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Elul & Selichot

The month of Elul is referred to as the month of Rahamim and Selihoth (mercy and forgiveness). The roots for this can be found at the time when the Children of Israel travelled in the desert and with the sin of the golden calf.

When Moshe Rabbenu (Moses) ‘a”h, descended on the 17th of Tammuz with the Luhoth (tablets of stone) and witnessed the terrible sin of the golden calf, he broke the Luhoth. G-d, in His wrath (over the Children of Israel’s transgression) wanted to eradicate the Jewish people, continuing their existence through the seed of Moshe Rabbenu, ‘a”h, alone.

Two days after he descended, Moshe Rabbenu, ‘a”h, again ascended Har Sinai (Mount Sinai), on the 19th of Tammuz, to ask G-d for forgiveness. He remained there for a period of 40 days and 40 nights.

Moshe Rabbenu, ‘a”h, ascended Har Sinai (Mount Sinai) for the third time on Rosh Hodesh (the new moon of the month of) Elul. He returned on the 10th of Tashri – Yom Kippur – with the second set of Tablets of Stone, when G-d said “Salahti Kidbarekha” (I have forgiven in accordance with your words).

Since that time, these 40 days from the beginning of Elul till Yom Kippur have become a time for Teshubah (repentance). While Teshubah can be made at all times, this time of year is the most appropriate, for it is set aside for that purpose.

The month of Elul, therefore, which is the last month before the “Days of Awe”, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, is a time when we should dedicate our thoughts to repentance in all things and examine our deeds. From the day after Rosh Hodesh Elul till Yom Kippur, Sephardim rise in the last hours of the night to read Selihoth (penitential prayers). Ashkenazim start Selihoth later. The actual date depends on the year.They are read in these early hours because it is a time of mercy.

Therefore, if one is at a synagogue where they are read in the evening during ‘Arbith (the evening prayer), he should sit quietly and not join in. If he wishes to read something else, he may, but he must remember that Sepharadim are very strict not to read the Bible (the Written Law) at night, in accordance with the teachings of Rab Ari, z”I, and he should read from the Oral Law (i.e. Mishnah and Gemara) instead.

The Bible (Written Law) is Deen ( judgement), and night is a time of judgement, therefore, according to the Qabbalah, all portions of the 24 Books of the Bible should only be read during the day, which is a time of mercy.

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Rosh Hashanah

The Aqedah of Yishaq Abinu is a very important theme on both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. G-d said to Abraham Abinu that the Shofar (ram’s horn) should be blown on Rosh Hashanah. Through this, whenever His people would sin, the Shofar would remind him of the Aqedah and He would forgive them.

Abraham Abinu asked G-d what a “Shofar” was and on this it is written “…And Abraham lifted his eyes and behold a ram was caught in the thicket by his horns.”

The Shofar is first blown on the first morning of Rosh Hashanah (unless it falls on Shabbath) and is preceded by the blessing of Sheheheyanu. There are some interesting differences between Ashkenazi and Sephardi practice in the sound, content and blowing of the Shofar. On the second day Sheheheyanu is not recited. by Sepharadim who, in general, follow the teachings of Maran in the Shulhan ‘Arukh. Ashkenazim, who generally go according to the Rama, recite the blessing on both days.

Some sit for the recitation of the blessings of the Shofar, while others stand. The custom at Midrash BEN ISH HAI is for the congregation to sit during the blessings. The congregation sits during the blowings prior to the ‘Amidah.

Sepharadim blow during both the silent ‘Amidah and the repetition and blow a total of one hundred and one calls (101 is the Gematria for Mikhael, Israel’s guardian angel). The last one being a Teru’ah Gedolah after ‘Aleinu Leshabbeyah. Ashkenazim blow only one hundred calls and the last one is a Teqi’ah Gedolah instead. In some Hassidic communities, the custom is to blow two hundred.

Women are, in theory, exempt from hearing the Shofar. However, most women nowadays are considered to have made a vow to hear it and, as such, if they are unable to hear it on Rosh Hashanah they must make an annulment of that vow prior to the onset of the holy day.

Rosh Hashanah is one of the holiest days in the year and a day of judgment for all mankind. In preparation, on the morning of ‘Ereb Rosh Hashanah, one should cut ones hair (specifically before midday, as according to the Qabbalah hair should not be cut in the afternoon). Both men and women go to the Miqweh, (ritual-bath) and some fast. Hattarath Nedareem (the annulment of vows) is made.

It is customary to visit the cemeteries on the eve of the Holiday. In Jerusalem, a Hakham should be consulted concerning changes made to this custom.

When Rosh Hashanah falls on Thursday and Friday, one must remember to prepare the ‘Erub Tabshileen in order to be able to cook on Rosh Hashanah for Shabbath.

Ashkenazi wear a Takhrikh (kittel in Yiddish – or death shroud) on Rosh Hashanah. Sephardim do not have this custom but both men and women should dress in white. The reason for this is that when the nations of the world are to be judged, they wear black. But the Jewish nation, coming in judgment before its Creator, wears white as a sign of faith and confidence that the Heavenly Father, in his abundant mercy, will bless us with a good and favorable judgment. However, one should not wear new clothes on the first day, as this might lead to arrogance at a time when one is pleading for mercy.

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Yom Kippur

The ‘Aqedah of Yishaq Abinu took place on the tenth of Tashri at Minha time, which is Minha time of Yom Kippur, as is written: “And the tenth day of this seventh month shall be a holy convocation to you and you shall afflict your souls, no manner of work shall you do.” (Numbers 29,7).

For this reason, it is of great importance to read the portion of the ”Aqedah at the commencement of the Minha prayer on the day of Yom Kippur. In Imrei Sasson it is written that whoever reads the ”Aqedah with great intent, to serve his Creator as did Yishaq Abinu, will have all his sins forgiven.

During the last hours of the night, the day before Yom Kippur, Kapparoth, a formula of atonement, is made using chickens or money.

On ‘Ereb Yom Kippur we prepare ourselves for the awe-filled day ahead of us. The following are some of the preparations:

- If possible, we should eat twice the amount of food we normally would on one day.
- It is good to eat fish in the morning.
- Both men and women go to the Miqweh.
- Hattarath Nedarim is made.
- Forgiveness is asked of one’s parents, teachers, spouse and acquaintances.

On Yom Kippur, eating and drinking, bathing, anointing, wearing (leather) shoes and marital relations are prohibited.

The wearing of white clothes is again prescribed for Yom Kippur and Sepharadim should make every effort to adhere to this. We are filled with faith and confidence that, through His abundant mercy, our repentance will be accepted and we will come out of this day clean and pure like angels. Many Ashkenazim have the Minhagh of wearing a white shroud (as a reminder of the day of death) over their regular clothes. Sepharadim do not have this custom.

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(Taken from the writings of Hakham Ya'aqob Menashe.)