“How does one confess? He says, “I beseech you Hashem. I have erred. I have willfully acted wrongly. I have acted rebelliously before you. I have (specify wrongdoing). I have regret. I am embarrassed with my actions. I will never return to this behavior.” (Maimonides, Mishne Torah, Laws of Repentance 1:1)
This formulation of the confession is based upon a discussion found in Tractate Yoma. The majority of Sages suggest the formulation adopted by Maimonides. In this version, first errors or unintentional sins are confessed. Then reference is made to intentional wrong doing. Last acts of rebellion are included. The reasoning underlying this order is that a person should first seek forgiveness for lesser sins and then the more serious wrong doings.
However, the Talmud explains that Rav Meir suggests an alternative form for the confession. He suggests that first the confession should mention the willful sins. This is followed by mentioning acts of rebellion. The confession ends with reference to unintentional errors.
Rav Meir derives his order from the prayers of Moshe. In seeking forgiveness for Bnai Yisrael, Moshe describes the Almighty’s attributes of mercy and kindness. He declared that because of these attributes Hashem forgives willful sins, acts of rebellion and unintentional errors. Rav Meir adopted this order for his formulation of the confession.
This observation helps explain the dispute between the Sages and Rav Meir. The Sages order the sins referred to in the confession from the lest serious to the most severe. This order is dictated by a clear logic. The confession is a request for forgiveness. It is appropriate to begin with the lesser offenses.
Rav Meir maintains that the confession includes an additional element. It makes reference to the attribute of the Almighty responsible for forgiveness. Therefore the confession alludes to the prayer of Moshe in which the Divine attributes are described. Rav Meir maintains that as we ask for forgiveness, we must acknowledge the benevolence of the Almighty implicit in this forbearance.
Although the opinion of the Sages is accepted, the issue raised by Rav Meir finds expression is halacha. The confession contained in the liturgy is often accompanied by a recitation of the Divine attributes of the Almighty. This is accord with Rav Meir’s opinion that confession is associated with recognition of Hashem’s kindness. Although this recognition is not incorporated into the confession itself, it is associated to the confession though the liturgy.
“Among the ways of repentance is for the repentant individual to constantly bemoan his sin before Hashem with crying and supplications. And he should give charity according to his ability. And he should distance himself, to an extreme, from the area concerning which he sinned. And he should change his name. In this he states, “I am someone else and not that person who performed those actions.” (Maimonides, Mishne Torah, Laws of Repentance 2:4)
Maimonides describes, in this halacha, some of the behaviors which accompany repentance. He includes the establishment of a new identity. The sinner sees him / herself as a different person from the individual who committed the wrongdoing.
A person’s behavior is strongly affected by self image. Once we establish a behavior or attitude it is difficult to imagine ourselves without this element. This psychological barrier must be overcome if the process of Teshuva is to be successful. The person must become accustomed to a different self-image.
The Talmud discusses the life of Elisha ben Avuyah. This great scholar was the teacher of Rav Meir. In his studies, Elisha ben Avuyah delved into the most difficult areas of the Torah. He eventually discovered truths for which he was not prepared. He could not accept these concepts and rejected the Torah. Elisha ben Avuyah went so far, in rejecting his former life, that he changed his name. Interestingly, he chose the name Acher. Literally translated, this name means “other”. Through adopting this name, he explained that he intended to indicate that he was no longer Elisha ben Avuyah. He was a different person with new attitudes.
The Talmud comments that the Almighty declared that although all humanity has the opportunity to repent, Acher is an exception. He cannot repent his sins.
Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik ZTL explained that it is not the intention of the Talmud to indicate the Almighty will not accept Acher’s repentance. Instead, the message of the Talmud is that Acher simply cannot repent. He does not have the ability.
Based on the teaching of Maimonides, this message can be easily understood. Elisha ben Avuyah established a new identity of Acher. Acher was an individual who lived a life antithetical to the Torah. As long as Elisha ben Avuyah viewed himself as Acher it would be impossible for him to repent. His self-image would prevent him from establishing a Torah outlook and life. Only once he removed this identity could he hope to repent.
“It is customary to arise in the early morning to recite prayers of supplication from the beginning of the month of Elul until Yom HaKippurim.” (Shulcah Aruch, Orech Chayim 581:1)
It is customary to recite Selichot – prayers of supplication – prior to Rosh HaShanna. Generally, these prayers are recited in the morning. According to Rav Yosef Karo this service is initiated on the first day of Elul. This is the custom generally accepted by Sefardic communities. Rav Moshe Isserles comments that the Ashkenazic custom is to begin reciting the Selichot from the Motzai Shabbat prior to Rosh HaShanna.
The source for these two customs is discussed by Rabbaynu Nissim. He explains that the custom of Barcelona was to begin Selichot on the twenty-fifth day of Elul. The Gaon of Vilna explained that this is the source of the Ashkenazic custom.
In order to appreciate the Gaon’s conclusion, we need to better understand the practice of the Barcelona community. Rabbaynu Nissim explains the basis of this custom. This custom reflects the opinion that the sixth day of creation corresponds with Rosh HaShanna. The Almighty chose this day for Rosh HaShanna because it is associated with forgiveness. On this day Adam and Chava, representing humanity, committed the first sin. They disobeyed Hashem. They ate the fruit that the Creator had forbidden. The Almighty forgave this iniquity. On Rosh HaShanna we beseech Hashem for forgiveness. It is appropriate to appeal to the Almighty on the anniversary of the date that forgiveness was introduced into the universe. If Rosh HaShanna corresponds with the sixth day of creation, what calendar date corresponds with the first day of creation? This date is the twenty-fifth of Elul (Elul having twenty-nine days).
We can now understand the Gaon’s comments. The Ashkenazic custom embodies the same message as the custom of Barcelona. The recitation of Selichot begins on the Motzai Shabbat before Rosh HaShanna. This corresponds with the initiation of creation on the first day of the week.
Rabbaynu Nissim explains the custom in Gerona was to begin the recitation of Selichot on the first day of Elul. This date was also chosen because of its association with forgiveness. After the sin of the egel ha’zahav – the Golden Calf – Moshe ascended Har Sinai. He sought forgiveness for Bnai Yisrael. Moshe ascended the mountain of the first day of Elul. He secured the Almighty’s forgiveness forty days latter. This day – the tenth of Tishrai – became Yom Kippur.
These two customs reflect two different aspects of Divine forgiveness. The forgiveness of received by Adam and Chava was not a result of repentance or prayer. In fact, both Adam and Chava minimized their role in committing the sin. Why were they forgiven? The Almighty created humanity and bestowed within us the unique ability to choose between good and evil. Every human enters life as an imperfect and instinctual creature. It is our responsibility to improve ourselves through the wise exercise of our freewill. It is inevitable that we will sin as we proceed along this path. Hashem forgives us for these failings just as He pardoned Adam and Chava. In short, the very design of creation allows for an imperfect individual and implies the Almighty’s forbearance and forgiveness.
The forgiveness at Sinai was achieved through supplication and prayer. Moshe ascended the mountain and beseeched the Almighty to forgive His people. As Moshe elevated Himself and rose to a higher spiritual level, he drew closer to Hashem. Through this process his prayers were accepted and Bnai Yisrael was forgiven.
Each custom reflects one of these aspects of forgiveness. The Ashkenazic custom reminds us of the forgiveness received by Adam and Chava. It recalls the forgiveness inherent in the design of creation. The Sefardic custom reminds us of the forgiveness achieved at Sinai. It recalls the forgiveness we can secure through personal spiritual effort and prayer.
“There are those who are accustomed to eat a sweet apple with honey. And they say, “It should be granted to us a sweet year”. (Shulcah Aruch, Orech Chayim 583:1)
The Shulchan Aruch lists many foods eaten at the Rosh HaShanna meal. Each food alludes to a specific blessing. The eating is accompanied with a short prayer requesting from Hashem the blessing associated with the food. The eating of the apple is mentioned by Rav Moshe Isserles. In different communities customs vary as to which foods are consumed. However, the apple seems to have been widely incorporated into the Rosh HaShanna meal.
It is somewhat difficult to understand this custom. The Torah vigorously rejects all forms of superstition. It is very surprising that halacha should encourage a practice which seems to be based upon omen.
However, if carefully considered we can appreciate the meaning of this custom. It is not in any way an expression of superstition of primitive beliefs. For most of us the Rosh HaShanna experience is strongest while we are in the synagogue. There we pray for the fulfillment of our wishes in the coming year. We are actually aware of the process of heavenly judgment. Once we leave the synagogue we begin to become distracted. The Yom Tov meal, the opportunity to spend time with family and friends begin to compete for our attention. As the day passes we may forget the significance of the occasion.
Our Sages had a deep understanding of human behavior. They recognized this tendency towards distraction. Yet, the Rosh HaShanna experience should not be limited to the time spent in synagogue. The atmosphere of judgment should extend throughout the day. In order to accomplish this end the Sages encouraged the custom of eating special foods during the Yom Tov meal. Through this process an element of prayer is incorporated into the experience. Rather than the meal becoming a distraction, it reinforces the special atmosphere of the occasion.
 Rav Moshe Isserles, Comments on Shulchan Aruch, Orech Chayim 581:1.
 Rabbaynu Nissim, Notes to Commentary of Rabbaynu Yitzchak Alfasi, Mesechet Rosh HaShanna 3a.
 Rabbaynu Eliyahu of Vilna, Biur HaGra, Shulchan Aruch, Orech Chayim 581, note 8.
 Rabbaynu Nissim, Notes to Commentary of Rabbaynu Yitzchak Alfasi, Mesechet Rosh HaShanna 3a.