Today, Sunday, is Rosh Chodesh Elul (the first of a two-day Rosh Chodesh), which is the beginning of the Month of Mercy and Forgiveness.
The Source for the Significance of the Month of Elul
It is taught in Pirkei De’Rabbi Eliezer: “For forty days on Mount Sinai, Moshe Rabbeinu would read the written Torah during the day and study the oral Torah during the night. At the end of forty days, he took the Tablets and descended to the camp. On the Seventeenth of Tammuz he broke the Tablets and stayed in the camp for forty days until he burnt the Golden Calf and ground it as fine as the dust of the earth, killed anyone who had kissed the Golden Calf, uprooted the service of the Golden Calf from Israel, and established every tribe in its proper place. On Rosh Chodesh Elul, Hashem told Moshe, ‘Ascend the mountain to Me,’ for Hashem had indeed forgiven the Jewish nation. They sounded a Shofar through the entire camp to notify all that Moshe had ascended the mountain in order that they not stray after idolatry once again.” We see that on the day of Rosh Chodesh Elul, Hashem began forgiving the Jewish people. It was therefore established that these days would forever be days especially auspicious for forgiveness, atonement, and repentance.
The Custom of Selichot
Since on that day Hashem told Moshe to ascend in order to receive the second pair of Tablets, for He had forgiven the Jewish nation, Sephardic and Middle Eastern Jews customarily arise early in the morning and make their way to the synagogue to recite Selichot (literally, “Forgiveness”) and supplication prayers beginning from Rosh Chodesh Elul until Yom Kippur, which was the day Moshe descended the mountain and brought us the second pair of Tablets. Selichot are not recited on the night of Rosh Chodesh itself. Thus, this year, 5781, when Rosh Chodesh Elul falls out on Sunday and Monday, Selichot are recited beginning from Tuesday morning or from halachic midnight of Monday night. For many generations, people would wake up at the early hours of the morning in order to recite Selichot and they would reach lofty levels during the month of Elul while rousing themselves to repent completely for all of their deeds until the days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur when everyone would reach truly lofty spiritual levels through prayer and repentance. Even children of several years old would gather together in synagogues with their fathers early every morning and the spiritual atmosphere of the Days of Awe would rest upon everyone.
We have heard that even the women and daughters of the household of Hagaon Harav Shmuel Aharon Yudelevitz zt”l (a close friend of Maran zt”l, son-in-law of the great Tzadik Harav Aryeh Levine zt”l, and rabbi of the “Lifta” community, among others) would come to the synagogue for Selichot at the crack of dawn. Unfortunately, nowadays, only in the past generation or so has this wonderful custom become weak; it is incumbent on everyone to encourage himself and his household to strengthen themselves in prayer and repentance during the month of Elul.
Ashkenazi communities customarily do not recite Selichot beginning from Rosh Chodesh Elul; however, they do customarily blow the Shofar every day during this period after Shacharit services in order to awaken the Jewish nation to repent, as the verse (Amos, Chapter 3) states: “Shall a Shofar be sounded in a city and its people will not tremble?” Another reason for this custom is to confuse the Satan. Some communities sound the Shofar during Arvit services as well.
The Ashkenazi custom is to begin reciting Selichot from the Sunday (or Motza’ei Shabbat) preceding Rosh Hashanah. If Rosh Hashanah falls out on Monday or Tuesday, they customarily begin reciting Selichot from the Sunday of the previous week. Thus, this year, 5781, when Rosh Hashanah falls out on a Tuesday, Ashkenazim will begin reciting Selichot from the halachic midnight of the 21st of Elul, Motza’ei Shabbat Parashat Ki-Tavo.