Translation:Arukh ha-Shulchan/Orach Chaim/581
A Braisa in Pikrei D’Rabbi Eliezer (chapter 46) teaches: On Rosh Chodesh Elul the Holy One Blessed be He said to Moshe: ‘Ascend up to me on the mountain’ - this was the ascent to accept the second tablets. The sound of a ‘Shofar’ was heard throughout the camp, announcing Moshe’s ascent. This was done to avoid the mistake [in counting] that occurred during the giving of the first tablets, which resulted in the ‘Egel’ (golden calf). The Holy One Blessed be He [That is, His attribute of mercy] was exalted through that shofar, as the verse states: ‘G-d was exalted with the blast, the L-ord, through the sound of the Shofar.’ (Tehilim 47.6)
Since that Shofar saved the people from sin [by informing them of the exact moment of Moshe’s ascent], and the month it occurred in is also the final month of the year, preceding the days of judgement, this month of Elul was set aside to be a recurring time of repentance in the future. The sages who wrote on ethics find a hint to this in the verse “I am to my beloved and my beloved is to me”, where the first letters of each word form the acronym ‘Elul’, alluding to the idea that during this month all my thoughts are on my beloved [G-d], and when they are I find that my beloved “is to me” - that His providence guides me to good ends [PROTECTS ME FROM WRONGDOING?]. The Shofar itself effective in creating an attitude of introspection, as the verse states (Amos 3.6): “If a shofar blast is sounded in the city, will the people not be alarmed?!”.
Therefore, the custom of all Jewish communities is to sound the Shofar after prayer during this month. This starts on the second day of Rosh Chodesh, for that is considered the first day of the new month. There are those whose custom is to sound the shofar in the morning and at night, though we only sound the shofar in the morning. The exact order of shofar blasts sounded are a ‘Tekiyah’, ‘Shvarim’, ‘Teruah’, and ‘Tekiyah’.
The above is practiced on all days except the Shabbos. There is also no blowing on Rosh Hashana eve, as a separation is created between the blowing that is voluntary [only custom] and the blowing that is obligatory by Biblical command.
“It is also customary to increase in ‘Selichos’ prayers and other supplications in the very early morning hours during this month, as that is a time of Heavenly good will, for though the Holy One Blessed be He floats through eighteen thousand worlds throughout the day, at the end of the night he floats through this world” (Magen Avraham, comment 1, quoting from Gemara Avodah Zara, 3.2). [THIS IS A METAPHORICAL IMAGE RELATING TO HOW PEOPLE EXPERIENCE G-D’S PROVIDENCE (AS PER MICHTAV M’ELIYAHU, VOLUME 4, PAGE 332.]
The Sefardi communities have the custom to say these prayers from the beginning of Elul until after Yom Kippur. The Ashkenazi custom is not so, only continuing up to Rosh Hashana.
More specifically, the Ashkenazi custom is to ensure that these prayers are said on at least four of the days preceding Rosh Hashana. This is because there are four days when it is impossible to fast during the ten days of repentance between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur: The two days of Rosh Hashana, as well as Shabbos Teshuvah and Yom Kippur eve. Since these days are unavailable for fasting, they are replaced by four days preceding Rosh Hashana. Now, those that do fast on Rosh Hashana need only fast on the two days preceding Rosh Hashana (comment 3). Even though the custom has developed to fast four days, since they are but a completion for the days missed during the ten days of repentance, one who fasted on Rosh Hashana has already completed two of the days (see there). If one has started to fast on both the four days preceding and the two days of Rosh Hashana he must maintain this custom in the future. [IS THIS CORRECT?]
A full discussion of whether one should fast on Rosh Hashana is covered in chapter 597, though generally speaking it is not proper behavior. (see there)
Currently, our custom is as follows:
If Rosh Hashana falls on a Thursday, the Selichos prayers start on Sunday, which will provide the four days needed. If it falls out on Shabbos, there will be six days of prayers, as we always start from Sunday, which is the first day of creation, and since man’s service of G-d is the purpose of creation, we start this repentance custom from the first day in creation.
When Rosh Hashana falls on Monday or Tuesday, the we start from Sunday of the previous week.
Whenever Slichos is said we mention the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy (‘13 Middos’). Therefore, the leader of the service must wrap himself in a Tallis even though it is before the light of day [Tallis being an obligation of the daytime], which is the intent of the Talmud in Gemara Rosh Hashana 17.2 (see there).
Know that it is important to be careful in these Slichos prayer, as well as those recited in a Monday-Thursday-Monday cycle after a festival, for two items:
1) If one is not fasting, occurrences of the word ‘Tannis’ and ‘Tzom’ (words that mean fasting) should not be said, so it should not be as though one is speaking falsely in his prayers. One should say ‘Tefillah’ (prayer) in place of the word ‘Tannis’.
2) Many of the Slichos sections mention that they are being said at night, or before day break, such as “...their cries while it is yet night...” or “...in the pre-dawn watch...”, and others such as these. Nowadays, many congregations say these prayers once it is already daytime, and it appears as though they are speaking falsely. Therefore, they should be careful to skip these words.
A mourner is not permitted to leave his house to attend these Slichos prayers, except for the one occurring on the morning of the day before Rosh Hashana, since it has far more extensive prayers. This applies to the day before Yom Kippur as well in places where they have added extensive prayers. A mourner should not act as leader of the congregation’s prayers on the High Holy Days. He should neither act so for twelve months after the passing of his mother or father, except if he is the set prayer leader, or there is no one else who is able to fill that role.
One should be particular to search after a prayer leader of great stature who is well versed in Torah and possesses good behaviors to lead the Slichos, Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur prayers. He should be at least 30 years of age and married, and in this way similar to the Kohen Gadol in the Temple, who was prohibited to serve in the Yom Kippur service if he was not married, as it is written : “...he should secure atonement for himself and his household.” (Vayikrah 16.6)
Nevertheless, none of these requirements are mandatory, and all Jews are valid to function as prayer leaders. The only qualification is that they must be acceptable to the congregation they represent. If, however, one takes this position by force, the congregation should not respond ‘Amen’ to his prayers [at the points they would normally be expected to].
Our teacher the Rema writes:
“A prayer leader must intend to fulfill the prayer obligation on behalf of all those who he is representing. If he has an enemy among the congregation, and intents to not include him in the prayers, even those he is close to among the congregation have not fulfilled their prayer obligations. “
Until here is the quote. It appears to me that this only applies when there are many unlearned people in the congregation, who cannot pray for themselves and who are completely dependent on the prayer leader for fulfilling their obligations. Among our community, however, where each prays by himself, this ruling would not be applicable. Even for responsive-type communal prayers, such as ‘Kaddish’, ‘Kiddusha’ and ‘Baruch Hu’ this would not apply, as these are not fulfillments of a persons’ obligations, for any group of ten Jews may answer to statements of holiness (Heb. ‘Davar Shebikdusha’), and whomever happens to be present when these occur will respond. The ‘Amen’ response is treated similarly (it is not a personal obligation), except for those in the ‘Mussaf Shemona Esrai’ of Rosh Hashana, where fulfilling the obligation of Shofar is connected to the order of the blessings. In our community, where we do not blow Shofar in the quiet ‘Shemona Esrai’ [of Mussaf], the main prayer is the prayer leader’s repetition. This applies to his reciting of the ‘Mussaf’ of Yom Kippur as well, because the Yom Kippur Temple service is mentioned therein. It would appear that these two instances would be examples of when the prayer leader is the only one who can fulfill the congregation’s obligation. This needs more study.
(This idea that has become popular among the populace - that even a single congregant can prevent someone from becoming the prayer leader - is the cause of much congregational discord. In fact, this is simply not true, as a majority vote decides these matters. The Levush has already written this in his work in chapter 53, and attend as well to what I have written in that chapter.)
He who has been established as the prayer leader or the Shofar blower - as long as there is no reason to remove him from his position - should continue to serve, as he has established precedence ('Chazakah') to perform this Mitzvah. If one has had the position to blow the Shofar on the first day, and another on the second day, and the first day coincided with Shabbos - the first individual blows the Shofar on the second day, the second individual being preempted. This ruling is similar to the one regarding the recitation of the Piyut (liturgical poem) 'Bimiarvis" in chapter 642. Though there is an authority who disputes this ruling (see the Sharei Teshuva), this is the accepted custom.
When one has a Chazakah, and has not been present one or two times, he still retains his right. If he has not been present at three occasions, it appears to me that his Chazakah has been invalidated. The ruling is the same if this individual was sick. If, however, he is present and chooses not to exercise his right to lead the congregation or blow Shofar, even one such instance will invalidate his Chazakah in future situations.
Our teacher the Rema writes:
"There are places where the custom is that the one who leads the Slichos leads all the prayers that day".
Until here is the quote. This even applies to the evening prayer, as well as preempting a mourner and one commemorating a 'Yahrtzeit' (the anniversary of a family member's passing) from leading the prayers (Magen Avraham, comment 7). In our communities this is not the custom, and in general it is very important not to create situations that will lead to arguments and discord in these matters. Anyone who truly fears G-d will squelch his own opinion even when he sees that the congregation is acting improperly in these matters, so as to avoid arguments. In the vast majority of these situation the 'Satan is dancing' among people, straining to create enmity, as is well known [OR POSSIBLY ‘as is known in Kabbalistic thought’]. One who can restrain himself so as to avoid causing arguments will accrue to himself a great reward.
In the Zohar, in the portion of Vayikrah, the high holy days prayer leader and Shofar blower are strongly warned to separate themselves for three days from any kind of ritual impurity, and to inspect their own behavior (see there). Now, due to our many sins, it is not within our power to adorn ourselves with this beneficial state. [IS THIS CORRECT?]
When the prayer leader wraps himself in a Tallis before the light of day in order to recite the Slichos he should not say the blessing on the Tallis. In fact, it is advisable to borrow another’s Tallis instead of his own so at least the obligation to recite a blessing over it will be subject to a doubt of law (Taz, comment 2). One should also be careful to recite the blessing on the Torah ('Birchas HaTorah') before Slichos (see there). In addition, note what I have written in chapter 47.
The following text is brought in a Midrash in the portion of Vayikrah (Parsha 30):
"On the day before Rosh Hashana the great people of the generation fast. The Holy Blessed be He overlooks a third of their sins. From Rosh Chodesh until Yom Kippur, individuals fast, and the Holy One Blessed be He says to Israel: 'What is in the past, is past. From now on, let a new accounting begin.' From Yom Kippur until the Festival (Sukkos) one builds his Sukkah, while his fellow attends to a Lulav. All of Israel then stand before the Holy One Blessed be He, with Lulavs and Esrogs, for the sake of G-d's name. G-d then says to them: 'What is in the past, is past. From now on, let a new accounting begin.' This is why the verse states: 'Take for yourselves on the first day...'. "
Until here is the quote.
Due to this Midrash many fast on the day before Rosh Hashana, and it is not considered as one is viewing himself as one of the 'great people of the generation', since anyone can fast for his sins, and certainly so on the final day of the year. There is no concern that this is an arrogant display of one considering himself one of the greats of the generation (see the Magen Avraham, comment 9).
There are also those who fast on the first day of Slichos. In addition, there are individuals who fast during the Ten Days of Repentance, and they 'pay back' the missing four days by fasting before Rosh Hashana during the days of Slochos. Specifically: If Rosh Hashana is Thursday, they fast four consecutive days. If it is on Shabbos, they fast Sunday, Monday, Thursday, and the day before Rosh Hashana. If Rosh Hashana is Monday, they fast Sunday, Monday, Thursday and the day before Rosh Hashana. The same is true if Rosh Hashana is on Tuesday. Additionally, I have already explained that those who fast on Rosh Hashana need only fast two days before Rosh Hashana to complete the number.
All of these fasts need not be kept until 'Tzais Hacochavim' [Until middle-sized stars appear in the night sky], even on Rosh Hashana eve. The Torah portion of 'Vayechal' is also not read on these days, and the prayer 'Aneynu' is not inserted into the prayer leader's recitation of 'Shemona Esrei'. The individual, however, does include it in his 'Shemona Esrei' within the blessing of ‘Shomaya Tefillah', as is the usual practice on every fast day. In addition, the prayer leader does not recite the 'Blessing of the Kohanim' in the Mincha prayer. If there is a Bris, 'redeeming of the first born' (Heb. 'Pidyon Haben') or other type of religious celebration in the synagogue all are permitted to eat. This is certainly true of a Bris, where it is a Mitzah to eat the celebratory meal, as I have written in chapter 568 (see there). On the day before Rosh Hashana one should make this meal before the Halachic noon (see Magen Avraham, comment 11).
Furthermore, for these fast days, one should have in mind to undertake them conditionally without the force of a vow, so that if he wishes not to fast on a future year he will have that prerogative. Truthfully, if one starts to observe these fasts with the intention of making them a permanent practice he will need to have them abrogated formally if he desires to discontinue the practice, even if he had only fasted on these days once in the previous year (Bach). If one starts to fast these days without any intention regarding the future - if he fasted three times he will need a formal abrogation. If he only fasted twice that would not be necessary, as I have written in the volume on Yoreh Deah, chapter 214 (see there).
There are those who have a custom on the day before Rosh Hashana to eat before first light, to draw a distinction between them and 'Darkei HaEmory' ('the custom of pagan societies'), who had the habit of fasting on the eve of their festivals. Know, however, that this is not the proper custom, and one should not eat before first light. Either way, in our days we have not heard of this practice followed in any locale. In the Yirushalmi (2nd chapter of Gemara Taanis) it is explained that Rabbi Yonasan would fast every year on the day before Rosh Hashana, and was not concerned that any distinction need be drawn. A proof for this is understood from the command of offering 'First Fruits' on the day before Peasach.
Know that one may be lenient with observing these fasts even if he feels only slightly unwell, without any requirement for abrogation of a vow (Magen Avraham, comment 12), as it is reasonable that this was understood to be a condition of the custom since its creation - that if one feels slightly unwell he need not fast.
'Tachanun' (prayers of supplication for forgiveness) are not said on the day before Rosh Hashana. Even though people say these prayers in the Slichos before down, including the act of 'falling on the face' (Heb. 'Nifellat Apayim'), and these prayers often last into the day, nevertheless they are removed from the morning prayers (Heb. 'Shacharit') as on every festival eve. The Shofar is not blown on this day as well, in order to separate bewteen Shofar blasts that were purely voluntary and those that are commandments. One can, however, practice with the Shofar in his home. The Shofar should never be sounded at night in the month of Elul, even for practice, for actions to awaken judgement should not be performed at night, and the Shofar blasts do awaken the Heavenly traits related to judgement.
Additionally, there is also a custom to abrogate vows on the day before Rosh Hashana.
(However, the custom of 'Nezifah' [where a person accepts a type of excommunication upon himself, and then asks the 'Beis Din' to remove the excommunication] should not be practiced.) (See the Shaarei Teshuva at the end of comment 9.)
The Midrash in Vayikrah (Parsha 30) brings the following text:
"If a man has a serious court case pending - he wears dark, somber clothes,... etc... and doesn't trim his nails, all due to the worry in his mind over what the ruling will be. For Israel, however, it is no so. They wear festive, white clothes, and wrap the themselves in white, take haircuts, trim their nails..." (See there).
For this reason we have the custom to wash and take haircuts on the day before Roah Hashana. There is also a custom to submerge in a Mikvah on that day on account of noctural emissions (Heb. 'Keri'). It is also advisable on that day to increase in any acts that could be sources of merit.
(The Thirteen Attributes, when said outside the presence of a quorum (Heb. 'Minyan'), should start with 'Merciful L-ord, etc...' (Instead of 'G-d, G-d, Merciful...'), since the Arizal would start his recitation of those attributes from that point. Alternatively, the first two mentions of G-d's name could be said with a gematria replacement of the At Bash' method, which would be 'MiTzaFetz', 'MiTzaFetz' (מצפץ מצפץ) [NOT SURE ABOUT VOWELIZATION], as is noted in Pre Etz Chaim, Sha'ar Slichos, at the end of the 8th chapter. (see there).