Rosh Hashanna


Rabbi Bernie Fox





Differing Customs for the Reciting of Selichot

It is customary to arise in the early morning to recite prayers of supplication from the beginning of the month of Elul until Yom HaKippurim.  (Shulcah Aruch, Orech Chayim 581:1)


It is customary to recite Selichot – prayers of supplication – prior to Rosh HaShanah.  Generally, these prayers are recited at night before day break.  Both Ashkenazic and Sefardic communities recite Selichot.  Each of the communities has its own version of the Selichot service.  Many of the components of the service are different in the two versions. This can lead to the impression that two communities have developed very different versions of the service.  However, this is incorrect.  Both versions are constructed around a fixed set of essential components.  Only the less essential components are different in the two versions.   

Although their two versions of the Selichot service are structurally similar, there is one area in which the two communities’ practices regarding Selichot do reflect a fundamental difference in their respective interpretations of the service.  Accroding to Rav Yosef Karo, this service is initiated on the first day of Elul.  This is the custom generally accepted by Sefardic communities.  Rav Moshe Isserles comments that the Ashkenazic custom is to begin reciting the Selichot from the Motzai Shabbat prior to Rosh HaShanah.[1]

The source for these two customs is discussed by Rabbaynu Nissim.  He explains that the custom of Barcelona was to begin Selichot on the twenty-fifth day of Elul.[2]   The Gaon of Vilna explained that this is the source of the Ashkenazic custom.[3]

In order to appreciate the Gaon’s conclusion, we need to better understand the practice of the Barcelona community.  Rabbaynu Nissim explains the basis of this custom.  This custom reflects the opinion that the sixth day of creation corresponds with Rosh HaShanah.  Hashem chose this day for Rosh HaShanah because it is associated with forgiveness.  On this day, Adam and Chavah, representing humanity, committed the first sin.  They disobeyed Hashem.  They ate the fruit that the Creator had forbidden.  Hashem forgave this iniquity.  On Rosh HaShanah, we too beseech Hashem for forgiveness.  It is appropriate to appeal to Hashem on the anniversary of the date that forgiveness was introduced into the universe.  If Rosh HaShanah corresponds with the sixth day of creation, what calendar date corresponds with the first day of creation?  This date is the twenty-fifth of Elul (Elul having twenty-nine days).[4]

We can now understand the Gaon’s comments.  The conventional Ashkenazic practice simplifies the message of the Barcelona custom.  The Barcelona custom is designed to remind us of the association between Rosh HaShanah and Adam and Chavah’s experience of mercy and forgiveness.   It accomplishes this through fixing the date for the initiation of Selichot with the calendar date corresponding with the first day of creation.  In this manner, the days of the recitation of Selichot lead up to and climax with Rosh HaShanah.  According to the Gaon, the conventional Ashkenazic custom fixes the day for the initiation of Selichot with the day to the week corresponding to the first day of creation.  In place of associating the initiation of Selichot with the first day of creation by fixing it to a calendar date, it creates the association through fixing the initiation to a day of the week.

Rabbaynu Nissim explains the custom in Gerona was to begin the recitation of Selichot on the first day of Elul.  This date was also chosen because of its association with forgiveness.  After the sin of the Egel HaZahav – the Golden Calf, Moshe ascended Mount Sinai.  He sought forgiveness for Bnai Yisrael.  Moshe ascended the mountain of the first day of Elul.  He secured Hashem’s forgiveness forty days later.  This day – the tenth of Tishrai – became Yom Kippur. 

These two customs reflect two different aspects of Divine forgiveness.  The forgiveness received by Adam and Chavah was not a result of repentance or prayer.  In fact, both Adam and Chavah minimized their role in committing the sin.  Why were they forgiven?  Hashem created humanity and bestowed within us the unique ability to choose between good and evil.  Every human enters life as an imperfect and instinctual creature.  It is our responsibility to improve ourselves through the wise exercise of our freewill.  It is inevitable that we will sin as we proceed along this path.  Hashem forgives us for these failings just as He pardoned Adam and Chavah.  In short, the very design of creation allows for an imperfect individual and implies Hashem’s forbearance and forgiveness.

The forgiveness at Sinai was achieved through supplication and prayer.  Moshe ascended the mountain and beseeched Hashem to forgive His people.  As Moshe elevated Himself and rose to a higher spiritual level, he drew closer to Hashem.  Through this process, his prayers were accepted and Bnai Yisrael was forgiven.

Each custom reflects one of these aspects of forgiveness.  The Ashkenazic custom reminds us of the forgiveness received by Adam and Chavah.  It recalls the forgiveness inherent in the design of creation.  The Sefardic custom reminds us of the forgiveness achieved at Sinai.  It recalls the forgiveness we can secure through personal spiritual effort and prayer.




The Formula for Confessing One’s Sins

How does one confess?  He says, “I beseech you Hashem.  I have erred.  I have willfully acted wrongly.  I have acted rebelliously before you.  I have (specify wrongdoing).  I have regret. I am embarrassed with my actions.  I will never return to this behavior.  (Maimonides, Mishne Torah, Laws of Repentance 1:1)


The process of repentance must be accompanied by a verbal confession.  This confession has a specific format.  Maimonides’ formulation of the confession is based upon a discussion found in Tractate Yoma.  The majority of Sages suggest the formulation adopted by Maimonides.   In this version first, errors or unintentional sins are confessed.  Then, reference is made to intentional wrong doing.  Last, acts of rebellion are included.  The reasoning underlying this order is that a person should first seek forgiveness for lesser sins and then the more serious wrong doings.

However, the Talmud explains that Rebbe Meir suggests an alternative form for the confession.  He suggests that first the confession should mention the willful sins.  This is followed by mentioning acts of rebellion.  The confession ends with reference to unintentional errors.  Rebbe Meir derives his order from the prayers of Moshe.  In seeking forgiveness for Bnai Yisrael, Moshe describes Hashem’s attributes of mercy and kindness.  He declares that because of these attributes, Hashem forgives willful sins, acts of rebellion, and unintentional errors.  Rebbe Meir adopted this order for his formulation of the confession.[5]

What is the basis of the dispute between the Sages and Rebbe Meir.  The Sages order the sins referred to in the confession from the least serious to the most severe. This order is dictated by a clear logic.  The confession is a request for forgiveness. It is appropriate to begin with the lesser offenses.  Rebbe Meir maintains that the confession includes an additional element.  It makes reference Moshe’s intercession on behalf of Bnai Yisrael.  Moshe began by enumerating the attributes of Hashem responsible for forgiveness.  In order to incorporate the reference to Moshe’s appeal for forgiveness based upon the attributes of mercy and forbearance, Rebbe Meir’s confession adopts the order Moshe used in describing the sins of the nation.  In over words, Rebbe Meir maintains that as we ask for forgiveness, we must acknowledge and appeal to the benevolence of Hashem implicit in this forbearance.

Although the opinion of the Sages is accepted, the issue raised by Rebbe Meir finds expression is halachah.  The confession contained in the liturgy is often accompanied by a recitation of the Divine attributes of Hashem described by Moshe.  This is accord with Rebbe Meir’s opinion that confession is associated with recognition of Hashem’s kindness as expressed in the attributes.  Although this recognition is not incorporated into the confession itself, it is associated to the confession though the liturgy.

[1]   Rav Moshe Isserles, Comments on Shulchan Aruch, Orech Chayim 581:1.

[2]   Rabbaynu Nissim, Notes to Commentary of Rabbaynu Yitzchak Alfasi, Mesechet Rosh HaShanah 3a.

[3]   Rabbaynu Eliyahu of Vilna, Biur HaGra, Shulchan Aruch, Orech Chayim  581, note 8.

[4]   Rabbaynu Nissim, Notes to Commentary of Rabbaynu Yitzchak Alfasi, Mesechet Rosh HaShanah 3a.


[5]   Mesechet Yoma 36b.