and this has become the established custom.

g.                  Special care should be taken to ensure that the synagogue is absolutely silent for the sounding of the shofar. Hence, while small children who are noisy should not be brought to services at any time, on Rosh ha-Shana this is particularly important. Every parent must assume responsibility for his/her children.

h.                  After the end of the service, an adult may not sound the shofar unless it is necessary to help others fulfill their obligation (i.e., they were not able to attend the synagogue). Children are permitted to practice sounding the shofar throughout the day.


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