The Old City of Jerusalem is a always a unique place, but especially so at the moment. Starting last weekk, and continuing on for the next 2 weeks, thousands upon thousands of people come to the the Old City and the Kotel for Selichot. Until last year, on the night before Yom Kippur, literally tens of thousands would say Selichot with Rav Ovadya Yosef at the Kotel. In 2012, Channel 2 reported that in the months of Ellul and Tishrei, 1.5 million people came to the Kotel.
Ashkenazim begin saying Selichot this Motzei Shabbat, whereas Sephardim have been saying them all month. This difference is not merely technical, but stems from the different approaches to this time of year, and to Judaism in general, of the Ashkenazi and Sephardi communities.
One reason Elul is a special month is because, according to Rashi in Devarim (9:18), it was the month in which Moshe Rabeinu went up Har Sinai to re-receive the Luchos. He came down on Yom Kippur with the second Luchos, symbolising that Hashem had forgiven the Jewish people. Thus Ellul is a time of good will, forgiveness, even happiness. Sephardi Selichot, which run for the full 40 days Moshe was on Har Sinai, are reflective of this period as a period of good will and forgiveness – indeed, their Selichot are more upbeat, with far more singing, and with happier tunes.
The more serious Ashkenazi Selichot are based on a different aspect of Elul. One reason offered for why Selichot start at least four days before Rosh Hashana is based on the Gemara (Menachot 49b) that states that a Korbon requires four days of checking before it is offered. Symbolically, we require a similar period of four days of introspection, before the day of judgement. The tone of this reason is very different – it is not about the mercy of forgiveness, but the severity of judgement. This severity is another aspect of the period we are currently in, and this aspect is reflected in the Ashkenazi Selichot. The tone of the Ashkenazi Selichot, in content and in style, is more intense than that of the Sephardi Selichot.
I in fact experienced the difference between these two attitudes in a quite stark way. I was at a Selichot service at the Kotel a number of years ago, where the Chazzan was Ashkenazi, but most of the congregation was Sephardi. At a certain point, the Chazzan reached the 13 attributes of Mercy, and began crying uncontrollably, barely uttering the words through his tears. Simultaneously, the Sephardi congregation were quite happily singing the same words he was saying – it was like they were on two different planets.
This difference is not merely technical, but is reflective of a general difference between Ashkenazim and Sephardim. Ashkenazim lived in a harsher climate, had generally a less hospitable host culture, and the predominantly Christian culture had a large focus on sin – the result is that Ashkenazim have a more severe, intense outlook. Sephardim lived in a more moderate climate, had generally more accommodating hosts, and were in a largely Muslim culture – thus a less severe outlook.
Elu V`Elu Divrei Elokim Chaim – Judaism in general, and this period in particular, contain two very different aspects. Judaism contains mercy and of judgement, joy and introspection, a now is a time of the grace of Hashem at Har Sinai, and the seriousness of the Yom HaDin.