Throughout the month of Elul and the High Holy Days we recite the selihot (apology) prayers. One of the most important elements of this service is the vidui, or confession. We declare before God that we have sinned, and then we ask for His forgiveness. Perhaps the most memorable confessional is the Ashamnu. In an effort to be as comprehensive as possible in our petition, we recite this acrostic covering different expressions of sin from Aleph to Tav, or as we might say in English, from A to Z.
In many communities, when the Ashamnu prayer is recited everyone beats their chest as they say each word as an expression of their grief and remorse. While you may see some people doing so at Bevis Marks Synagogue, it is not the S&P minhag/custom to do so.
The best record of Spanish & Portuguese Jewish customs is the multi-volume Hebrew language work by Shemtob Gaguine entitled Keter Shem Tob. Rev Gaguine was the Av Bet Din of London’s Spanish & Portuguese Jews in the early twentieth century. In the Keter Shem Tob, he contrasts the distinctive S&P customs with other Sephardic and Ashkenazi communities, together with extensive scholarly explanations of the traditions in footnotes. With reference to the beating of the chest he wrote, ‘the Sephardim of London and Amsterdam do not know of this custom’ (Vol 4-6 pg 28).
מנהג הספרדים בא״י וסת״ם והאשכנזים כשמתודים דרכם להכות באגרוף מקום משכן הלב, והספרדים בלונדון ואמ״ד אינם יודעים ממנהג זה
In other words, despite its widespread performance amongst Ashkenazi and other Sephardi communities, this form of penitential absolution was foreign to the S&P Jews. Perhaps this type of behavior was too reminiscent of Catholic practice for these former Conversos. As Catholics, they may have witnessed flagellation, and therefore may have viewed this type of self-affliction as foreign to Judaism.
Indeed, there is an expressed prohibition in the Torah against causing self-harm. The Torah states, “You shall not cut yourselves” (Deuteronomy 14:1). While this prohibition is proscribing actual self-harm (as opposed to the ceremonial beating of the chest), and harm caused in response to mourning, the notion remains. We are not meant to use self-inflicted pain as a way of processing difficult feelings, but to instead process our emotions through introspection and positive action. Pain, or the ritual beating of one’s heart, may even distract a person from the real goal of the prayers – sincere reflection. Perhaps for this reason the Western Sephardim refrained from beating their chests, choosing instead to confront their sins without interference.
Maintaining this custom is important, not only for its own innate value, but also because of its broader implications. Preserving the S&P minhag is done by retaining our community’s unique traditions, but it is only fully accomplished by also refraining from adopting traditions which are foreign to it. In this way, we preserve a distinctive way of Jewish life, one in which its rituals, and non-rituals, reflect a worldview, spirituality, and set of values which together represent an important understanding of Judaism. However, if we treat the traditions cavalierly, they, and the ethos that they represent, will be lost. Therefore, this year let us not mechanically beat our chests, but instead sincerely open our hearts to God.