Teshuva

Teshuva
Rabbi Immanuel Bernstein
Mosaica Press

Just in time for the upcoming High Holiday season, Rabbi Immanuel Bernstein, maggid shiur, and author of other pristine publications, treats us to yet another installment to help us grow in Torah and Yirah in a gentle, engaging, and inspiring fashion.

In “Teshuva,” Rabbi Bernstein offers us 66 short essays covering topics related to Elul, Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot. The essays are all very thought provoking, covering both philosophical and practical matters. There are number of interpretations, explanations, and commentaries of routine High Holiday themes that I have not previously seen. There are also interpretations of the High Holidays prayers scattered throughout the sefer. 

The sefer is extremely enjoyable and easy to follow. It should also be noted that the essays are also easy to “give over” as divrei Torah at the Yom Tov table. In fact, the various short sub-sections of each essay are stand-alone divrei Torah in their own right.

At the time of this writing, I have read all the Elul essays and most of the Rosh Hashana ones. There is no question that “Teshuva” is the best High Holiday primer and inspirational reader that I have seen in years, and probably the best ever that covers Elul-Sukkot in a single volume. With this third volume of his work (or is it the fourth?), Rabbi Bernstien has established a chazaka for producing quality and worthwhile sefarm.

I am attaching some samples chapters below. This will certainly be my shul companion this coming Tishrei. Highly recommended.

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Why Do Selichos Start on Sunday?

A number of days before Rosh Hashanah, we begin to add Selichos to our prayers, until Yom Kippur. This custom dates back to the Geonic period, with two customs being mentioned regarding when to start: either from the first of Elul or from Rosh Hashanah.[1]

The Sephardi custom follows this second view. Interestingly, the Ashkenazi custom follows neither of these two opinions. For Ashkenazim, Selichos always begins on a Sunday:

If Rosh Hashanah falls on Thursday or Shabbos, then Selichos begin on the Sunday of that week.

If Rosh Hashanah falls on Monday or Tuesday, then Selichos begin on the Sunday of the preceding week.

Why?

According to the Vilna Gaon,[2] the Ashkenazi custom is actually based on a third practice mentioned by the Ran as the custom of Barcelona.[3] They would begin saying Selichos on the twenty-fifth of Elul — the anniversary of the first day of the creation of the world. (When we celebrate Rosh Hashanah on the first of Tishrei and refer to it as the day on which “the world was created,”[4] we are referring to the creation of man on the sixth day. The creation of the world itself began five days earlier, which works out to be the twenty-fifth of Elul.)

The Vilna Gaon explains that Ashkenazi custom concurs with this view in principle, namely, that the first day of Selichos should correspond to the first day of creation. However, it differs in that it opts to mark the day not by calendar date, but by the day of the week, i.e., the first day. This is why Selichos will always start on a Sunday. Apparently, the association of the first day of the week with the beginning of creation is stronger than the calendar date of the twenty-fifth of Elul. This also explains why when Rosh Hashanah falls on a Monday or Tuesday, the Selichos begin on the preceding Sunday — in order to ensure that the number of days between the beginning of Selichos and Rosh Hashanah will total no less than the five days between the creation of the world and that of man.[5]

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While Sunday is the first day of the week, it is also the day that immediately follows the Shabbos of the preceding week. The final Selichah on the first day refers to this element of the timing: במוצאי מנוחה קדמנוך We petition You on the morrow of the day of rest. One of the late Rishonim, the Leket Yosher, explains the significance of beginning the Selichos after Shabbos:[6]

"On Shabbos, people are free of work and are able to set aside time for learning Torah. That is why it is good to start Selichos on Sunday, for people are happy due to the mitzvah of learning Torah that they have performed on Shabbos, and also due to the enjoyment of Shabbos, and it is stated: “The Divine presence does not come to rest through lethargy or sadness, rather, only through the joy of a mitzvah.” Therefore, it is good to begin to pray through the joy of a mitzvah; and the author of the Selichah similarly opens with the words, “On the morrow of the day of rest etc.”

These words should have a major impact on how we think of Selichos and the way we say them. While teshuvah is an unmistakably serious business, and it may require us to confront some uncomfortable truths about ourselves, the overarching tone is one of joy, and that tone is set from the very beginning. Moreover, we are also reminded that the process of teshuvah is not just one of “betterment” or of “cleansing.” It is one of returning to a state of closeness with Hashem, and that is a state that cannot be achieved if we are not in a state of joy, because “the Divine presence rests only through the joy of a mitzvah.”

This optimistic mood will hopefully ensure that the tough moments within teshuvah do not lead us to give way to despair or self-pity, but will rather launch us to a new and close connection with the Divine presence — through the joy of a mitzvah!




[1] See Tur, Orach Chaim 581.
[2] Commentary to Shulchan Aruch 581:1.
[3] Commentary to Rif, Rosh Hashanah 16a.
[4] For example, in the chazzan’s repetition of Mussaf after the shofar is blown, we say היום הרת עולםToday the world was created.
[5] When Rosh Hashanah falls on Thursday, there will only be four days of Selichos. However, since the custom of reciting Selichos began when the institution of celebrating two days of Rosh Hashanah was already in place, the amount of days from the beginning of Selichos until the second day (Friday) is sufficient, and it is not necessary to move Selichos back an additional week. For other explanations of the Ashkenazi custom, see Mishnah Berurah 581:6.  
[6] Vol. 1, p. 118.

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