1. The Last Forty Days
2. Moses to the Defense of Israel
3. Selichot and the Shofar Blowing
4. Reading Scriptural Verses Before the Torah Blessing
The Last Forty Days
The Tur writes (581): "Pirkei Rabbi Eliezer: On the new moon of Elul, the Almighty said to Moses, 'Come up the mountain to Me,' for it was at that time that Moses went up to receive the last set of tablets, and they blew the shofar throughout the camp to announce that Moses was going up the mountain so that they not stray after the Golden Calf again. And the Almighty ascended with that shofar blast, as it is written (Psalms 47:6): 'God has ascended with a blast.'
"Therefore the sages instituted that the shofar be blown on the first of Elul each year, and also for the entire month, in order to warn Israel to repent, as it is written, 'Shall a shofar be blown in a city and the people not tremble?' (Amos 3:6). And this is the custom in Ashkenaz (i.e., for Ashkenazi Jews), to blow every morning and evening after prayers. And there are some who recite many selichot (forgiveness prayers) and supplicatory prayers from the first of Elul onward."
And the Chidah, Rabbi Chaim Yosef David Azulai, writes (Birkei Yosef 581:6): "And during these days it is better to say many selichot (forgiveness prayers) and supplicatory prayers with the congregation than to study [Torah]. And I have indeed seen some rabbis who change their schedule slightly in the month of Elul in order to . . . [recite] supplicatory prayers rather than engage in the study of Jewish law . . . as they do throughout the year.
Moses went up to receive the Torah on the seventh of Sivan and came down forty days later on the seventeenth of Tammuz. At that point, when he saw the Golden Calf, he broke the tablets and again stood in prayer from the eighteenth of Tammuz until the first of Elul - another forty days. Then he said to the children of Israel: "Hitherto, I stood in prayer forty days on your behalf, now I am going up the mountain again and your task is to pray from the depths of your heart in order that there be an "arousal from below" (itaruta de-letata) that will trigger an "arousal from above" (itaruta de-le'ela).
And indeed, after forty days on the mountain a second time, the Almighty informed him, on Yom Kippur, saying, "I have forgiven according to your request." The first two forty-day periods of prayer were of no avail, and it was only after an additional forty days that God said to Moses "I have forgiven according to your request." Therefore, we recite selichot during this same last period of forty days. Moses to the Defense of Israel
When Moses descended Mount Sinai and saw the Golden Calf, he broke the tablets. The sages offer a parable to explain Moses' behavior: Once upon a time there was a queen who left the king and went to another man. The king called for judges to come and sentence her to death for adultery. However, the queen's agent went and tore up the marriage contract and said that now there is no proof that she had committed adultery. Moses behaved in a similar manner, he broke the tablets and said: "Master of the Universe, they did not receive the Law."
In other words, Moses wanted to find some sort of loophole in order to silence the Accusing Angel. In this respect, the Ben Ish Chai comments that the rebellion of Korach and his followers reawakened the Accusing Angel:
It is written (Numbers 16:3-4): "And they were assembled against Moses and against Aaron and said to them, 'You take too much upon yourselves, for the entire congregation is holy, every one of them, and the Lord is among them: Why then do you lift yourselves up above the assembly of the Lord?' And when Moses heard this he fell on his face."
Rashi comments: "You take too much upon yourselves," - i.e., much more than is proper have you taken for yourselves in the way of high office; "For the entire congregation is holy" - they all heard the utterances on Mount Sinai from the mouth of the Almighty; "Why then do you lift yourselves up above the assembly of the Lord?" - If you have taken royal rank for yourselves you should at least not have chosen the priesthood for your brother. It is not you alone who heard at Sinai "I am the Lord your God" - the entire congregation heard it!
The Ben Ish Chai explains that Moses was always quick to come to the defense of the nation of Israel. When they sinned by worshiping the Golden Calf, God said to Moses (Exodus 32:7), "Go down; for your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt, have corrupted themselves," and Moses immediately came to the defense of Israel and said to the Almighty, "Why are you angry at them for practicing idolatry? After all, it was only to me that you said 'I am the Lord your God,' " and God responded "I have forgiven according to your request."
However, when Korach came and said to Moses that everybody heard God say "I am the Lord your God," the Accusing Angel was immediately reawakened, and the charge of idolatry was leveled against them anew. This explains the words of Rashi:
"He fell upon his face" - Because of the dispute, as this was, already, their fourth despicable act. They sinned with the Golden Calf . . . with the Complainers . . . with the Spies . . . but now, at Korach's dispute, his hands were weakened. This may be compared to a prince who sinned against his father. His intimate friend gained forgiveness for him the first, second, and third times. When he offended the fourth time the friend's hands were weakened. He said: "How long can I impose upon the king? Perhaps he will no longer receive me."
From here we again learn just how severe schisms within the Jewish people are and just how irreversible their damage can be. Selichot and the Shofar Blowing
The Sephardi custom is to recite selichot from the first (Rosh Chodesh) of Elul until Yom Kippur, for these are days of divine favor. As we said, it was during this period that Moses stood in prayer until God finally declared, "I have forgiven according to your request."
Ashkenazi Jews, on the other hand, have the custom to recite selichot from the week before Rosh Hashanah. In the words of the Shulchan Arukh and the Rema (581:1):
"It is the custom to rise early to say selichot (forgiveness prayers) and supplicatory prayers from Rosh Chodesh Elul until Yom Kippur. Gloss: This is not the custom of the Ashkenazi community. From Rosh Chodesh onwards they begin blowing [the shofar] after the morning Shacharit prayer. There are localities where they also blow [the shofar] at the evening Ma'ariv [prayer]. They get up early to say selichot on the Sunday before Rosh Hashanah. If Rosh Hashanah falls on Monday or on Tuesday, they begin from the Sunday of the week before."
Sephardi Jews have the custom to blow the shofar while reciting "va-ya'avor" in selichot, and Ashkenazi Jews have the custom to blow throughout the month of Elul in the morning, and there are those who blow in the evening too. The most important thing is to try, when hearing the shofar, to focus on all of the thoughts of repentance embodied in the selichot and to accept upon oneself the Yoke of Heaven with all of one's heart and soul. Reading Scriptural Verses Before the Torah Blessing
Selichot contain scriptural verses and many Talmudic texts. Therefore, before going to the synagogue for selichot one should recite the morning blessings and the blessings of the Torah. Shulchan Arukh writes (Orach Chaim 46:9):
"One should not utter scriptural verses before he has said the blessings over Torah study, even though he says the verses in supplication. On the other hand, there are authorities who say that one need not be concerned that this is improper if one says the verse merely in supplication. It is proper to have regard for the first opinion."
The Rema adds, however, that "the custom is in accordance with the latter opinion, since on the days when the selichot (forgiveness prayers) are prayed, it is customary to pray the selichot with the scriptural verses they contain and then to say the blessings over Torah study only subsequently in the usual arrangement together with the other blessings. Similarly, it is customary to say several scriptural verses and supplicatory prayers every day when one enters the Synagogue, and only subsequently to say the blessings over Torah study.
"It has become customary," the Rema continues, "to arrange the blessings over Torah study immediately after the blessing 'Asher Yatzar' and one should not deviate from this custom.
And Mishnah Berurah comments: "In view of what the Rema writes, that it has become customary nowadays to say the blessings over Torah study immediately after the blessing 'Asher Yatzar' and not to say any scriptural verses beforehand, it is clear that we follow the opinion that one should not say any scriptural verses, even in supplication, before he has said the blessings over Torah study. Consequently, on the days when one prays the selichot one should also act accordingly and say the blessings over Torah study before the selichot and then omit these blessings later when the other blessings are said.
"All this conforms with the basic halachic ruling and accords with what is cited by the Beit Yosef in the name of the Maharil, that this is the custom in Germany. The Rema adds to this in conclusion, however, that it has become customary to arrange , etc.. By this he means that, nowadays, the public is accustomed to be stringent, in accordance with the words of the Tur, and they avoid saying any scriptural verses before they have said the blessings over Torah study."
Translated portions of Shulchan Arukh and Mishnah Berurah in the above article were taken from or based upon Davka's CD-ROM edition of Feldheim's Mishnah Berurah.