Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Selichot Conundrum: Sefardi or Ashkenazi? You Make the Call.

As arrived at shul this past Sunday morning, I saw a group of tired-looking people davening in another room. I wondered what they were doing until it dawned on me: They're Sefardim, and they've got to recite Selichot for the entire month of Elul.
Truth be told, Selichot can often feel like a real drag. I don't think that's a bad thing. There's something to be said for getting up a little bit earlier as Rosh Hashanah approaches, adding the 13 Attributes of Compassion to the davening, reciting shema kolenu every morning. My mood builds towards Yom Kippur, and when we finally reach the emotionally draining pinnacle of Neilah, when basically all we recite are a summation of all the Selichot that we've said to that point, everything comes full circle. It's a powerful, tiring, moving process. I often feel that people who have difficulty on Yom Kippur suffer from the fact that they didn't invest in Selichot. It really serves as the pinnacle of the prayer process that began two (or more) weeks before. If you haven't made the effort to truly prepare for Yom Kippur, how can you expect to achieve meaningful results from the process of repentance?
This is how I feel after starting Selichot on the Saturday night before Rosh Hashanah - giving me only two weeks of Selichot. Having to start a full three weeks earlier, at Rosh Chodesh Elul and reciting selichot for a full forty days - that seems like a bit too much for me.
But with the costs of following Sephardic custom come benefits as well, the biggest of course being Kitniyot. Sefardim eat all kinds of kitniyot on Pesach, and here in Israel the difference is even more pronounced with all kinds of yummy looking foods stamped לאוכלי קטניות בלבד - "For those who eat kitniyot ONLY". I sometimes think that the food companies are mocking me. I spot a nice looking chocolate pudding, pick it up to check the hechsher and stamped on the front in big letters it says: "Sorry Mr. Ashkenaz. Not for you. Too bad."
Of course there are other differences as well, including:
  • Three Weeks: Ashkenazim observe most of the customs of mourning from the 17th of Tammuz, while Sefardim not only don't keep three weeks; they don't even have nine full days, observing the mourning period only on the week of Tisha B'av
  • Milk and Fish: While Sefardim can't mix milk and fish (and my wife makes a great tuna-cheese casserole), Ashkenazim can
So then I got to thinking: what would I rather have: the benefits of kitniyot on Pesach, or the ability to sleep in for three more weeks come Elul. Would I rather have the costs and benefits of Sepharditude, or those of Ashkenazi-ness? (Of course this discussion is completely academic - unless you're a young woman contemplating marriage trying to decide whether to date Ashkenazim or Sefardim. Then it's quite relevant. But if that's a real criteria to you for marriage, you've got other issues to deal with.) In any case, which would you rather be? You may have noticed the new feature of my blog: the poll. So let me know what your preference would be if you had the choice.