From “Guidelines to the Yamim Noraim” by Rabbi Elozor Barclay and Rabbi Yitzchok Jaeger
The Month of Elul
What is the special significance of the month of Elul?
Rosh Chodesh Elul marks the beginning of a period of intense spiritual awakening. The Jewish people renew their commitment to the Torah, repent their sins, and prepare for the awesome days of judgment – Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. When the nation sinned with the golden calf, Moshe Rabbeinu ascended Mount Sinai to beseech Hashem for forgiveness. Forty days later on erev Rosh Chodesh Elul, Hashem granted His forgiveness and instructed Moshe Rabbeinu to prepare the second luchos. On Rosh Chodesh Elul, he ascended the mountain once again and descended on Yom Kippur with the second luchos, received by the Jewish people with joy and happiness. From then on, this period became one of Divine mercy, when Hashem’s hand is open to welcome those who return to Him.
What are the main customs of this month?
- Many people make an effort to say the Yom Kippur Katan prayers on erev Rosh Chodesh Elul, even if they do not do so at other times of the year.
- Psalm 27 is said daily after shacharis and ma’ariv (or mincha) from the second day of Rosh Chodesh until the day before Shemini Atzeres. In chutz la’aretz it is also said on Shemini Atzeres.
- The shofar is blown in shul after shacharis on weekdays except on erev Rosh Hashanah.
- Some people recite ten chapters of tehillim daily, completing the entire book twice before Rosh Hashanah. This brings the total number of chapters recited to three hundred, which is the numerical value of the word כפר – atone. Those who follow this custom recite fifteen chapters daily during the Aseres Yemei Teshuva in order to complete the book a third time before Yom Kippur.
- When writing a letter to a friend, one should include wishes that the person be written and sealed in The Book of Life.
- Extra care should be taken in the performance of mitzvos, in particular Torah study and charity. Many people have their tefillin and mezuzos checked.
- Selichos prayers are said.
- Vows are annulled (see chapter two).
Why is the shofar blown during Elul?
In order to arouse people to repentance, as it says, “Shall a shofar be sounded in the city and the people not be afraid?” (Amos 3:6). The shofar proclaims: Arouse yourselves from your sleep and awake from your slumber; inspect your deeds, mend your ways, and remember your Creator. Those who are distracted from the truth by the vanities of this world and waste their years with folly and emptiness, which bring neither benefit nor salvation, inspect your souls and improve your ways, and let each person abandon his evil path and his wrong opinion.
From which day are selichos recited?
The custom is to begin on the Sunday before Rosh Hashanah. If the first day of Rosh Hashanah is on Monday or Tuesday, selichos begin on the Sunday of the previous week.
When is the best time to recite selichos?
The ideal time is towards the end of the night before halachic dawn, when the Divine attribute of mercy is dominant. According to some opinions, the next best time is at halachic midnight and according to the Zohar this is equally appropriate. Many communities begin the selichos on the first night at this time.
May selichos be said during the day?
Selichos may be said at any time during the day. Most men say selichos in the morning before shacharis. Certain phrases are not appropriate during the day (e.g. ‘when they cry out at night’) and should be omitted or suitably altered.
Is there any time when selichos cannot be recited?
Selichos should not be recited during the first half of the night, since the thirteen attributes may not be said at that time. The exception is the evening of Yom Kippur, when selichos are recited at night.
Are women obligated to recite selichos?
No, but they may if they wish. Some have the custom to attend the shul service on the first night of selichos.
Must selichos be recited with a minyan?
Although it is preferable to do so, it is not essential. An individual may recite selichos but should omit the thirteen attributes of mercy. Alternatively, the thirteen attributes may be chanted with the tune of the Torah reading, in which case one should continue until the end of the verse (Shemos 34:7). Also, the sections towards the end of selichos that are written in Aramaic may be said only with a minyan.
Should one say the verses preceding each selicha?
It is important to say them since they were written with Divine inspiration and form the basis of the following selicha.
What if a person cannot keep pace with the minyan with which he is saying selichos?
He should recite selichos at his own pace but join the minyan for the thirteen attributes and then continue from where he left off. The minyan should be joined for shema koleinu and viduy.
Can selichos be recited in English?
Prayers are more powerful in their original Hebrew even if one does not understand the words. Nevertheless, it is preferable that the prayers be understood and it is praiseworthy to study them beforehand. One who cannot recite Hebrew fluently may say any prayer in English, including selichos. In this situation, a person reciting selichos without a minyan may say the thirteen attributes in English.
If selichos are recited at night, is tachanun said?
Although tachanun is not said when mincha continues until nightfall, it is said after selichos even at night. The head should be rested on the left arm. Tachanun after selichos is recited at night even in situations when it is usually omitted, e.g. when there is a chosson present.
If one recites selichos before shacharis, should he recite any brachos beforehand?
He should say al netilas yadayim, asher yatzar, elohai neshama and bircas hatorah. If selichos are said before halachic dawn, the b’racha al netilas yadayim should not be recited until after selichos.
Must one stand during selichos?
It is preferable to stand for the entire selichos. If this is difficult, one should stand at least when saying the paragraph eil melech yosheiv, the thirteen attributes of mercy, and viduy.
Does one need to fast during this period?
Some people fast on the first day of selichos, and many have the custom to fast on erev Rosh Hashanah (see question 35). These are only half-day fasts and the custom is to eat after mincha. There is no obligation to fast at all on these days and a person who is weak should certainly not attempt to do so. The main intention is to improve one’s ways and come closer to Hashem.