The daily recitation of Selichos starting at the beginning of the month of Elul for Sephardim and a few days before Rosh HaShanah for Ashkenazim, and continuing through Yom Kippur, is one of the features of the Yamim Noraim season. Interestingly, the Talmud itself makes no mention of this practice, but the Rambam does cite it (Hilchos Teshuvah 3:4), referring to it as a custom and indicating that the time that people get together in Shul to recite these special prayers is during the (latter part) of the night, before daybreak. And while the Rambam there discusses this as something observed only during the days of the actual Aseres Yemei Teshuvah, others, including the Me’iri in his Chibbur HaTeshuvah (2:1), record the idea of starting it in Elul.
The Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 581:1) presents the custom to arise in order to recite Selichos at the time known as “ashmores haboker,” which, as the Mishnah Berurah (in his introductory remarks there) and others note, is at the very end of the night, as this is considered a most propitious time to beseech Hashem in prayer (see Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 1:2). It is thus clear that the proper time to recite Selichos is as the night comes to an end, before the daylight hours arrive.
Other sources speak of Chatzos, midnight, as an appropriate time to say Selichos; the Zohar (Parashas Chayei Sarah p. 132b) indeed points out that at Chatzos Hashem’s attributes of kindness and mercy are most accessible, as it were (as opposed to during the earlier part of the night). For this reason, many people recite Selichos at Chatzos, especially on the very first night of Selichos. It should be noted, though, that Chatzos here does not mean exactly 12 a.m. midnight, but the middle of the night-time hours, which of course varies depending upon the season and one’s location, and hence the length of the night.
It would appear, at least according to some, that it is not necessarily the moment of Chatzos itself that is recommended here, but any time at night after Chatzos. The Aruch HaShulchan, however, writes in a different context (Orach Chaim 1:20) that the actual moment of Chatzos is the critical time, and that is why some consider Chatzos to be an opportune time to begin the recitation of Selichos. As stated, the widespread practice in many Ashkenazic communities is to begin Selichos on the first night (which is always a motzaei Shabbos) specifically at Chatzos.
It is clear from a number of authorities, though, that it is certainly improper to recite Selichos in the evening prior to Chatzos; the Magen Avraham (Orach Chaim 565:5) presents this as the position of the Arizal, and the Mishnah Berurah there (No. 12) and others cite it as well. The one exception to this rule is the evening of Yom Kippur, when, due to the unique nature of the day, we do indeed recite Selichos (during the Maariv service) before Chatzos. The Sha’arei Teshuvah (Orach Chaim 581:1) and others quote from Rav Moshe Zacuto, a prominent seventeenth century Kabbalist, who writes (in his Shu”t HaRemez No. 30) that whereas there are those who do indeed say Selichos in the earlier part of the night, before Chatzos, it is highly improper to do so and the practice should be abolished; one should not participate in such a service in any way. Rav Ovadiah Yosef (Shu”t Yechaveh Da’as 1:46) elaborates on this position, detailing why Rav Zacuto (and others) felt so strongly about this, and he too rules that Selichos should not be recited prior to Chatzos.
It must be noted, however, that Rav Moshe Feinstein (Shu”t Igros Moshe Orach Chaim 2:105) is somewhat more lenient on the matter. In discussing a situation where people are afraid to go out to shul in the middle of the night or in the early pre-dawn hours due to safety or other concerns, and will thus not be able to say Selichos at all if they cannot do so earlier in the evening, he rules that they may in fact recite Selichos before Chatzos (preferably after the first third of the night). His reasoning is that as alluded to above, the Gemara never forbids saying Selichos before Chatzos, but he is clear that this should be done only under extenuating circumstances and not habitually. An additional leniency is mentioned Rav Ovadiah in the aforementioned teshuvah, where he quotes those who say that Chatzos for this purpose is determined by the local time in Eretz Yisrael, such that in countries which are “behind” Eretz Yisrael in time, one may recite Selichos earlier in the night because Chatzos will already have passed in Eretz Yisrael by then, but he himself is not comfortable with this suggestion.
In light of all of the above, it would seem that it is not proper to say Selichos before Chatzos, except as a last resort when no other reasonable option is available.
– Rabbi Michael Taubes has been involved in Jewish education, formal as well as informal, for over 40 years, serving both in the classroom and in various administrative posts. He is presently a Rosh Yeshiva at RIETS and Yeshiva University High School for Boys. In addition, he is the spiritual leader of Congregation Zichron Mordechai in Teaneck, N.J.
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Although a few great Rabbanim permit in case of exceptional need, we should follow Rav Ovadia Yosef and Rav Mordechai Willig, who never permit reciting Selihos before Chatzos.
– Rabbi Jachter is a prominent rabbi who serves as the rabbi at Congregation Shaarei Orah, the Sephardic Congregation of Teaneck, and is a popular Torah teacher at the Torah Academy of Bergen County. He also serves as a Dayan on the Beth Din of Elizabeth and has acquired an international reputation of excellence in the area of Get administration. He has authored sixteen books on issues ranging from contemporary Halacha, Tanach, Aggada, and Jewish Thought all available on Amazon.
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To be brief, the overwhelming rabbinic opinion presented is that one should only say Selichot after Chazot or in the early morning hours before davening. Indeed among these views there are those who even say that it would be best to not say Selichot at all rather than saying it before Chazot.
However, as is the case in many instances in Jewish law, there are variant opinions. Rav Moshe Feinstein in one of his responsa states that in a time of great need Selichot can be recited earlier in the evening. However he adds that this view is only for a specific time (hora’at sha’ah) and should not be the normative practice.
Bottom line, it is best to say Selichot at its prescribed time, either after Chazot or before davening in the morning. However, if there is a time of great need, it may be permitted – but only on a case by case basis. For that, one should ask their rabbi for direction.
– Rabbi Mordechai Weiss lives in Efrat, Israel, and previously served as an elementary and high school principal in New Jersey and Connecticut. He was also the founder and rav of Young Israel of Margate, N.J. His email is [email protected].