High Holidays

The Month of Elul, Selihoth, Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur

By Yefet Isaac

We are fast approaching the month of Elul. In the next few paragraphs, I would like to give some insights on the month of Elul, Selihoth and the High Holidays.

Rosh Hodesh Elul is on August 20-21 and as per the Sephardic custom, the Bene-Israel community begin the first Selihoth prayers on Sunday August 23 and onwards until Yom Kippur. Men and women rise before the break of dawn and go to the synagogue. There, the special prayers are recited with tears and anguish, as the days of the high holidays, Rosh Hashana and Yom Hakippurim draw near.

The Month of Elul

The month of Elul, the month before Rosh Hashana is viewed as a month of preparation for the days of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. So it is with the High Holidays, these days of awe – of awesome opportunity for insight and growth.

It is the month of repentance, when an honest soul-reckoning, is made of the past year. Just as a businessman makes an assessment of his business to determine how to run it more smoothly and successfully, so a Jew in the month of Elul assesses his past year’s spiritual service to HaShem. It is a time to correct the wrongs we have done to our brothers, and to beseech HaShem for forgiveness.

In one of our sages writings, Pirke Ribbi de Eliezer writes “On Rosh Hodesh Elul, G-d said to Moshe Rabbenu (Exodus 24, 12) “Go up to Me to the Mountain (Mt. Sinai). Moshe then went up to receive the second set of the Tablets of the Ten Commandments. In the camp below the people were blowing the Shofar so that the people should not miscalculate (as they did the first time Moshe ascended the Mountain and they made the golden calf) Moshe’s stay upon the Mountain and thereby stray again after idolatry.

“G-d has ascended with the (shofar) blast; Hashem with the sound of shofar” (Psalms 47, 6). Moshe stayed on the mountain for forty days, until Yom Kippur when G-d forgave the Jewish people for the sin of the calf.

At the end of the morning and evening prayers (morning and afternoon according to the Sephardic custom) during the month of Ellul, Psalm 27 is recited.

Further Rabbi Eliezer adds: Therefore, since these forty days are a time of repentance, our Rabbis instituted that each year we blow the shofar on Rosh Hodesh Elul and for the entire month of Elul and recite Selihoth and supplications from Rosh Hodesh Elul and onward until Yom Kippur, so as to warn Israel to repent.

The Recitation of Selihoth Prayers

It is for this purpose – to arouse one’s heart to repent for one’s misdeeds- that the Selihoth prayers are recited.

But before we look into this, let’s read about “Prayer and its Purpose”

Tefillah – prayer is a mitzvah – commandment given by G-d to turn to Him with our petitions and requests whenever the need arises.

All agree that the context and times designated for prayer were established by the sages –the Men of the Great Assembly, a body of one hundred and twenty sages and prophets who lived during the time of the Second Temple.

We may ask a question “Why do we need prayers?

The importance of prayer can be emphasized by which the sages stated in Pirke Avot(1,2) “The world exists on three things: on Torah, on Avodah-service and on Gemilut Hasidim-charity and good deeds.” While the Temple stood, avodah was fulfilled through the offering of the korbanot-sacrifices, through which a person expresses his thankfulness to G-d, or show remorse for his sins and beg forgiveness for them. Now as the Temple is destroyed, G-d in His infinite mercy avails us of the same opportunities through prayer.

The Selihoth are comprised of several types of prayers. Some inspire one to repent, others request forgiveness from G-d either in merit of our suffering or in merit of our righteous forefathers; yet others beseech G-d to send us relief from our difficulties and to hasten the coming of the Messiah. There are two additional types of prayers that play an important role in the Selihoth: Vidduy (confession) and the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy (Exodus 34: 6-7) .It is the custom to recite them aloud.

Rosh Hashana

Every holiday has its uniqueness. Rosh Hashanah has its uniqueness too. For most of us, it’s one that begins a season of awe, judgment and repentance.

Rosh Hashanah is the Day of Judgement for the entire world. On this day, a person is judged on his or her deeds, and whatever is to happen to him or her in the coming year is decided accordingly.

  1. The Festivals mentioned in the Torah are divided into two groups:
    • (a) Pesach, Shavuot and Succot, when G-d is regarded as the G-d of Israel;
    • (b) Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, when G-d is regarded as King (Judge) of the whole world.
  2. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur form a unit, known as the Yamim Nora’im – the Days of Awe. In the Torah itself the word chag (one of the terms for Festival) is not used to describe them, and the commandment to,
    ‘enjoy your festivals and be happy on them’ does not apply.
    Rather, on these days, the atmosphere is solemn and serious, with humility and fear of judgement.

The Torah instructs us to blow the shofar on Rosh Hashanah:

‘You are to have a day of Sounding [of the ram’s horn].’ (Numbers 29:1)

Blowing the shofar symbolizes this:

‘For G-d is … the Great King over the world … G-d has risen with a teruah, G-D [has risen] with the sound of the shofar.
(Psalm 47:3, 6; recited in the Rosh Hashanah prayers immediately before the shofar is blown).

On a weekday there is ‘a day of sounding’, but on Shabbat (when the shofar is not blown) there is ‘a remembrance of sounding’.

On Rosh Hashanah the principal Mitzvah is to blow (or listen to) notes on the Shofar – a ram’s horn. Every Jew is obliged to listen to at least 30 ‘sounds’; in the Synagogue it is customary to blow 100 notes.

The festive meal of Rosh Hashana starts with the Kiddush and the Seder on day one and day two, which includes the dates(tamar), the pomegranate(rimon), apples with honey(tapuach and dvash), String beans (Rubia or Lubia), Pumpkin or gourd(kera), beetroot (selek): Leeks or Scallions (Karti). In addition there is also fish (or sheep) head.

Rosh Hashanah is celebrated on two days (the 1st and 2nd of Tishrei), although the Torah only mentions one day (Leviticus 23:24). The addition of the second day was a decree instituted by the early Neviim (Prophets) (Jerusalem Talmud, Eruvin 3:10).

According to Rabbi Eliezer (Talmud Rosh Hashanah 10b),on Rosh Hashanah:

    • (a) G-d completed His Creation of the world (the Sixth Day) with the creation of man;
    • (b) Sarah, Rachel and Hannah conceived (they were childless, and on this day G-d remembered them, so that they could give birth);
    • (c) Joseph was released from prison;
    • (d) The decree of excessive hard labor imposed on our ancestors in Egypt was abolished, i.e., the beginning of their liberation.

The Amidah prayers in the Maariv (evening service), Shacharit (morning) and Minchah (afternoon) are constructed on the basis of seven blessings, as on Shabbat and other festivals.

The Amidah in the Musaf (additional service) contains nine blessings: the three middle ones are the malchuyot (proclaiming G-d as Supreme King or Judge), zichronot (G-d’s remembrance of His promises) and Shofarot (the blowing of the Shofar on various occasions).

The Torah readings for the two days are as follows:

On the first day, about the birth of Isaac (Genesis 21);
On the second day, about the Akedah – the binding of Isaac (Genesis 22);
Maftir, on both days, about the festival sacrifice (Numbers 29:1-6);

On the first day of Rosh Hashanah, after Minchah (afternoon prayers), it is customary to go to a river (or the sea) and read Taslich, the last three verses of the Book of Micah (7:8-20) are read. If the first day is Shabbat, then the Taslich prayers are postponed.

Yom Kippur

The first ten days of Tishrei, from the first of Rosh Hashanah until Yom Kippur inclusive, are known as the Asseret Yemei HaTeshuvah – the ‘Ten Days of Repentance’. These are days of mercy and forgiveness, days dedicated to repentance, to examining one’s conscience and, specifically, to amending one’s ways.

The Sabbath between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is called Shabbat Shuvah (the Sabbath of Return), because the Haftarah is read from Hosea 14:2 which begins with the word Shuvah (‘Return!’). It is often known as the Sabbath of Repentance, because it falls in this period and to ‘return’ means ‘repent’.

On Rosh Hashanah, judgement of the world commences and the concept of justice reigns.
On Yom Kippur, judgement of the world is concluded and the concept of mercy and forgiveness reigns.

The Kol Nidre Service

If you had vowed to do something and realized that you did not fulfil it, then this is the time to annul them. The synagogues are packed for the Kol Nidre service. Every Jew understands that Kol Nidre touches their most sensitive nerve of emotions and humanity. Without Kol Nidre you cannot have a Yom Kippur. Kol Nidre is a time when we look deep inside. We take accountability and ask ousrselves who can count on our words.

The main theme here is credibility, with it we have everything.

Yizkor (Memorial Prayers) are said four times a year – on Yom Kippur, Shemini Atzeret, the last day of Pesach and the second day of Shavuot. In addition to prayers for departed relatives, “El Maleh Rahamim’ is said for Jewish martyrs throughout the ages, for those who died in the Holocaust in particular, for soldiers in the Jewish underground and, later, in the Israeli army who died fighting to establish and defend the Jewish state.

The Main Themes of Yom Kippur

1. Erev Yom Kippur (eve of the fast): Purification, Tzedakah, Minchah with the Vidui (confession), Se’udah Mafseket (pre-fast meal), blessing one’s children.

2. ‘It shall be a Shabbat Shabbaton (Sabbath of all rest days) for you.’

3. ‘You are to torment your souls’, i.e. make yourselves suffer. Five types of suffering are required:

– Abstention from food and drink;
– Abstention from washing;
– Abstention from annointing (smearing the body with oil, in order to keep cool in a very hot climate);
– Abstention from wearing leather shoes or sandals;
– Abstention from marital relation

4. ‘For on this day, He will pardon you.’

5. Yom Kippur as a day of remembering forgiveness, e.g.
‘I have forgiven’. (Numbers 14:20)

6. Yom Kippur does not grant pardon for wrongdoing against another person, until that other person is reconciled and forgives.

7. Seder Ha’Avodah

8. The importance of Vidui (confession), recited ten times on Yom Kippur.

– twice in Ma’ariv;
– twice in Shacharit;
– twice in Mussaf;
– twice in Minchah;
– once in Ne’ilah;
– and once in Minchah on Erev Yom Kippur

9. The five prayer services on Yom Kippur:

(a) Kol Nidrei and Ma’ariv (Evening Service)
(b) Shacharit (Morning Service)
(c) Mussaf (Additional Service)
(d) Minchah (Afternoon Service) – including the book of Jonah.
(e) Ne’ilah (Concluding Service) – and the Shofar.

Blowing the Shofar at the end of the concluding service (Ne’ilah) is a reminder of the blowing of the Shofar on Yom Kippur itself at the Yovel (Jubilee Year) (Leviticus 25:9-10).

10. After the havdalah at the end of the fast, it is customary to hammer in the first nail of the succah in accordance with the concept of, ‘one Mitzvah leads to another’.

May we merit through our recitation of the Selihot and the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy to prepare ourselves for the Day of Judgement and May the Almighty accept our prayers speedily with the ability to perform the avodah in the Third Temple in Jerusalem. Amen.

Tahel shanah u’virkhoteha! Let the New Year (5770) begin with all its goodness and all its blessings. Amen.


The Jewish Agency for Israel – Department for Jewish Zionist Education

The Orot Sephardic Selihot Prayer Book

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