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Selichot – A Completely New You

Parsha Halacha – Nitzavim/Vayelec

Selichot – A Completely New You

Sponsored by George and Joni White

Parsha Halacha is underwritten by a grant from Dr. Stephen and Bella Brenner and Dr. Morton Berg in loving memory of Stephen's father, Shmuel Tzvi ben Pinchas, and Bella's parents, Avraham ben Yitzchak and Leah bas HaRav Sholom Zev HaCohen.

Family Fund for the Yamim Tovim

As we approach the high holidays, several local (Miami) shuls are joining together to raise at least 30,000 and be able to assist at least 20 local families cover the high expenses of these holidays.

Please participate generously. (Please write "Yom tov tzedakah fund" in the memo.)

Tizku lemitzvot and ktivah vachasima tova leshana tova umetuka to you and your families.

Aryeh Citron

Click here for a print version of this article 

The Torah portion of Nitzavim (which is joined with Vayelech this year) is always read before Rosh Hashanah. When Rosh Hashanah occurs on Thursday or Shabbat, as it does this year, Ashkenazim begin to recite Selichot (prayers for forgiveness) the Motzie Shabbat of Nitzavim. When Rosh Hashanah begins on Monday or Tuesday, the Selichot begin on the Motzei Shabbat of Ki Tavo, just a few hours after the Torah portion of Nitzavim is read – at Mincha.

The connection between the Torah portion and Selichot is alluded to the in beginning of the Torah portion because the words אַתֶּם נִצָּבִים הַיּוֹם (“You are standing today”)[1]have the same gematriyah (numerical value) – 696 – as do the words לעמוד לסליחות (to stand up for Selichot).[2]

The Sefardic custom is to recite Selichot during the entire month of Elul.[3] This Torah portion alludes to this with the words, ((וּמָ֨ל ה’ אֱלֹהֶ֛-יךָ) אֶת לְבָבְךָ וְאֶת לְבַב (זַרְעֶך [G-d will circumcise your hearts and the hearts of your children] the first letters of which spell אֶלוּל (Elul). The circumcision of the heart refers to removing negative tendencies and traits which is what Teshuvah is about. This also alludes to Selichot, which are about receiving G-d’s forgiveness after teshuvah.[4]

This article will focus on the reason we say Selichot at this time as well as the meaning of the word “Selichah.”

In the Early Morning

The Talmud says[5] that G-d flies through 18,000 worlds during the night, and, according to the Levush,[6] in the last three hours of the night He is “flying through this world.” As such, He is closest to us during this time, and it is thus an appropriate time to beseech for His mercy, as the verse says,[7] “As for me, I cry out to You, O L-rd; each morning, my prayer greets You.”

The Zohar explains[8] that the morning is the time that the “kindness of Avraham” is more present in the world, which is why it is an appropriate time for prayer. Elsewhere, the Zohar says[9] that the night, which symbolizes exile, is associated with Eisav, while the morning, which symbolizes the time of redemption, is associated with Yaakov. Yaakov was able to overcome Eisav just as the night was coming to an end[10] as this symbolizes the era in history when the Jewish people will be victorious over their enemies. (In addition, the 12 hours of the night correspond to the 12 princes of Eisav, while the 12 hours of the day correspond to the 12 tribes of Israel.[11]) It is therefore appropriate to pray just as the night turns into day.

Why Motzei Shabbat?

Several reasons are given as to why Ashkenazim begin to say Selichot on Motzei Shabbat. Here are some of them:[12]

1)     Shabbat; A Day of Torah[13]

It is imperative to prepare for Rosh Hashanah for at least three days just as the Jewish people prepared for three days before they received the Torah.[14] But rather than simply start three days before Rosh Hashana, we always start from Motzei Shabbat. The reason for this is that on Shabbat people have more time to study Torah[15] and therefore are in a state of uplifted joy, having fulfilled the mitzvah of Torah study (in addition to the mitzvot of Shabbat). It is therefore an appropriate time to begin these prayers in light of the teaching of our sages that the Shechinah (Divine Presence) rests on a person only when he is in a state of the joy of a mitzvah.[16] This explains why the first Selichot prayers are recited at midnight instead of in the early morning (see above), so that they be recited in proximity to Shabbat.[17] (One should not say Selichot before Chatzot [midnight] except on Yom Kippur, as the first half of the night is a time of Divine judgment.[18])

2)     Make Yourselves an Olah

In the Torah portion of Pinchas, when describing the sacrifices of each holiday, the verse says[19] וְהִקְרַבְתֶּ֨ם עֹלָ֤ה which means “you shall offer a sacrifice.” Regarding Rosh Hashanah, however, it says,[20] וַעֲשִׂיתֶ֨ם עֹלָ֜ה which can be understood to mean, “You shall make yourselves into a sacrifice.” This means that through the service of Rosh Hashanah and the Teshuvah that accompanies it, one can become like a new person who is as “close to G-d” as a sacrifice.[21] Just an animal must be examined for four days before it can be sacrificed to ensure it has no blemishes,[22] so, too, must we examine and better ourselves for (at least) four days to ensure we are spiritually fit to be a “sacrifice” to G-d.[23] The custom of beginning on (the) Motzei Shabbat (that is at least four days before Rosh Hashanah) is to always start on the same day of the week rather than on different days every year.

3)     The World’s Birthday

The Vilna Gaon explains[24] that Rosh Hashanah was chosen as the judgment day for on that day man was created and was judged for his sin and exonerated since he had done teshuvah.[25] As such, we begin Selichot around the 25th day of Elul which is the first day of creation. This follows the view of Rabbi Eliezer that the world was created in Tishrei. Those who say Selichot throughout the month of Elul follow the opinion of Rabbi Yehoshua that the world was created in Nissan[26] and that Elul and Tishrei are special because it is the time Moshe went up to Sinai for the third time and achieved atonement for the Jewish people.[27]

The Term Selicha

The Malbim points out[28] that there are many terms in the Torah for forgiveness from sin. Besides סליחה, all of these terms mean that, although the sin is forgiven, its effect may still remain on the person or on the world.

For example:

1)     ונכפר להם הדם – “They will atone for the blood”[29] This indicates that the sin is atoned for but hasn’t disappeared. (That verse is referring to an eglah arufah in which case if the murderer is found, he is put to death, indicating that the atonement of the eglah arufah didn’t erase the sin completely.) 

2)     נושא עון – “Bear the sin” means that G-d doesn’t punish for this sin. But it may still affect the person in some way.

3)     עובר על פשע – “Overlooks the transgression”[30] also only means that G-d will not punish for the sin (which still exists).

4)     תם עונך – “Your sin is finished”[31] means that going forward the sin is gone, but it is not completely erased from the sinner’s history.

5)     נרצה עונה – “Her sin is expiated”[32] also refers to G-d not punishing her for the sin.

6)     עונותי מחה – “Erase my sin.”[33] Although the sin is erased, it may still have left a mark on the person. 

7)     יכבוש עונותינו – “Quash our iniquities”[34] indicates the sin is overlooked by G-d, but it has not been made to disappear. 

8)     כבסני מעוני – “Cleanse me of my sin.”[35] Once again, the person may be cleansed but still has a stain (effect) of the sin.

9)     מחטאתי טהרני – “Purify me of my transgression”[36] indicates that the sinner is purified going forward but his past hasn’t been totally erased. 


10) ה יסלח לה – “G-d will forgive her”[37] means that G-d completely forgives the sin as if it were never transgressed.

This is why the term סליחה is used only when referring to Divine forgiveness (e.g., כִּֽי עִמְּךָ הַסְּלִיחָה ”for with You is forgiveness”[38]) and never when referring to forgiveness between people as people cannot completely forget what someone else did to them. But G-d, in His infinite kindness, can completely forgive us and consider us to be new people when we devote ourselves to Him completely. 

This is what we try to accomplish during the days and prayers of Selichot. May G-d grant our efforts with success!

[1] Deut. 29:9

[2] Likutei Maharich, entry Slichot citing the Mateh Moshe.

[3] See Avudraham (Rosh Hashana, Tefilot) that some would customarily begin Selichot on the 15th of Elul.

[4] Ba’al HaTurim on the verse (Deut. 30:6) as explained in Likutei Sichot vol. 29, page 170 and on.

It is noteworthy that Rabbi Yaakov Ba’al HaTurim (who was Ashkenazi) likely wrote his commentary on the Torah while he was living in Spain, where Selichot were said throughout the month of Elul. 

(The Ba’al HaTurim, son of the Rosh, was born in Germany in 1269. He left for Spain with his father in the year 1305 at the age of 35 and lived in Spain until his passing in the 12th of Tammuz in 1343 (approximately) at the age of 74. It seems that he wrote his commentary on the Torah while his father was still alive while he wrote the Four Turim after his father’s passing. [His father passed away in 1327.]

This is based on the fact that, in several places in his commentary on the Torah he refers to his father with the term יצ"ו which stands for יִשְׁמְרֵיהוּ צוּרוֹ וִיחַיֵּהוּ‎ (may his Rock keep him and grant him life) indicating that his father was still alive. Whereas in the Four Turim he always refers to his father as א"א הרא"ש ז"ל (my father and teacher, the Rosh, may his memory be a blessing), indicating that his father had already passed away.

There is a legend that Rabbi Yaakov wrote his commentary on the Torah in one night after his father (or future father-in-law) commented that he spent all his time studying the Oral Torah and barely ever studied the Written Torah [HaRosh by Avraham Chaim Freiman, Mossad HaRav Kook, 1999, page 121 and 163].)

[5] Avodah Zarah 3a

[6] O.C. 581:1

[7] Mateh Moshe, by Moshe ben Avraham, a student of the Maharshal, vol. 5, ot 779

[8] Parshat Balak 204a

[9] Parshat Toldot, 144a

[10] See Gen. 32:27

[11] Mateh Moshe quoted by Rabbi Eliyahu Sityon in Chatzot Laylah, (Tifrach, 1994) page 185

[12] See Selichot Mefureshet Umevu’eret by Rabbi Aharon Levy (Jerusalem, 2013).

[13] Leket Yosher by Reb Yosef ben Reb Moshe a student of Rabbi Yisrael Isserlein who recorded his teacher’s customs, Hilchot Yemei HaSelichot, 4

[14] See Exodus 19:11

[15] See the Midrash (quoted in the Tur O.C. 290) that, when the Jewish people entered the land of Israel, the Torah complained to G-d and said, “Now each person will run to his vineyard and field and what will be with me?” To which G-d responded, “I have a mate for you and that is Shabbat.” i.e., the people will study you on Shabbat when they aren’t allowed to work. 

[16] Shabbat 30b

[17] Rabbi Chaim Marchant in “Dinie Selichot LeChodesh Elul VeLe’Aseret Yemeii Teshuvah” (Jerusalem, 2001) 10:1, footnote one. 

[18] Mishnah Berurah 565:12

[19] Numbers 28:19 and, 2729:813 and 36

[20] Ibid 29:2

[21] Jerusalem Talmud 4:8 as explained by Avudraham

[22] Menachot 49b see Rambam, Hilchot Temidin UMusafin, 1:9

The Talmud only discusses the need to check the Tamid and Pesach sacrifice for four days beforehand but some say that this applies to all communal sacrifices. And since on Rosh Hashana we are serving G-d as a community, we can be compared to a communal sacrifice. In addition, if, any animal sacrifice needs to be checked for four days, we should learn from this, that, as human beings, we must be at least as good as that (animal) sacrifice. See sources quoted in Kuntres Eliezer – Yamim Nora’im, Third Edition, Benei Berak 2019) page 7).

[23] Elyah Rabbah 581:8 and Mishnah Berurah 581:6

[24] On O.C. 581:1

[25] See Rosh Hashanah 10b, and 27a and Pesikta DeRav Kahana 23

[26] Rosh Hashana 11a

[27] Although the Rosh HaShana prayers indicate that it is the day of creation, this can be understood to be referring to the judgment day, at which point the world is “recreated.” Alternately, it can refer to the thought that G-d had to create the world rather than the actual creation (Tosfot D.H Kema’an on Rosh Hashana 27b).

[28] HarKarmel, entry “Selach.” 

See Shulchan Aruch HaRav 607:7 who says that selicha is the least effective form of forgiveness, which is why it is paired up with the worst transgressions. Further inquiry is needed as to whether these two explanations can be reconciled.

[29] Deuteronomy 21:8

[30] Micha 7:18

[31] Lamentations 4:22

[32] Isaiah 40:2

[33] Psalms 51:11

[34] Micha 7:19

[35] Psalms 51:4

[36] Ibid.

[37] Numbers 30:9

[38] Psalms 130:4

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom and a Ketiva v’Chatima Tova for a Shana Tovah Umetukah!

Sun, June 23 2024 17 Sivan 5784