The custom of waking up early in the pre morning hours to recite Selihot during the 40 days from Rosh Hodesh Elul until Yom Kippur is codified in Shulhan Aruch (Orah Hayim 581; 1). The Selihot prayers were designed to facilitate Teshubah (repentance) in preparation for the annual Day of Judgement.

In recent years people have asked: should all men attend Selihot daily or are people in certain occupations or situations exempt from attending on a regular basis? One specific question addressed by Rabbi Ovadia Yosef (Yehave Da'at 3;44, Yabia Omer 2; A.H.28, Yalkut Yosef Moadim; Hilchot Selihot) is regarding yeshiva students, kolel men, and Rabbis, who normally study Torah late into the night and whose studies would be affected negatively by attending early Selihot daily. He applies the same question to workers and teachers who, as a result of attending early Selihot daily, would not be giving their employers their full and appropriate efforts and attention. Are these groups exempt from daily Selihot? If they do attend daily and their studies or work are affected negatively, should they stop attending?

The approach taken by Rabbi Ovadia Yosef is first to see how extensive the custom of daily Selihot from Rosh Hodesh Elul was historically. (He doesn't mention it but it is generally known that among Ashkenazim Selihot is nonexistent until a few days before Rosh Hashanah, although they do blow shofar from Rosh Hodesh Elul).

However, among the Eastern and Sephardic communities he quotes numerous Geonim and Rishonim (many already cited in the Tur {Orah Hayim 581;1}) who attest to several different customs regarding what days to say Selihot. These customs include:

  1. Only the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (Aseret Yeme Teshuba), (Rav Hai Gaon, Rav Amram, Rav Cohen Sedek, Rambam, Rav. Abraham Bar Natan Hayarhi, custom in the Gerona, Spain area);
  2. From the 25th of Elul (custom in the Barcelona, Spain area)
  3. Mondays and Thursdays in Elul in addition to Aseret Yeme Teshuba (Me'iri)
  4. 40 days from Rosh Hodesh Elul to Yom Kippur (Even in Spain practiced only erratically)

Once established that other customs were prevalent or perhaps dominant historically in Sephardic communities, even though Shulhan Aruch codifies the 40-day custom, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef maintains that people in the above-mentioned occupations can or should rely on these other customs of trying to attend only on Mondays and Thursdays in Elul and during Aseret Yeme Teshuba. He also disagrees with the approach of the Hida in Bircha Yosef who says that during this time of year it is better to increase our reciting communal Selihot and lessen personal Torah study.

Rabbi Ovadia Yosef brings no precedent or source supporting his partial exemption for Talmidei Hahamim, teachers and workers who are faced with the conflict of fulfilling other obligations as opposed to fulfilling the current Selihot custom.

Other related questions on this issue:

  1. Would these Talmidei Hahamim and workers be exempt even if the 40-day custom was the only one historically? Should logic and ethics not also apply here?
  2. What about the desired result of Teshuba that Selihot may cause? Would that outweigh all other considerations?
  3. What about negative effects of early waking on other aspects of life and relationships - such as family life and responsibilities or other mitzvot like Bikur Holim, or communal obligations?
  4. How does the possibility of reciting Selihot during daylight such as before Minha affect this issue?
  5. Is the approach of taking into account non-Shulhan Aruch customs legitimate? Would it also apply to laws as well as to customs?