You’re going to have to clue me in on this one, Rabbi. I’ve been reading up on Selichot (penitential prayers), and the schedule seems so strange to me. First of all, why are there different possibilities of when to begin? There are some years, like when Rosh Hashanah is on Thursday or Shabbat, when we say Selichot from the Saturday night before Rosh Hashanah. Other years, when Rosh Hashanah is on Monday or Tuesday, we start on the Saturday night about a week and a half before Rosh Hashanah. Why must it start on a Saturday night in the first place? Lastly, why is the first Selichot held in the middle of the night, and the later ones are in the early morning before services?

Oh, and just to top it all off, why do Sephardim start way back on the first of Elul?


Let’s break your question up into a number of bite-sized pieces.

You’ll note that we make sure to say Selichot for a minimum of four days. Why?

The ten days from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur are known as the Ten Days of Repentance. Many used to have the custom to fast during this period. However, there are four out of these ten days when it is forbidden to fast: the two days of Rosh Hashanah, Shabbat, and the eve of Yom Kippur. To make up these four fasts, they would fast and recite Selichot for four days before Rosh Hashanah. Nowadays, although most people don’t fast, we still recite Selichot on those days.1

On a more mystical level, we are offering ourselves to G‑d on Rosh Hashanah. When the Torah tells us to bring an olah sacrifice in the Holy Temple on Rosh Hashanah, the verse says, “You shall make an olah,”2 a departure from the more common term “you shall offer.” This can be read to mean that on Rosh Hashanah, we need to make ourselves into an olah offering.3 Now, I am not suggesting that anyone set himself on fire. However, we can apply some aspects of the Temple sacrifice to our personal Rosh Hashanah service: Just as every offering brought to the Temple was inspected for blemishes for four days before it was offered, as we say Selichot (at least) for four days before Rosh Hashanah we inspect ourselves for any spiritual blemishes we may have gotten during the past year.4

Why start on Saturday night/Sunday morning?

Sunday is the first day of creation, an appropriate time to begin our preparation for Rosh Hashanah, which celebrates the creation of man, the culmination of the process of creation.5 (The 25th of Elul, the anniversary of day one of creation, was not selected as the Selichot start, since it would be delayed in the event that it coincided with Shabbat, and a fixed start is preferable.)6

Additionally, our sages say that the divine presence rests only on one who rejoices. Therefore, we commence our Rosh Hashanah preparatory prayers after Shabbat, a day of delight and rejoicing.7 This is reflected in the “Be-Motzaei Menuchah (At the End of the Day of Rest)” prayer we say that night.8

Why is the first Selichot service at midnight, and the others at daybreak?

Well, ideally, we’d want to say the first Selichot right after Shabbat, when our joy is still fresh. However, the Zohar explains that the time from “halachic midday” until “halachic midnight” (both referred to as chatzot) is a time of judgment, and the time from halachic midnight to halachic midday is a time of mercy.9 Accordingly, the Arizal cautioned that one shouldn’t recite Selichot prior to halachic midnight.10 Additionally, the holiness of Shabbat continues until chatzot Saturday night, so one does not recite vidui (confession of sin) during that time.11 Therefore, we wait until after chatzot of Saturday night to recite Selichot.

Regarding the subsequent days, Rabbi Yaakov ben Moshe Moelin (known as the Maharil) explains, based on the Talmud,12 that in the last third of the night G‑d especially focuses on the needs of his creations, and it is therefore an auspicious time for Selichot.13

Regarding Sephardim

You may notice that Sephardim say Selichot during the 40 days between the first of Elul and Yom Kippur.14 These are the same 40 days when Moses was up on Mount Sinai getting the second set of tablets,15 which culminated with G‑d fully forgiving His people on Yom Kippur.16