Sunday, September 13, 2009

Early Selichos

The custom of reciting selichos between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur dates back at least to Geonic times, and during the month of Elul to Medieval Spain. We still recite selichos like this centuries-old practice but we generally do not say them at the traditional time.

It is clear from the wording of the sources that the custom is to recite selichos right before dawn (i.e. at the end of the night) and then begin praying immediately after dawn. That is what the Rambam (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhos Teshuvah 3:4) and the Shulchan Arukh (Orach Chaim 581:1) imply.

Click here for moreThe general practice I've seen is to recite them approximately half an hour before morning services, whenever they are (usually well after dawn), except for the first night when we say selichos at 1am (midnight adjusted for Daylight Savings Times). In yeshiva, though, we would always say selichos at 1am. Neither of these two practices matches the ancient practice.

There is a third practice somewhat prevalent -- to recite selichos at 9 or 10pm the night before. This is somewhat controversial because the Magen Avraham (565:5) writes that according to Kabbalah, it is bad to recite selichos before midnight. Based on this Magen Avraham, the posekim roundly condemn this practice of early selichos. R. Nachum Rabinovitch (Melumedei Milchamah, no. 90) even recommends, in an emergency situation, saying just one quick selichah (more, if possible) before morning prayers rather than early selichos. The most lenient is R. Moshe Feinstein (Iggeros Moshe, Orach Chaim vol. 2 no. 105) who allows it as an emergency practice if people are scared to go out late at night or early in the morning, or if otherwise there would be no selichos. Hardly a ringing endorsement.

I have to say, though, that I am a little puzzled by the stringency on this point. Is it really such a big deal? This is a kabbalistic prohibition that we don't understand and the non-kabbalists/non-Sephardim usually set aside such issues when there is a need, particularly when there is an established custom. Early selichos have been around for at least 150 years (cf. Matteh Ephraim 581:20 - link, first published posthumously in 1834 by a rabbi who died in 1828), probably longer. Do we really have to be so strict about this?

I suspect that one of the concerns that leads to strictness is that early selichos is largely a matter of convenience and laziness. Rather than stay up late or wake up early, people want a convenient alternative. While neither midnight (1am) nor early morning selichos are the original custom, they aren't easy outs like the early night selichos are. That, perhaps, mitigates the ease with which we would set aside a kabbalistic prohibition.

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