This Saturday night, we Ashkenazim will begin saying selichot . I’ve always seen that as the “opening ceremony” of the High Holiday season – when I stand in shul on the first night of selichot and the chazzan begins by reciting Kaddish in that special tune reserved for this time of year, that’s when I know that Rosh Hashana is shortly upon us.
I have been saying selichot every year since I was a child. But in the decade and a half since I made Aliya, I learned new things about selichot, the experience and its mindset that I was unaware of when I lived in the States. This post is dedicated to one of these insights, and next week I’ll write about a different one.
What I’m speaking about today is the difference between Ashkenazic and Sephardic selichot. Personally, I had virtually no exposure to Sephardic religious practice when living in America, but of course here in Israel more than 50% of the population are Sephardim, so once you live here you can’t ignore them. And although many areas of Jewish practice take on different flavors among Ashkenazim and Sephardim, the difference in the attitude towards selichot may be more dramatic than just about everything else. So here’s a recommendation for all of my Ashkenazi brothers and sisters: if you have never recited selichot in a Sephardic congregation, then make it your business to do so, at least once. You’ll probably be amazed.
The differences start with the texts themselves, which are organized differently. It’s true that for both groups, the central feature of the selichot is the frequent repetition of the Yod-Gimel Midot shel Rachamim, the Thirteen Attributes of Divine mercy (Shmot 34:6-7). And both groups have piyutim (poetic recitations) that were written at various time periods interspersed between the recitations of the Thirteen Attributes. But that’s where the similarity ends. Ashkenazim, who only say selichot for 2-3 weeks, use different poetic recitations each day, whereas the Sephardim are content to say the exact same text every day for 40 days (with some supplementary parts added during the 10 days of Teshuva).
Another difference has to do with the Shofar. The Sephardim blow the Shofar during selichot, as the Yod-Gimel Midot are recited. It’s an exhilarating thing to hear – while the congregation recites the Thirteen Atributes in unison, the sound of the Shofar rises from the crowd triumphantly, almost like the victory blasts of a conquering army charging in to defeat their enemy. Ashkenazim don’t do it that way. This leads to a very different feeling during our selichot, which sound more contrite than victorious. (Of course, we blow the Shofar in Elul as well, but not during selichot. Instead, we blow it a single time at the end of the morning prayers each day. When the Shofar is sounded this way, in a quiet room without the accompanying voices of the congregation, it also takes on a completely different character. For Ashkenazim, the Shofar becomes God’s announcement to us, calling us to attention [see Rambam Hilchot Teshuva 3:7], as opposed to our own triumphant proclamation like it is for the Sephardim.)
But the most significant difference between Ashkenazi and Sephardi selichot is something you can’t see if you study the texts in a library; you need to attend the different services in order to understand what I’m talking about. It’s simply that the mood in the room is fundamentally different. The Ashkenazic service is serious, contrite and in some cases almost mournful. Not so in the Sephardic service – there, one hears uplifting melodies, and experiences a joyous atmosphere. This is true even when singing (in a very happy tune – click the link to see what I mean!) words like “חטאנו לפניך, רחם עלינו – We have sinned before You, have mercy on us“!
How is it possible that the very same ancient custom has become so different between these two branches of our people?
I think this shows us something quite amazing about the Jewish people and our unique history. Thousands of years ago, we were expelled from our land. As we wandered through centuries of exile, we traveled the world and had many different experiences. We lived among different cultures and struggled with different challenges. Wherever we went, we carried our Torah with us, continued to observe its commandments and sacrificed much to maintain our connection with our heritage and our God. We remained true to our traditions and yet, our varied experiences shaped our interpretations of that Torah in different ways. Over time, each community learned to look into the Torah and interpret it from the perspective of their own experiences. The result was that each one saw different aspects of the “seventy faces” of the Torah.
And now, after millennia of wandering the earth, the kibbutz galuyot (Ingathering of the Exiles – see Devarim chapter 30) has begun and we are all coming home. We arrive back here in our homeland, still proudly carrying our Torah with us, and we meet our brothers and sisters who are doing the same. And we have so much to learn from each other! The modern State of Israel gives us the unique opportunity to live together, to talk together and especially to pray together. And that allows us each to learn from one another and to have a much fuller understanding of the infinite truth in the Torah.
Ashkenazi selichot and Sephardic ones seem so different on the surface – and yet in truth, we are both observing the same custom. The paradoxical coexistence of joy and awe is built into the very fabric of the High Holiday season. Sephardim tapped into one aspect of that paradox, and Ashkenazim to another. Now that we can pray with each other, we can each learn from what the other has developed, and all of us can deepen our understanding and observance of the Torah. It’s really amazing.
 Selichot are special penitential prayers in honor of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. This post-Talmudic practice seems to have begun during the time of the Geonim, around the 8th century or so. Ashkenazim say them beginning on the last Saturday night that is at least four days before Rosh Hashanah – so that will be this coming Saturday night. But our Sephardic brethren have been saying them for several weeks already, since the beginning of the month of Elul. It seems that the original custom was to recite these prayers during the Aseret Ymei Teshuva (the Ten Days of Repentance), but with time the practice was expanded to begin earlier.