The Sephardim have begun this week to recite the Selichot – penitential poems and prayers, including at the Kotel. In keeping with the Health Ministry’s pandemic regulations, service is conducted in separate “capsules” to limit the number of participants and allow them to maintain social distancing.
In the Sephardic tradition, recital of Selichot in preparation for the High Holidays begins on the second day of the Hebrew month of Elul. In the Ashkenazic tradition, it begins on the Saturday night before Rosh Hashanah.
If, however, the first day of Rosh Hashanah falls on Monday or Tuesday, Selichot are said beginning the Saturday night prior, to ensure that Selichot are recited at least four times.
This may be because originally the pious fasted for ten days during the season of repentance, and four days before Rosh Hashanah were added to compensate for the four of the Ten days of Repentance on which fasting is forbidden – the two days of Rosh Hashanah, Shabbat Shuvah, and the day preceding Yom Kippur—and, while the fasts have since been abandoned, the Selichot that accompanied them have been retained.
Alternatively, the Rosh Hashanah liturgy includes the Biblical phrase, “you shall observe a burnt offering,” and like an offering which needs to be scrutinized for defects for four days, so too four days of self-searching are needed before the day of judgment.