Excerpted from Rabbi Haim Jachter’s Bridging Traditions: Demystifying Differences Between Sephardic and Ashkenazic Jews, co-published by OU Press and Maggid Books
One of the most well-known differences between Sephardic minhag and Ashkenazic minhag relates to when the recitation of Seliĥot begins. The Sephardic practice is to recite Seliĥot beginning the day after Rosh Ĥodesh Elul. The Ashkenazic practice, in contrast, is to start saying Seliĥot from the Sunday before Rosh Hashana, unless Rosh Hashana falls out on Monday or Tuesday, in which case Ashkenazim begin Seliĥot two Sundays before Rosh Hashana. What is the basis for the differing practices?
Geonim, Rishonim, Shulĥan Aruch, and Rama
The practice of reciting Seliĥot is not mentioned in the Talmud.1 The Rosh (Rosh Hashana 4:14) records that a number of Geonim had the minhag of reciting Seliĥot during the Aseret Yemei Teshuva, while others said them from Rosh Ĥodesh Elul because that is when Moshe Rabbenu was on Har Sinai receiving the second luĥot (see Rashi, Devarim 9:18). Although the Rambam (Hilchot Teshuva 3:4) follows the minhag of the Geonim, the Shulĥan Aruch (Oraĥ Ĥayim 581:1) writes that the Sephardic minhag is to say Seliĥot from Rosh Ĥodesh Elul. The Rama records that the Ashkenazic practice is to start saying Seliĥot from the Sunday before Rosh Hashana, unless Rosh Hashana falls on Monday or Tuesday.
The Classic Explanations for the Ashkenazic and Sephardic Customs
The Mishna Berura (581:6) explains that the reason for the Ashkenazic custom is that some had the custom to fast for ten days prior to Yom Kippur. However, since it is not permissible to fast on the two days of Rosh Hashana, Shabbat Shuva, and Erev Yom Kippur, to fulfill this custom, one begins Seliĥot four days prior to Rosh Hashana. The Mishna Berura offers another reason based on the halacha that four days are required to inspect a korban (sacrifice) for blemishes (Pesaĥim 96a). Since on Rosh Hashana we offer ourselves to Hashem as a metaphoric korban, we should “inspect” ourselves with the recitation of Seliĥot for a minimum of four days before Rosh Hashana.
The Vilna Gaon (Bi’ur HaGra, Oraĥ Ĥayim 581:1) notes an explanation presented by the Ran (Rosh Hashana 3a in the Rif ’s pages, s.v. b’Rosh Hashana): Although human beings were created on Rosh Hashana (according to the view of Rabbi Eliezer, cited in the Pesikta, piska 23), the world was created on the twenty-fifth of Elul. Therefore, Ashkenazim begin Seliĥot near this date.
The Vilna Gaon cites the Rosh’s explanation of the Sephardic practice to begin reciting Seliĥot on the second day of Elul as a reenactment of Moshe Rabbenu’s forty days of praying for forgiveness for the ĥet ha’egel. This is a most compelling reason, since Yom Kippur (as Rashi notes, Devarim 9:18) is the date upon which Moshe Rabbenu descended with the second luĥot, signaling that Hashem granted us atonement for this grievous sin.
A New Explanation for the Sephardic Practice
I would suggest another reason for the Sephardic practice based on Yona’s call to Nineveh, “In forty days Nineveh will be overturned” (Yona 3:4). Rashi (ad loc.) explains that the word overturned (nehepachet) has two potential meanings – it means that the city will either be destroyed or improved for the better. Yona is essentially communicating that if the residents of Nineveh do not change their ways, they will be destroyed.
I suggest that the Sephardic practice reflects this warning: Either we improve during the forty days between Rosh Ĥodesh Elul and Yom Kippur or Hashem will decree upon us an unpleasant future. Indeed, the Sephardic Seliĥot service begins by echoing the words of the captain of the ship upon which Yona sailed: “Ben Adam, mah lecha nirdam?!” (Yona 1:6). How can you be sleeping in the middle of a storm?! Wake up and cry out to your God! This liturgical poem also warns us, “ufĥad me’asonim,” to fear catastrophes that might (Heaven forfend) strike if we do not improve. Thus, the Yona motif certainly fits with the themes of Sephardic Seliĥot.
Why the Number Forty?
Why is the number forty chosen as the amount of time for the people of Nineveh – and for us – to do teshuva? Perhaps it is because the number forty evokes thoughts of the forty days of destruction during the Mabul and the forty years in the Midbar when the older generation was eliminated. The number forty is associated with total destruction and elimination, regarding which we are forewarned to repent and avoid.
Rav Zvi Grumet argues that the number forty in Torah literature expresses an opportunity for rebirth:
In the Bible, Moses is on the mountain for forty days and emerges as a man reborn with a radiant face. The spies enter the land as princes and forty days later return with the self-image of grasshoppers. The Israelite nation spends forty years in the desert and is transformed from a fractured nation of refugees into a unified nation of conquerors… In Rabbinic literature, there are forty minus one categories of prohibited (creative) work on Shabbat, a child is considered to be “alive” in the womb after forty days, and pregnancy lasts for forty weeks.2
We may add to this list that grape juice ferments into wine forty days after it is squeezed from the grape (Eduyot 6:1), and bet din administers “forty minus one” malkot, as they are intended to spur the emergence of a new personality after the traumatic experience. Similarly, the goal of Seliĥot is to emerge as a new and improved person by Yom Kippur.
The number forty conveys a similar message as the double-entendre word nehepachet: It can refer to utter destruction or rebirth. From Rosh Ĥodesh Elul until Yom Kippur, every Jew – like the people of Ninveh – is faced with the same stark choice as to which path we will choose – falling into the abyss or redeeming ourselves and restarting our lives.
- Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik explains that although the Talmud does not mention this practice, this does not necessarily mean that Seliĥot were not recited in the time of the Talmud. It is possible that the Geonim did not institute Seliĥot, but rather recorded a practice that was existence already since the Talmudic era. Rav Soloveitchik argues that the fact that the Rambam (Hilchot Teshuva 3:4) mentions that all Jews maintain this practice indicates that this was practiced from Talmudic times. The Rambam (in his introduction to his Mishneh Torah) mentions that only the Talmudic sages enjoy unquestioned authority (in contrast to the Geonim), since the Amoraic sages were accepted by all of Israel, whereas the Geonim were not. Rav Soloveitchik asserted that whenever the Rambam uses the term “all of Israel,” the practice to which he refers dates back to the Talmudic era, when all of Israel was concentrated in a relatively limited geographic area and consented to the authority of the Talmudic sages.
- Genesis ( Jerusalem: Maggid Books, 2017), pp. 86–87.