Selichot are already at full swing and well attended at Congregation Shaarei Orah, the Sephardic Congregation of Teaneck. Indeed, Sephardic Jews enjoy reciting Selichot beginning from the second day of Elul for 40 days until Yom Kippur. The Sephardic Selichot differ significantly from the Ashkenazic version, but the fundamental structure is identical. It begins with Ashrei and Chatzi Kaddish, ends with Kaddish Titkabal, includes Vidui and Tachanun and, of course, the centerpiece is the recital of the 13 Middot of Rachamim (13 aspects of God’s mercy).
For an Ashkenazic Jew, perhaps the most striking feature of the Sephardic Selichot is the appearance of Choni HaMa’ageil, Choni the Circle Maker. Similar to the Ashkenazic “Mi She’anah” (which is based on a Mishnah in Masechet Ta’anit), Sephardic Jews recite a parallel Aramaic version appealing to Hashem to respond to our tefillot in the manner that He responded to a list of Biblical figures at critical junctures in their lives. At the end of the list, Sephardim state “D’anei l’Choni aneinan,” You Who answered Choni should answer us. Choni most decidedly does not appear in this list in the Ashkenazic version.
What lies behind this textual difference? This disparity stems from a dispute between Choni and Rabi Shimon ben Shetach. Chazal in Masechet Ta’anit relate that once, during a severe drought, the Jewish people approached Choni to beseech Hashem for rain. Choni famously proceeded to draw a circle and declared to Hashem that he will not leave the circle until it rains. Hashem made it rain very lightly and then very strongly but Choni held fast and refused to leave the circle until Hashem sent “gishmei bracha,” a rain that will effectively alleviate the widespread suffering.
After Hashem finally responded to Choni, Rabi Shimon ben Shetach declared that Choni deserved to be excommunicated for the audacious manner in which he approached Hashem. Rabi Shimon ben Shetach declared that Hashem responds to Choni just as a father heeds the pleas of his wayward son, simply because he is his son.
Simply put, Sephardim follow Choni and Ashkenazim follow Rabi Shimon ben Shetach. However, a more profound point appears to be expressed as well. Sephardim identify with Choni since they are very comfortable relating to Hashem as a loving father. Ashkenazim, however, seem to be more comfortable with relating to Hashem as King and thus identify with Rabi Shimon ben Shetach.
All agree that Hashem is both our father and king, as both Ashkenazim and Sephardim express in the Avinu Malkeinu prayer. However, it is a question as to which aspect we emphasize. Sephardim stress the father side of Avinu Malkeinu whereas Ashkenazim, especially during the Yamim Nora’im, focus more on Hashem as our King.
This distinction regarding the mention of Choni during Selichot reflects the entire mood during the tefillot of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. For those who have experienced both styles of Yamim Noraim tefillot, it is most readily apparent that the Ashkenazic version is far more somber and the Sephardic approach much more upbeat. When relating to Father we are upbeat; when we relate to King we are most somber and serious.
Perhaps the most important lesson to be gleaned from examining this issue is the profundity of both versions of the tefillah. The mere omission or inclusion of a short phrase marks a huge difference in approach regarding a most basic and fundamental issue. How beautifully rich and profound are our tefillot!
By Rabbi Haim Jachter
Rabbi Haim Jachter is the spiritual leader of Congregation Shaarei Orah, the Sephardic Congregation of Teaneck. He also serves as a rebbe at Torah Academy of Bergen County and a dayan on the Beth Din of Elizabeth.