The month of Elul is one of those points in the year when the differences in minhagim (traditions)between Ashkenazi Jews (those of German and northern European heritage) and Sephardi Jews (those of Spanish and Mediterranian heritage) is thrown into sharp relief.
- Ashkenazim don’t include Selichot prayers until the final week before Rosh Hashana; Sephardim begin them at the start of Elul, a full month before Rosh Hashana
- Ashkenazim have different verses and prayers for each day; Sephardim repeate the same set of prayers and versus throughout the month
- For Ashkenazim, selichot is a time of somber reflection, an almost mournful period of repentence. For Sephardim, the prayers are still penitential, but the tone is distinctly more upbeat.
- The selichot service itself is mostly silent in an Ashkenazi service, but in a Sephardi service it is said entirely out loud, often sung as a group.
The reasoning is nuanced. Over the centuries, the experience of Jews from Europe and Russia was filled with terror and tribulations. The harsh reality was that at any moment things may take a turn for the worse. That these horrors may have been due to some unrepented sin is not a stretch and is an oft-quoted theme in the writings of ancient scholars. This feeling has been subsumed into the liturgical tone.
While Sephardim have certainly had their challenges, it was nothing like their cousins to the north. This is part of the reason why the traditions for them are lighter, happier, more laid back.
The difference this makes is drastic. Both traditions acknowledge that our very lives hang in the balance based on the quality of our repentence. We are literally praying for our life when we approach God at this time. But where the Sephardi experiences lead us to believe that – as long as we’ve done the proper work on our soul – the outcome is assurred, the Ashkenazi experience has taught that it is anything but.
This is why, during the month of Elul, we have the opportunity to hear our past echoed in prayer – not just in the words themselves, but in the rhythms and melodies, and even the “attitude” of the prayer.
If the prayer changes day to day, you may come to understand that there is much to be sorry for, or that the words are to be spoken and moved past rather than lingered on. If they are spoken silently, then they must be private affairs, not to be shared. If there is little music, then one may understand that there is little to celebrate in those thoughts.
Whereas of the same prayers are said every day, sung with a jaunty melody, often out loud by the whole group… if this is the modality then one may come to understand that – even though the words are apologetic and penitential – the event itself is one of communal sharing.
Because you can’t remember something – memorize and internallize it – without repetition.
At it’s core, the month of Elul presents us with two competing memories:
We might focus on recalling our sins. Remembering that there are many things that we, as individuals and as a community, have done over the past year that require repentence.
Or we can remember how we gathered together last year and in all the years before that, just as we are doing today. That we repented, and that we ultimately found forgiveness.
In selichot, we have a chance to choose what we want to remember.