Shabbat Parashat Nitzavim| 5767
Ask The Rabbi
Question: It is hard for me to say Selichot very late at night or early in the morning. What are the factors involved in the issue of the timing of Selichot?
Answer: Much of the issue of the timing of the minhag to recite Selichot in the days before Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is based on mystical considerations. These can be found in the gemara and in kabalistic writings, which are not within our area of expertise. However, we can discuss the basic ideas as filtered through the poskim.
Different times of the day have different characteristics, making them more or less appropriate for certain types of religious activity. The first part of the night possesses the characteristic of din (strict judgment). The second part of the night is an eit ratzon (a time when requests are more readily accepted). Thus, the latter is the time when Selichot, which are specially formulated prayers to elicit mercy from Hashem, are most appropriate. Several of the piyutim (liturgical pieces) even refer to the timing as late at night.
Several classical sources(including Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 581:1) talk of Selichot at ashmoret haboker, the few hours leading up to alot hashachar, which itself is around 72 minutes before sunrise. At this time, Hashem is hovering specifically over our world (Magen Avraham 581:1, based on Avoda Zara 3b), making it an eit ratzon. There are also sources that indicate that chatzot (astronomical midnight) is a special eit ratzon (see Yechave Da’at I, 46). Therefore, the optimal times to say Selichot are either at chatzot or in the pre-dawn hours. Rav M. Feinstein (Igrot Moshe, OC II 105) points out that when people were “early to bed and to rise,” the latter was more convenient and common, whereas nowadays it is often easier at chatzot. One should not infer a clear preference between these times. Only on the first night (for Ashkenazim), on motzaei Shabbat, there may be a preference to say Selichot at chatzot, when more of Shabbat’s impact remains (see Piskei Teshuvot 581:(15).
The main objection is to saying Selichot at night before chatzot, a time of din. Selichot, and especially the Yud Gimmel Midot, which is their most basic component, request mercy in a manner that incites the midat hadin. Therefore, kabalistic sources say that it is spiritually dangerous to recite them at that time (Magen Avraham 565:5; Birkei Yosef, OC 581:1). One can identify Rav Feinstein with the camp that does not put a strong emphasis on kabalistic sources in making halachic decisions. He rules (Igrot Moshe, ibid.) that even though much positive effect is missing at Selichot in the early night, it is better to recite them then, lacking a feasible alternative, than to deprive the congregation of their inspiration in preparing for the yamim noraim. If one does so, he prefers reciting Selichot at a change of ashmorot, one of which is approximately 2 hours before chatzot.However, others say it is better to avoid the strongly detrimental situation that the kabalists describe even when there is no easy alternative (Yechave Da’at, ibid.). Some suggest that early night in America is not so bad because it is after chatzot in Israel. However, it seems that most authorities relate din and eit ratzon to each place according to its astronomical situation (see ibid.).
The more “pareve” approach is to say the Selichot in the morning (or even before Mincha-ibid.) While it is not especially an eit ratzon, it is not a time of din either and the time of the year is itself an eit ratzon (see Igrot Moshe’s (ibid.) reaction to the questioner’s thesis). The general approach is that it is worthwhile to sacrifice a modest amount of quality and quantity of learning to enable one to say Selichot (Sha’arei Tehsuva 581:1). However, one has to make the difficult evaluation of whether he is capable of fulfilling his daily responsibilities while dedicating time to reciting Selichot at the right time.
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This edition of Hemdat Yamim is dedicated to the memory of
R' Meir ben Yechezkel Shraga Brachfeld o.b.m.
Hemdat Yamim is also dedicated by Les & Ethel Sutker of Chicago, Illinois
in loving memory of
Max and Mary Sutker
and Louis and Lillian Klein, z"l.May their memory be a blessing!