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D'var Torah by Dr. Kalman Stein, Interim Head of School

Dr. Kalman Stein, Interim Head of School

Dear Hebrew Academy Community:
Although there are many differences between the Selichot said by Sephardim--during the entire month of Ellul--and by Ashkenazim--beginning tomorrow night--the fundamental structure is identical. Selichot begin with Ashrei and Chatzi Kaddish, end with Kaddish Titkabal, include Vidui and Tachanun, and the centerpiece is the recital of the 13 Middot of Rachamim (13 aspects of God’s mercy).

Rabbi Haim Jachter, the rabbi of the Sephardic Congregation of Teaneck, points out that for Ashkenazim a striking feature of the Sephardic Selichot is the appearance of Choni HaMa’ageil (who most decidedly does not appear in the Ashkenazi version of this Tefilah) in a list of important people to whose prayers God had responded positively at critical junctures in their lives: “You-- D’anei l’Choni ba’ma’agal aneinan-- Who answered Choni, please respond positively to us.”
Choni the Circle Maker, the Gemara tells us, was asked by his community to pray for rain. Choni drew a circle around himself on the ground and called out to Hashem: “Master of the Universe…I swear in Your name that I will not move from this circle until You have mercy upon Your children.” And Choni indeed remained in that circle until God responded not only with some rain but with rain which fell in a quantity and a manner described as גשמי רצון ברכה ונדבה --rains of love and blessing.

Rabbi Shimon ben Shetach, the head of the Sanhedrin, in effect the Chief Rabbi, was outraged. He declared that he thought that Choni deserved to be excommunicated for the audacious manner in which he approached Hashem. But Rabbi Shimon ben Shetach understood that he could not punish Choni because God had responded positively to him.  Choni had spoken to God as a demanding son might speak to his father, and Hashem had responded as a father would even to a wayward son.

It seems that Sephardim follow Choni, and Ashkenazim follow Rabbi Shimon ben Shetach. Sephardim identify with Choni since they are very comfortable relating to Hashem as a loving father. Ashkenazim, however, seem to be more comfortable with relating to God as King and thus identify with Rabbi Shimon ben Shetach.

All agree that Hashem is both our father and king, as both Ashkenazim and Sephardim express in the Avinu Malkeinu prayer. However, Sephardim stress the father side of Avinu Malkeinu whereas Ashkenazim, especially during the Yamim Nora’im, focus more on Hashem as our King.

This distinction reflects the entire mood during Selichot and the Tefillot of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. For those who have experienced both styles of Yamim Nora’im Tefillot, it is quite apparent that the Ashkenazi version is far more somber and the Sephardic approach much more upbeat. When relating to Father, we are upbeat; when we relate to the King, we are most somber and serious.
Tomorrow night at our High School Shabbaton we will be reciting Selichot which combine the text, the tone, and the melodies of both Sepharadim and Ashkenazim, not only as a demonstration of unity in our school and community, but also to remind ourselves that one should approach Rosh Hashanah with a dual awareness of God, the King who demands obedience, and God, our loving father, who is both Avinu and Malkeinu. 

Shabbat Shalom,

Dr. Kalman Stein
Interim Head of School

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