I gave a Shiur yesterday (sources are at this link) on what the right time is to say Selichot. Thank you to everyone who attended and contributed to the lively give-and-take. Some thoughts that came out of the Shiur:
1) The popular notion that Chatzot is the best time to say Selichot is not borne out by the research. Three options emerge from the original sources: a) There is a Gemara (Source 1) which cites Chatzot as the time at which the Jews in the Midbar felt a comforting wind; b) The Shulchan Aruch (OC 1:2) (Source 6) cites the ends of the night’s three subdivisions (measured between Tzeit and Alot) as effective for an individual’s beseeching Hashem because the Mishmarot (Temple watchmen) changed at those times; c) Rambam (Source 3) and the Shulchan Aruch (OC 581:1) (Source 4) cite Ashmoret, shortly before Alot, as the best time for a Shul to say Selichot this time of year, perhaps because, as the Magen Avraham explains (Source 5), Hashem visits the 18,000th world – ours – just before Alot. Of the three options, the third, Ashmoret, relates most specifically to when to say Selichot. Rav Moshe at first assumes that the Rambam prefers Ashmoret as a matter of convenience (Source 9-F); we noticed that 1 am in the Rambam’s time (when people slept roughly from 8 pm-5 am) was effectively the same as 3 am in ours. 4 am, on the other hand, slightly earlier than when people were waking up anyway, was a more realistic time to say Selichot back then, somewhat akin to our saying Selichot at Chatzot, around 1 am, slightly later than when most of us go to sleep. However, the Rambam’s use of Ashmoret and our use of Chatzot are not necessarily equal. Rav Moshe points out (Source 9-G), based on the wording in the Rambam, that two requirements are needed – “לקום” and “עד שיאור היום.” Although Rav Moshe glosses over this point, it doesn’t seem that either requirement is met by saying Selichot at Chatzot, unless one slept before that and continues saying Selichot for several hours. Saying Selichot at 6:15 am or thereabouts may at least fulfill one of those requirements, לקום. Rav Moshe does come somewhat close to this point (Source 9-M) when he notices that the Rambam’s preference for Ashmoret may be based less on convenience and more on fulfilling an ideal. To complete Rav Moshe’s thought: The Rambam could have never preferred Chatzot because even if at one point in history it fulfilled the mandate of לקום, it never fulfilled עד שיאור היום! Ashmoret, on the other hand, fulfilled both requirements in Rambam’s time and continues to do so today. This is why Ashmoret is cited by both Rambam and the Shulchan Aruch as the best time to say Selichot – not out of convenience, but because it fulfills both לקום and עד שיאור היום. Chatzot for us fulfills neither; 6:15 am fulfills one (לקום).
2) Rav Moshe (Source 9-K) cites the end of the first third of the period between Tzeit and Alot, around 11:20 pm, as a post-facto leniency for those who are scared (see Source 9-A) to leave their house any later. But we were shocked to notice during the Shiur that Rav Moshe slips (Source 9-M) and refers to this earlier time as Eit Ratzon (“אף שגם שליש הלילה הוא עת רצון”), which opens up a huge can of worms. If שליש הלילה is עת רצון, why wait until Chatzot, or 12:00, or 12:30? Ashmoret (4:00 am) is better because it is when Hashem visits our world, and it fulfills לקום and עד שיאיר היום. But 11:30 has a source in Shulchan Aruch (Source 6), while Chatzot does not, and apparently it is just as much an Eit Ratzon. Did Rav Moshe really mean to extend the boundaries of עת רצון that wide? And if so, why is 11:30 only acceptable בדיעבד? Might 11:30, שליש הלילה, in fact be preferable to 12:00 or 12:30; or does it usher in an extended period of time which in its entirety is equally acceptable, thus equating 11:30 with 12:30 and with Chatzot? Either way, it is hard to see any downside to 11:30, perhaps even לכתחילה.
In the final analysis, if 11:35 is, as Rav Moshe puts it, an עת רצון, then there is no reason to wait until 12:00 or 12:30 to say Selichot. If 11:35 is not an עת רצון, then neither is 12:00 or 12:30 or even one minute before Chatzot (as Rav Ovadiah would well agree). If 12:00 or 12:30 are עת רצון, then they only are so because 11:35 was! So there is no qualitative difference between 11:30 and 12:30, and no reason to prefer 12:00 or 12:30 over 11:30. If being after שליש הלילה is what grants 12:00 or 12:30 their עת רצון status, then why not say Selichot at שליש הלילה?
3) Rav Moshe’s final ranking (Source 9-M) is ambiguous. He tells us that Ashmoret beats שליש הלילה and that Ashmoret even beats Chatzot, but he never puts Ashmoret and שליש הלילה in a head-to-head matchup. One might assume that he prefers Chatzot based on Source 9-J, in which case the final ranking would be Chatzot-שליש-Ashmoret, but in Source 9-M he refers to שליש as an עת רצון and he admits that, according to the Shulchan Aruch, Tur, and Rash, “ליכא שום מעלה בחצות!” So again, a very powerful argument can be made for 11:30.
4) As the chart on the last page shows, Rav Ovadiah Yosef divides the 24-hour day into three sections – Ideal (Chatzot until Alot), acceptable (Alot until Neitz), and extremely dangerous (Neitz until Chatzot). Rav Ovadiah disagrees so strongly with starting any earlier than Chatzot that he quotes sources to the effect that it is preferable to not say Selichot at all (Source 10, paragraph beginning ואמנם). He advocates saying Selichot before Mincha rather than say them in the first half of the night (Source 10, paragraph beginning ומכל מקום). This struck many of us as odd, but there is a fundamental difference between his approach and that of Rav Moshe. The latter is interested in settling for a time that is not optimal, while Rav Ovadiah is searching for a time that is not destructive to the planet. Still, his not quoting שליש הלילה at all was somewhat surprising to us – it is, after all, cited by his beloved מחבר, if only for individuals, right there at the outset of Shulchan Aruch. If מי שנזדמן במקרה למקום שאומרים שם סליחות וי”ג מדות בתחילת הלילה, אל יצטרף עמהם באמירתם because the first half of the night is an עת התגברות הדינים, why would that apply only to public Selichot and not to an individual’s calling out to Hashem in his house any night of the year? How does Rav Ovadiah understand אורח חיים א:ב, and why is the public/private difference so monumental as to warrant one’s not even joining with a Tzibbur saying Selichot early?
Those are some thoughts related to this topic, but there is plenty more in the sources waiting to be discovered. ואידך, זיל גמור. Of course the comments are open to others’ insights and suggestions.