The Seder Avodah of Yom Kippur

Rav Goldberg was discussing the tefilos of Yom Kippur with the shul’s chazan, Reb Hershel.

“Probably the least understood part of the Yom Kippur davening is the Seder Avodah recited in the repetition of Musaf,” the rav began. “Although it is one of the most important parts of the Yom Kippur davening, I have seen many shuls race through it at a pace too fast for comprehension.”

“Let me quote you the Me’am Loez,” continued Rav Goldberg, pulling a sefer off the shelf. “He writes, ‘Many people doze off during the recital of the Avodah. They don’t realize that the most important part of Yom Kippur is during the repetition of the Sh’moneh Esrei, when the Seder Avodah is recited.’”

“I didn’t realize it was that important,” admitted Reb Hershel, “but it is very hard to understand.”

“Dozens of piyutim (liturgical pieces) have been written describing the Seder Avodah,” explained Rav Goldberg. “Most shuls that daven Nusach Ashkenaz recite the piyut that begins with the words Amitz Koach, which is indeed a very difficult, poetically-written piyut. The piyut used in Nusach S’fard, Atah Konanta, is much easier to comprehend.”

“So why do we recite Amitz Koach?”

“That is an excellent question that I cannot answer fully. Already in the time of the Gemara, we see that the Seder Avodah was recited, presumably from some type of piyut, although the text they used is long lost. The Geonim and Rishonim refer to many different piyutim that they had in their times. Amitz Koach was authored by Rabbeinu Meshulam ben Klonymos, who is quoted by Rashi with the greatest respect (see Rashi, Bava Metzia 69b s.v. Mafrin; Zevachim 45b s.v. h”g). In the course of time, Minhag Ashkenaz accepted the use of Amitz Koach, presumably out of respect for the author.”

“Why is it so important to recite the Seder Avodah? Is it a Takanas Chachomim?”

“There is no specific takanah requiring the recital of the Seder Avodah. However, reciting it fulfills the concept of ‘U’neshalma parim sefaseinu,’ ‘And let our lips replace the (sacrificial) bulls’ (Hoshea 14:3). The Midrash teaches that when we are unable to offer korbanos, our recital of the Avodah is accepted by Hashem as a replacement for the korbanos (Midrash Rabbah, Shir HaShirim 4:3). This implies that we accomplish kaparah (atonement) by reciting the Seder Avodah with kavanah. Therefore, a person who recites the viduy of the Seder Avodah and truly regrets his sins can accomplish atonement; this would be similar to the viduy recited by the Cohen Gadol.”

THE ATONEMENT OF YOM KIPPUR

Reb Hershel was curious. “What did the viduy of the Cohen Gadol accomplish?”

“Different korbanos offered by the Cohen Gadol atoned for different sins (see Gemara Yoma 61a). However, the greatest atonement was accomplished by the goat sent to Azazel, which atoned for all the sins of the Jewish people (Rambam, Hilchos Teshuvah 1:2; Mishnah Shevuos 2b).”

“Do you mean that a person could achieve atonement, even if he did not do Teshuvah?”

“Although there is such an opinion in the Gemara, the halacha is that Yom Kippur’s kaparah is effective only for those who do Teshuvah (Shevuos 13a). A person who does complete Teshuvah — which means that he regrets his sins, makes a decision that he will never commit this sin again, and recites viduy — is forgiven for his sins.”

“Does this mean that he will never be punished for them?”

“Not always. For very serious sins, including Chilul Hashem (desecrating Hashem’s name), he may still be punished in this world. But someone who completely repented his sins in this world is guaranteed that he will suffer no punishment in the next world (Rambam, Hilchos Teshuvah 1:3-4).”

“At the time of the Beis HaMikdash, did people know when their sins were forgiven?”

“When the Cohen Gadol was a tzadik, part of the Yom Kippur Avodah included a procedure that showed Klal Yisrael whether or not they were forgiven. Let me provide some background. The Beis HaMikdash treasurers purchased two goats at the same time that were identical in height, appearance and value (Mishnah Yoma 62a). One of these goats was a Yom Kippur korban, offered in the Beis HaMikdash, and the other was the Azazel goat.”

CHOOSING THE GOAT FOR AZAZEL

“The Cohen Gadol drew lots to determine which goat would be the korban for Hashem and which would be the Azazel. This was an elaborate procedure. The Cohen Gadol stood in the courtyard of the Beis HaMikdash, near the courtyard’s entrance, facing the two goats, one opposite his right hand, and the other opposite his left. The S’gan, the Associate Cohen Gadol, stood on the Cohen Gadol’s right, and the Rosh Beis Av, the head of the family unit of Cohanim on duty that week, stood on the Cohen Gadol’s left.

“The Cohen Gadol thrust his hands into a small wooden box containing two gold lots, one marked ‘for Hashem’ and the other ‘for Azazel,’ and removed the lots, one in each hand. He then raised his hands, exposing the lots to the S’gan and Rosh Beis Av. If the lot saying ‘for Hashem’ was in his right hand, the S’gan announced, ‘Master Cohen Gadol, raise your right hand.’ If it was in his left hand, the Rosh Beis Av announced, ‘Master Cohen Gadol, raise your left hand.’

“The Cohen Gadol then placed each lot on the head of the goat nearest that hand, and decreed, ‘For Hashem, a Chatos offering.’ The Cohen Gadol used the Ineffable Name of Hashem in this declaration, and everyone assembled responded by shouting ‘Baruch Shem K’vod Malchuso L’Olam Vo’ed’ (Mishnah Yoma 37a and 39a).”

THE RED THREAD

“The Cohen Gadol then tied a red thread to the horn of the Azazel goat, and another red thread around the neck of the Chatos goat (Mishnah Yoma 41b). Much later in the

procedure, the Cohen Gadol rested his hands and full weight on the head of the Azazel goat, and recited aloud a viduy on behalf of the entire Jewish people. He concluded his viduy by stating, ‘Because on this day He will atone and purify you from all your sins. Before Hashem shall you become pure (Vayikra 16:30),’ once again using the Ineffable Name of Hashem. When the assembled people heard the Name uttered in purity and holiness by the Cohen Gadol, they all bowed and prostrated themselves, until their faces were pressed to the ground. They then recited again, ‘Baruch Shem K’vod Malchuso L’Olam Vo’ed’ (Mishnah Yoma 66a).

“At one point in the procedure, the red thread tied to the Azazel goat was removed, torn in half, and one part tied again onto the Azazel goat’s horns. At the exact moment that the Jews were forgiven, both halves of the thread turned white” (Yoma 67a).

“You mentioned that the red thread was torn in half,” Hershel asked. “What happened to the other half?”

“This depends on the period of Jewish history. When the Cohen Gadol was a great tzadik, the Jews were forgiven on Yom Kippur, and the red thread turned white. During those years, the thread was left displayed in a prominent place in the Beis HaMikdash for everyone to see the miracle. However, in the later years of the Second Beis HaMikdash, when the Cohanim Gedolim were often not suitable for the position, the thread did not turn white. To save themselves embarrassment, the thread was placed where it would not be seen (Yoma 67a).

“How frequently did the thread turn white?”

“Apparently, during the period of the Bayis Rishon and the early period of the Bayis Sheni, the thread always turned white. In this period, the position of Cohen Gadol was awarded on the basis of merit. However, after the Cohanim Gedolim in the Bayis Sheni began purchasing the position, often, the thread did not turn white.”

THE COHANIM GEDOLIM OF THE SECOND BEIS HAMIKDASH

“You mentioned that there was a vast difference between the Cohanim Gedolim of the First Beis HaMikdash and those of the Second. Could you explain this more fully?”

“Yes, gladly. The Cohanim Gedolim of the First Beis HaMikdash were all great tzadikim who were worthy of their exalted position. Most of them had a long tenure as Cohen Gadol. In contrast, most of the Cohanim Gedolim of the Second Beis HaMikdash bribed the government for the position. Because they lacked the kedusha the position required, they died within a year of securing the appointment (Yoma 8b; 9a).”

“And yet they were eager to bribe the government for the job?”

“People do very strange things for kavod. As Chazal teach us, it is one of the three things that remove a person from this world.”

MUST BE DONE BY THE COHEN GADOL

Reb Hershel had many other questions. “What part of the Avodah of Yom Kippur was the Cohen Gadol obligated to perform himself?”

“Certain procedures took place in the Beis HaMikdash every day, such as clearing the two mizbeichos (altars); bringing the daily offerings (Korban Tamid); burning k’tores (incense) twice a day; and cleaning, setting up and lighting the Menorah. In addition, on Shabbos and Yom Tov, there were special korbanos called Korban Musaf, the origins of our Musaf prayers. The Torah mentions these korbanos in Parshas Pinchas. All these could be performed by any cohen.

“On Yom Kippur, in addition to the daily and Musaf korbanos, there was a special procedure unique to Yom Kippur, which is called the Seder Avodah, or the Seder Avodas Yom Kippur. This Avodah, involving the offering of several special korbanos and a unique offering of incense, is described in Parshas Acharei, the Keri’as HaTorah for Yom Kippur morning, and in great length in Mesechta Yoma. For this Avodah, the Cohen Gadol wore special white garments that were worn no other time. Although it was preferred that the Cohen Gadol perform everything in the Beis HaMikdash on Yom Kippur himself, the only part absolutely mandatory for him to perform was the special Yom Kippur Avodah.”

WERE LOTS USED ON YOM KIPPUR?

“I am confused,” admitted Hershel. “The Piyutim of Seder Avodah mention a lottery to determine which cohanim will bring korbanos on Yom Kippur. But why such a procedure, if the Cohen Gadol was doing everything anyway?”

“A lottery system was used each day to determine which cohanim would perform the different tasks in the Beis HaMikdash. Most poskim contend that the Cohen Gadol performed ALL the service in the Beis HaMikdash by himself on Yom Kippur (even though he was only required to perform the special Yom Kippur Avodah). In their opinion, there was no lottery on Yom Kippur to determine who performed any tasks. Other poskim contend that although the Cohen Gadol was to perform all the tasks in the Beis HaMikdash himself, if he was unable to perform the entire Avodah himself, other cohanim could do some parts of it, in his place. When this happened, the lottery system would determine which cohen was appointed to perform the avodah.”

CHANGING CLOTHES

“It is interesting to note,” continued the Rav, “that to perform every part of the special Seder Avodah of Yom Kippur, the Cohen Gadol was required to wear his special Yom Kippur vestments (described in Parshas Acharei). However, for every part of the service that was not part of the Yom Kippur Avodah, he wore the eight vestments described in Parshas Te’tzaveh. Thus, the Cohen Gadol changed his clothes five times during Yom Kippur. According to a special commandment received by Moshe Rabbeinu (Halacha l’Moshe mi’Sinai), he immersed himself in a mikveh each time he changed his clothes and also performed a special procedure involving washing his hands and feet twice each time.”

“I understand that when the Cohen Gadol entered the Kodesh HaKodoshim (The Holy of Holies), no one was allowed to be inside the entire Beis HaMikdash building, even the Kodesh (Vayikra 16:17),” interjected Hershel.

“Not only were no humans allowed in, even angels could not enter (Yerushalmi Yoma 1:5, cited by Tosafos Yeshanim, Yoma 19b).”

THE COHEN GADOL SWEARING

“I remember learning that the Cohen Gadol had to swear an oath before Yom Kippur,” queried Hershel. “Why was that?”

“The first time the Cohen Gadol entered the Kodesh HaKodoshim, he did so with a ladle of specially refined k’tores (incense) and a censer, a type of coal pan for burning incense. According to Halacha L’Moshe M’Sinai, he had to enter the Kodesh HaKodoshim first and then burn the k’tores inside. However, the Tzedukim, who did not accept Torah she’be’al peh, believed that he should kindle the k’tores first and then enter the Kodesh HaKodoshim. In the period of the Second Beis HaMikdash, when the position of Cohen Gadol was often purchased, there was concern that the Cohen Gadol might be a clandestine Tzeduki. Since no one could enter the Beis HaMikdash building while the k’tores was offered, there was no way of knowing what the Cohen Gadol actually did while inside. Therefore, he was required to swear before Yom Kippur that he would perform the service as instructed by the Gedolei Yisrael.”

“Were there any recorded instances of a Cohen Gadol who was a Tzeduki?”

“The Gemara records two such instances. In one case, the Cohen Gadol proudly told his father, who was also a Tzeduki, that he had offered the k’tores according to their practices. The Gemara records that this Cohen Gadol soon died a very ignominious death.”

“What happened in the other instance?”

“The Gemara records that the cohanim heard a loud sound in the Beis HaMikdash. They raced in to find the Cohen Gadol dead, with obvious signs that he had been killed by an angel (Yoma 19b).”

“But I thought even angels could not enter the Beis HaMikdash while the Cohen Gadol offered the k’tores?”

“This is an excellent question, and it is asked by the Gemara Yerushalmi. The Gemara answers that since the Cohen Gadol had performed the service incorrectly, the angels were permitted to enter.”

MULTIPLE ENTRIES INTO THE KODESH HAKODOSHIM

“How many times did the Cohen Gadol enter the Kodesh HaKodoshim on Yom Kippur?” asked Hershel.

“Most people don’t realize that the Cohen Gadol entered the Kodesh HaKodoshim four times on Yom Kippur. The first time was with the special Yom Kippur k’tores, the second time to begin the kaparah of his special Yom Kippur bull offering, and the third time to attend to the kaparah of the goat offering. During each of these last two visits he sprinkled eight times. These sprinklings have a significant place in the piyutim. These are the places when the chazan, followed by the congregation, shouts out, ‘Achas, achas v’achas, achas u’shtayim,’ until ‘achas va’sheva’ to commemorate this part of the Avodah.”

“You said that the Cohen Gadol entered the Kodesh HaKodoshim four times, but we mentioned only three.”

“Much later in the day, the Cohen Gadol changed into a different set of special Yom Kippur white garments and entered the Kodesh HaKodoshim to pick up the censer and the ladle that he had brought in earlier. This was a required part of the Yom Kippur service.”

“I reviewed the description of the Avodah mentioned in Parshas Acharei,” continued Hershel. “I notice that the Torah does not mention Yom Kippur until the twenty-ninth pasuk of the discussion. Why is this?”

“Although Aaron and the later Cohanim Gedolim never entered the Kodesh HaKodoshim, except on Yom Kippur, the Midrash says that Aaron was permitted to enter it at other times, provided he followed the procedure described in Parshas Acharei. On Yom Kippur, he was obligated to offer these korbanos and enter the Kodesh HaKodoshim. Thus, the beginning of the reading explains how Aaron could enter the Kodesh HaKodoshim, whereas the end teaches that this procedure must be performed on Yom Kippur.” (Note that Rashi, in his commentary on these verses in Chumash, seems to have a different approach to this question.)

“Is it true that a rope was tied around the Cohen Gadol’s waist before he entered, so that they could pull him out if he died?”

“In actuality, the source, which is a quotation in the Zohar, mentions that a rope was tied around his foot,” responded Rav Goldberg.

“Thanks a lot for all your time,” Reb Hershel concluded.  “I now understand the importance of reciting the Seder Avodah carefully, and why some people study the mishnayos of Meseches Yoma before Yom Kippur.”

“You are absolutely correct. Indeed, the Mateh Efrayim maintains that one’s main learning during the entire month of Elul should be devoted to understanding the Seder Avodah properly. So, don’t forget to study the mishnayos and gemaros we’ve just been discussing.”

 

What Is the Bracha Magen Avos and Should We Recite It on Yom Kippur?

Question #1: Where?

Where is the bracha of Magen Avos first mentioned?

Question #2: What?

What is the bracha Mei’ein Sheva?

Question #3: When?

On what occasions do we omit reciting the bracha Mei’ein Sheva?

Answer:

What is the Bracha Mei’ein Sheva?

The bracha Mei’ein Sheva is recited by the chazzan after we conclude the Friday night Shemoneh Esrei, immediately after the congregation recites together the pesukim of Vayechulu. (Although the term Shemoneh Esrei is technically an inaccurate description of the Shabbos davening since it has only seven, and not eighteen, brachos, I will refer to it as Shemoneh Esrei, since that is what it is usually called.) This bracha is called Mei’ein Sheva, literally, an abbreviation of the seven brachos, because it is a synopsis of the seven brachos that comprise the Shabbos tefillah. Some people refer to the bracha as Magen Avos; since this phrase appears at its beginning, it is a common colloquial way of referring to this bracha.

Why did Chazal institute the Bracha Mei’ein Sheva?

In ancient times, the shullen were often located outside the towns in which people lived, and walking home from shul alone at night was dangerous. Chazal therefore instituted this bracha after Shemoneh Esrei, thereby delaying the end of davening so that someone who arrived late would be able to complete his davening and return with everyone else and not be left to walk home alone (Rashi, Shabbos 24b; Mordechai, Shabbos #407; Ran; Meiri).

According to an alternative approach, the bracha Mei’ein Sheva is a form of repetition of the prayer. The individual who arrived late could listen to the chazzan’s recital of this bracha and thereby fulfill his responsibility, even though the chazzan recited only one bracha and the regular Shabbos tefillah is seven (Rav Natrunai Gaon, as explained by Gra, Orach Chayim 269:13).

Although our shullen are no longer located outside the cities, once Chazal established the recital of bracha Mei’ein Sheva, we continue with this practice. Even in the time of the Gemara, it was practiced in places where the shullen were located inside the cities, notwithstanding that there was no danger to walk home from shul alone (Meiri, Pesachim 100b; Ran [on Rif, Pesachim 20a]; Or Zarua, Hilchos Erev Shabbos #20; Kolbo #11, 35).

Mei’ein Sheva instead of Kiddush

Yet another reason is presented why Chazal introduced Mei’ein Sheva. In ancient times, there were occasions when it was difficult to obtain wine for Kiddush Friday night, and Mei’ein Sheva was instituted as a substitute for reciting Kiddush (Yerushalmi, Brachos 8:1 and Pesachim 10:2. This passage of Talmud Yerushalmi is quoted by Tosafos, Pesachim 106b s.v. Mekadeish).

Why do we not recite Mei’ein Sheva on weekdays?

If the reason for reciting Mei’ein Sheva was out of concern that someone delayed might be placed in danger because he would need to return home by himself, why did Chazal not introduce a similar prayer after weeknight maariv, in order to make sure that this delayed individual would not be placed in danger?

The Rishonim raise this question, explaining that in the era when Mei’ein Sheva was established, someone who realized that he was delayed would not have gone outside the city to the shul on a weekday, but would have come home directly and davened at home. On Shabbos and Yom Tov, however, he would not have wanted to miss the davening in shul.

Do we recite Mei’ein Sheva on Yom Tov?

The Gemara rules that the prayer Mei’ein Sheva was instituted only on Friday evening, and not on Yom Tov evenings that did not fall on Fridays (Shabbos 24b). Why was Mei’ein Sheva not said on Yom Tov? Was there no concern of someone arriving late to shul on Yom Tov eve?

In the writings of the Rishonim, I found several answers to this question. One approach is that, although the concern that someone may be left behind may have equally existed on Yom Tov, since the more common situation was on Shabbos, Chazal did not include Yom Tov in the takkanah (see Meiri, Shabbos 24b).

Another approach is that, on Yom Tov eve, people were careful to arrive on time for davening, and there was no concern about individuals arriving late for shul and remaining alone (Mordechai, Pesachim #611).

Yet a third approach is that there are kabbalistic reasons why this danger was a concern only on Shabbos, even when it falls on Yom Tov, but not on a weekday Yom Tov (Kolbo #35).

Based on a statement of the Talmud Yerushalmi that the reason for Mei’ein Sheva was not because of the dangers of walking home alone, but because wine was not always available, some later commentaries present yet a fourth reason why the takkanah was established only for Shabbos and not for Yom Tov. Since most authorities hold that Kiddush on Yom Tov is not required min haTorah (Maggid Mishnah, Hilchos Shabbos 29:18), Chazal did not create a takkanah whose only reason would be to make sure that one fulfills a mitzvah that is miderabbanan (Marei Kohen, Pesachim 117b).

Reciting Mei’ein Sheva when Yom Tov falls on Friday

Do we recite the bracha Mei’ein Sheva when Yom Tov falls on Friday? The reason for reciting Mei’ein Sheva on a regular Shabbos was because people would work late on Friday afternoon, and therefore arrive late to shul Friday evening. However, when Friday was Yom Tov, there would be no reason for someone to be delayed. Nevertheless, the poskim rule that we should recite Mei’ein Sheva even when Yom Tov falls on Friday, notwithstanding the fact that the reason for the takkanah does not apply (Kolbo #52).

Thirteenth century zeal

Actually, the question regarding recital of Mei’ein Sheva when Yom Tov falls on Friday resulted in a very heated dispute during the era of the Rishonim. In the time of the Rivash, Rabbi Amram ben Meroam, a frequent correspondent of the Rivash, sent him the following shaylah:

Reuven was the chazzan for the Friday night davening on a Shabbos that immediately followed Yom Tov. He began reciting Mei’ein Sheva, when Shimon reprimanded him, contending that one should not recite this bracha when Shabbos follows Yom Tov; since no one was working on Friday, the reason for the takkanah did not apply. Levi then got involved, saying that it is accepted that one does recite Mei’ein Sheva on Friday night following a Yom Tov. The shul then burst into a cacophony of voices, with Shimon’s and Reuven’s backers screaming at one another. Finally, Shimon shouted that Reuven was desecrating Hashem’s holy Name since he was willing to recite a bracha in vain, and that if he did, Shimon would declare him to be in cherem, excommunicated! Reuven did recite the bracha Mei’ein Sheva and a day later opened his door to find Shimon and twenty of his backers there to notify him that he had been excommunicated! The Rivash was asked to rule on whether Reuven was indeed in cherem because of Shimon’s declaration that he had recited a bracha in vain, or, perhaps, Shimon should be placed in cherem for excommunicating someone without proper cause.

The Rivash ruled that Shimon was mistaken and that one should recite Mei’ein Sheva when Shabbos follows Yom Tov. Therefore, he concluded that Reuven, who followed the correct halachah, could completely ignore the cherem placed on him. However, he also concluded that since Shimon thought he was acting correctly, it is inappropriate to excommunicate him for his actions (Shu’t HaRivash #34).

Yom Tov falls on Shabbos

When Yom Tov falls on Shabbos, do we mention Yom Tov in the bracha Mei’ein Sheva?

The Gemara rules that when Yom Tov falls on Shabbos, the chazzan makes no mention of Yom Tov since on Yom Tov we do not recite this bracha (Shabbos 24b).

Reciting Mei’ein Sheva on Shabbos Yom Kippur

Do we recite Mei’ein Sheva when Shabbos falls on Yom Kippur? Logically, there is a strong reason that we should not, since no one arrives that late to shul on Kol Nidrei night. Furthermore, the many piyutim recited allow ample time for someone to finish davening and not be left behind. Nevertheless, the poskim rule that we recite Mei’ein Sheva when Yom Kippur falls on Shabbos (Kolbo #70).

Conclusion

The entire law of the bracha Magen Avos teaches a lesson of paramount importance in the powers of our traditions and the respect we show Chazal. The establishment of this bracha takes us back to a period of time thousands of years ago, and a set of circumstances when shullen were all located outside a town’s boundaries. Yet, we continue to observe this mitzvah every Friday night, notwithstanding the fact that the reason for its establishment no longer exists and especially in a world where change has become a constant phenomenon, and opinions become obsolete almost more quickly than they come into style. Chazal’s wisdom is timeless and eternal, giving the Jewish people a stability that the nations, as a whole, and every individual crave.  One way of fulfilling our mission to be “a light unto the nations” is through following the words of Chazal, knowing that they are relevant in all times and all places.

Who Knows Thirteen?

Question #1: Sneak Preview

My grandmother told me how she remembers that the first night of selichos people used to go from shul to shul sampling the davening of each of the chazzanim, and deciding which shul they would attend for Rosh Hashanah. Is there any halachic basis for having the chazzan daven also the first night of selichos?

Question #2: Bemotza’ei Menucha – At the end of Shabbos

Why do Ashkenazim begin reciting Selichos on Motza’ei Shabbos or Sunday morning?

Question #3: More or Less?

Levi asks me: “Because of my work schedule, on most days I do not have a lot of time in which to recite selichos. Is it better to recite just a small amount of the selichos in the time that I have, or to race through as much as I can say?”

Answer:

What is the source for the practice of reciting selichos? Does it have the halachic status of a custom or something that Chazal instituted? In this article, we will address these basic questions.

To begin, let us note that our structured prayers can be classified into three categories:

I. Daily Davening

Our daily tefillos, through which we fulfill our mitzvah to serve Hashem every day, as the Rambam writes: It is a positive mitzvah to pray every day, which fulfills what the Torah states “and you shall serve Hashem your G-d.” The oral mesorah teaches that the service referred to here means prayer (Hilchos Tefillah 1:1).

II. Fasts and Emergencies

Tefillos that we say on fast days and other times of difficulty. These fulfill a different Torah mitzvah, and again I quote the Rambam: There is a positive mitzvah of the Torah to cry out and blow trumpets on every travail that befalls the community (Hilchos Taanis 1:1). One day, I hope to write an article on the topic of trumpets, and why we do not blow them today. The selichos we recite following the repetition of shemoneh esrei (or according to some old minhagim, during the repetition of shemoneh esrei) on most of our fast days, including the Tenth of Teves, Taanis Esther, the Seventeenth of Tamuz, and Behab after Sukkos and Pesach, are all reflective of this mitzvah.

III. Selichos

Even though teshuvah and prayer are always good, during the ten days that are from Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur they are exceptionally good and they are immediately accepted (Rambam, Hilchos Teshuvah 2:6). The selichos that I am discussing in this article are the special prayers for teshuvah and forgiveness with which we supplicate during Elul and the Aseres Yemei Teshuvah.

Structure of Selichos

Although there are numerous variant customs, most of Klal Yisrael structures selichos in the following way: We begin with ashrei, followed by a half-kaddish, then recite many introductory verses of Tanach, which in turn lead into some small prayers that culminate with a paragraph that begins with the words Keil Erech Apayim. Keil Erech Apayim directly introduces the focal point of the selichos – the recitation of the thirteen attributes of Hashem’s kindness. After the Jewish people sinned when we worshipped the Eigel Hazahav, the Golden Calf, Hashem taught Moshe to use these thirteen attributes of His kindness to achieve absolution for the Jewish people.

We then read a few verses that refer to Hashem pardoning our iniquities, followed by several poetic supplications, each of which leads into another recital of the thirteen attributes. This is followed by some closing prayers which include the viduy (confession) and tachanun (a prayer customarily said while sitting in a bowed position), all of this closing with the chazzan reciting full kaddish. In all Ashkenazic customs with which I am familiar, there are numerous different poetic supplications, variously called selichos, akeidos, pizmonim, etc., and each day we recite a different series of these prayers. The purpose of these prayers is to introduce and set the mood for the recital of the thirteen attributes.

If we stop to realize, we will notice that our selichos prayer is structurally similar to our daily mincha prayer (without the aleinu and mourner’s kaddish at mincha’s end). However, the most noticeable difference between mincha and selichos is that the shemoneh esrei recited as the primary part of mincha is replaced in selichos by the repeated recital of the thirteen attributes of Hashem’s mercy and the numerous prayers that introduce those recitals.

The Thirteen Midos

Why is the recital of the thirteen midos of Hashem’s mercy so important? Let me quote the Talmudic passage that is the basis for our recital of selichos.

Rabbi Yochanan said: ‘Were it not for the fact that the Torah itself wrote this, it would be impossible to say this. The Torah teaches that Hashem wrapped Himself in a talis like a chazzan and demonstrated to Moshe the order of prayer. Hashem told Moshe: “Whenever the Jews sin, they should perform this order and I will forgive them“‘ (Rosh Hashanah 17b).

Rabbi Yochanan noted that the anthropomorphism of his own statement is rather shocking, and without scriptural proof we would refrain from saying it. Nevertheless, the Torah compelled us to say that Hashem revealed to Moshe a means whereby we can be pardoned for our iniquities. According to the Maharal, Moshe asked Hashem to elucidate, to the extent that a human can comprehend, how Hashem deals with the world in mercy. Hashem did indeed enlighten Moshe, and this enabled him to implore that the Jewish people be forgiven, and taught him how to lead the Jews in their prayers (Chiddushei Agados, Rosh Hashanah 17b s.v. Melameid).

Source for Selichos

This, then, is the basis for selichos. Indeed, it is not a takanah, but a custom; yet who would not avail himself of the opportunity to prepare for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur! To quote the Leket Yosher: Someone who goes to daven on the High Holidays and did not say selichos in preparation can be compared to an individual who desires to approach the king with an urgent request, and manages to acquire the key to the king’s inner sanctum, but fails to arrange how he will enter the outer office. All his efforts are therefore completely in vain, because he failed to prepare himself adequately. This can be compared to someone moving to an unsettled area who installs a modern kitchen, expecting to be able to turn on the tap and produce water when there are no connecting water pipes!

More or Less

Since we understand how important it is to say selichos with feeling, it is obvious that one with limited time to recite selichos, should say a smaller amount and understand what he is saying rather than rush through what he says (see Tur Orach Chayim Chapter 1).

Praying Truthfully

We should bear in mind that many of the selichos state that we are arising while it is still dark and similar expressions, all of which reflects the custom of earlier generations of reciting selichos either at halachic midnight (chatzos) or very early in the morning well before sunrise. Someone reciting selichos anytime after sunrise should be careful to modify these passages so that he is not pleading a lie before Hashem (Aruch Hashulchan).

Who Should be the Chazzan?

The above-quoted Leket Yosher concludes: It is therefore logical that the individual leading the selichos should be someone who will lead the services on Yomim Nora’im. In other words, since selichos are the introduction to our Yomim Nora’im supplications, the same chazzan that the community desires to plead on its behalf on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur should be called upon to lead their selichos entreaties.

By the way, other authorities mention another reason why the chazzan who will be leading services on Yomim Nora’im should also be chazzan for selichos, particularly if the chazzan is paid for his services. The halacha forbids paying someone for performing work on Shabbos or Yom Tov, even if it is work that is otherwise permitted, such as babysitting, being a kashrus mashgiach or a chazzan. This forbidden payment for Shabbos work is called schar Shabbos, literally, Shabbos wages. So how do I find a babysitter for Shabbos when I need to attend a simcha, if I cannot pay him or her?

The way to avoid the prohibition of schar Shabbos is to hire someone for an entire job that also includes weekday work, without calculating how much is being paid for Shabbos or Yom Tov. Making the payment into one big package is called havlaah (literally, “absorbed”) and is permitted provided no computation is made for specific Shabbos or Yom Tov work, and the wages are not paid on a calculated hourly basis (since this also means that one is paying for the hours worked on Shabbos or Yom Tov).

Now we have a curious problem. It is a practice of at least a thousand years to hire chazzanim. How does one pay a chazzan to perform his job on Shabbos and Yom Tov, when there is a prohibition of schar Shabbos if one pays him for Shabbos work? The answer is that one also hires the chazzan to perform some weekday activity, such as giving bar mitzvah lessons, teaching in the congregation Hebrew school, or running the shul’s youth activities.

None of these solutions resolve the schar Shabbos concern regarding a chazzan who is hired to daven only on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. To avoid the schar Shabbos problem, the custom developed for the chazzan to lead one of the selichos, and thereby he is paid a “package deal” remuneration that includes some weekday work (Elef Hamagein 585:24; Shemiras Shabbos Kehilchasah 28 note 145).

What if the chazzan is traveling from a distance for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and it is not worthwhile to pay his transportation for a third trip for selichos? In this instance, there is a simple solution to the schar Shabbos predicament, since the chazzan is also being paid for his travel time, and this itself becomes the havlaah.

Note that a halachic difference results between the two approaches I have presented why the chazzan also leads selichos. According to the Leket Yosher’s approach, the chazzan should preferably daven every one of the selichos days, whereas according to the schar Shabbos reason, it is adequate if he davens any one of the selichos days. According to both approaches I have mentioned, there is no particular reason why a chazzan should daven specifically the first night of selichos.

Why begin Motza’ei Shabbos?

Indeed, why do Ashkenazim begin selichos on Motza’ei Shabbos?

We always begin reciting selichos on Sunday because it is close to Shabbos, and everyone learns Torah on Shabbos since he does not deal with his financial matters and therefore has time to learn Torah… and since people are happy and joyous because of the mitzvah of learning Torah that they were able to do on Shabbos, and also because of the Shabbos pleasures that they celebrated, and we say that the shechinah rests when one is happy because of performing a mitzvah, therefore it is good to pray then (Leket Yosher).

Others explain the reason we begin selichos on Motza’ei Shabbos is because the beginning of the week represents the beginning of creation, and we are performing teshuvah for man who is the goal of all creation (Aruch Hashulchan, Orach Chayim 581:3).

At least Four

Ashkenazic custom is that, when Rosh Hashanah begins on Monday or Tuesday, we begin selichos the week before, to make sure that we recite selichos for at least four days before Rosh Hashanah. One reason mentioned for this practice is because, originally, people fasted on the days of selichos, and they wanted to fast a total of ten days. Since there are four days during the Aseres Yemei Teshuvah that one may not fast – Shabbos, the two days of Rosh Hashanah and Erev Yom Kippur – we recite selichos for at least four days before Rosh Hashanah (Aruch Hashulchan, Orach Chayim 581:3).

A Word about Attributes

We mentioned above that the main “prayer” of the selichos is mentioning the thirteen merciful attributes of Hashem. What exactly are the thirteen attributes? For that matter, can we attribute personality characteristics to Hashem?

Humans are not capable of understanding who Hashem is. The Torah requires that we understand that Hashem does not have moods (Rambam, Hilchos Yesodei HaTorah 1:11). When we describe Hashem’s different attributes, we are explaining Hashem in a way that we as human beings will be able to comprehend Him, since we cannot comprehend Him in any other way (Rambam, Hilchos Yesodei HaTorah 1:9). Thus, providing thirteen different attributes of Hashem’s mercy is simply a human way for us to appreciate more specifically and in a greater way what Hashem does and has done for us, and what is our responsibility to fulfill the mitzvah of being like Hashem, which I will explain shortly.

To quote Rabbeinu Bachyei: Although we no longer know how to beseech nor do we properly understand the power of the thirteen attributes and how they connect to Hashem’s mercy, we still know that the attributes of mercy plead on our behalf, since this is what Hashem promised. Today when we are without a kohein gadol to atone for our sins and without a mizbei’ach on which to offer korbanos and no Beis Hamikdash in which to pray, we have left only our prayers and these thirteen attributes (Kad Hakemach, Kippurim 2).

Who Knows Thirteen?

To quote the Haggadah, I know thirteen! Thirteen are the attributes.

What are the thirteen midos?

The Torah says: Hashem, Hashem, who is a merciful and gracious G-d, slow to anger, and abundant in kindness and truth. He preserves kindness for thousands of generations by forgiving sins whether they are intentional, rebellious or negligent; and He exonerates (Shemos 34:6-7).

There are many opinions among the halachic authorities exactly how to calculate the thirteen merciful attributes of Hashem. The most commonly quoted approach is that of Rabbeinu Tam, who includes each of the names of Hashem at the beginning of the verse as a separate attribute.

What do I do?

At this point, I want to return to the above-quoted Talmudic source of the selichos, and note a curious and very important point.

Hashem told Moshe: “Whenever the Jews sin, they should perform this order and I will forgive them.” The Hebrew word that I have translated as should perform this order is yaasu, which means that the Jews must do something, definitely more than just reading the words. If all that is required is to read these words, the Gemara should have said simply: They should read these words. Obviously, action, which always speaks louder than words, is required to fulfill these instructions and accomplish automatic atonement.

What did the Gemara mean?

Emulate Hashem

To answer this question, we need to realize that one of the most important of the 613 mitzvos is the commandment to emulate Hashem. To quote the Gemara: Just as Hashem is gracious and merciful, so you should become gracious and merciful (Shabbos 133b). When Hashem told Moshe: Whenever the Jews perform this order, I will forgive them He meant that when we act towards one another with the same qualities of rachamim that Hashem does, He forgives us. Reciting the thirteen attributes of Hashem’s mercy is the first step towards making ourselves merciful people who emulate Hashem’s ways. Yaasu means learning to internalize these attributes by doing them, and thereby making ourselves G-dly people. “Doing” the thirteen attributes means not only understanding the absolutely incredible amount of tolerance that Hashem manifests, but also includes realizing how accepting we must be of people who annoy and harm us!

This sounds great in theory. What does it mean in practice?

Here are several examples, all taken from the sefer Tomer Devorah, to help us comprehend what our job is:

1. Whenever someone does something wrong, Hashem is always at that very moment providing all the needs of the offender. This is a tremendous amount of forbearance that Hashem demonstrates. Our mitzvah is to train ourselves to be this accepting of those who annoy and wrong us.

2. We should appreciate the extent to which Hashem considers the Jews to be His people, and identify with the needs of each Jew on a corresponding level.

3. Hashem waits with infinite patience for the sinner to do teshuvah, always being confident in this person’s ability to repent and change, and continues to provide the sinner with all his needs. Similarly, we should not stand on ceremony to wait for someone who wronged us to apologize.

4. Hashem emphasizes the kindnesses that a person does, and continues to shower the person with good, while in the interim overlooking the sins a person has performed. Similarly, when I know that someone wronged me, but at the same time I have received chesed from him or her, I should ignore that they wronged me – after all they also have helped me. The Tomer Devorah emphasizes specifically the chesed that one receives from one’s spouse, which should, without question, supplant any criticisms one has of him or her.

5. When a person does teshuva after sinning, Hashem loves him more than He loved him before he sinned. As the Gemara states: In a place where baalei teshuvah stand, full tzadikim are unable to stand. The parallel responsibility incumbent on a person to someone who wronged him is that when he sees that the person wants to makes amends, he should befriend and accept him at a greater level than he had previously.

Conclusion:

We see that the recital of the thirteen attributes serves not only to teach how we should appreciate all that Hashem does for us but also as a model to teach how we should constantly treat our fellowman.