Seeking forgiveness of God long before Yom Kippur…Sephardim meeting at Magain David six times a we

It's 5:30 a.m. in San Francisco's Richmond District — dark, cold, foggy. The streets are quiet, nearly free of traffic. There are even a few empty parking spaces.

But a warm, yellow light and open doors welcome the bleary-eyed to Magain David Sephardim Congregation. A few men have already arrived in the burgundy-carpeted sanctuary.

Fifteen minutes later, a strong voice begins to chant in Hebrew the prayers of selichot — or forgiveness. These melodies of Spanish, Turkish and Middle Eastern origin are unfamiliar to Ashkenazic ears. They are mesmerizing, slightly upbeat. They hint of an Arabic influence.

Since the Hebrew month of Elul began in mid-August, some 20 to 30 observant Jews have gathered six days a week for a special, hourlong service that precedes the regular morning prayers.

Rabbi Eliahu Shalom Ezran, the congregation's spiritual leader, said these Jews come to prepare for the High Holy Days and to appeal for God's mercy.

"We believe this is the right time to correct our ways and to beg from HaShem to forgive," Ezran said last week.

The service is repeated each morning of the 40 days leading to Yom Kippur, except on Shabbat. The congregation has been fully observing this tradition since Ezran arrived six years ago.

During this time period, Ashkenazic Jews traditionally add the blast of a shofar and a particular psalm to their morning prayers. They generally begin reciting the special penitential prayers of selichot on the Sunday before Rosh Hashanah.

Sephardic and Middle Eastern Jews take the practice a step further and add an entire prayer service for the 40 days.

Many modern Jews believe Yom Kippur gives them plenty of time to reflect on their actions, but these adherents disagree. No one does so little wrong as to require only one annual day of repentance, they maintain.

"All the year, you do bad things here and there without even thinking about it," said 47-year-old Efhraim Khalfhy, who had arrived promptly at 5:30 a.m.

Added Ezran: "The idea of selichot and these 40 days — the person should give to himself more of an accounting of what he's doing in his life, where he is heading, what is the purpose of his actions."

The 40 days of selichot originate in the Jewish oral tradition.

Moses descended Mount Sinai the first time with the Ten Commandments in hand, only to witness the people dancing around the golden calf. He smashed the first tablets in anger.

According to Jewish tradition, Moses returned to the top of Mount Sinai on the first day of Elul. He began to pray that God would forgive Jewish people's sin. Forty days later, on Yom Kippur, Moses descended the mountain with the second set of tablets.

"No one is pure in this world. We all have our sins and we have to ask for forgiveness," 47-year-old Nathan Matut said. "If Moshe Rabenu can do it for 40 days and 40 nights, we should do it every day."

By the time the service ends at 6:45 a.m., about 20 men have assembled. Most come from Sephardic or Middle Eastern families, but a handful of older Russian-speaking emigres attend as well. The lone female is a reporter, who sits in the back of the sanctuary behind a 4-foot-tall mechitzah of wood with a lace curtain. Found in traditional synagogues, the mechitzah separates the sexes during worship.

The men appear to range in age from 20 to 80. Some wear jeans and leather jackets; others, suits. Some wear kippot; others, baseball caps.

They use a slim prayerbook, written all in Hebrew, specifically created for the selichot service. Their voices boom inside the sanctuary, which is about the size of a large classroom outfitted with cushioned pews and white lacy curtains.

"The melodies of the selichot on a personal level bring up a lot of memories of beautiful tradition," said Ezran, who was born in Jerusalem. "Those who were raised in Orthodox Judaism — Sephardim — always remember the melodies."

The service includes the chanting of God's 13 attributes, such as mercy, patience, kindness and compassion. The men also recite piyyutim, or religious poems, set to music.

In the middle of the Kaddish recited at the end of the service, the shofar is blown.

The shofar's blasts are meant to act "like a bell in our ears," Ezran said. "Wake up: Life is not endless. Life has a purpose."

The sound is supposed to help Jews remember to correct their mistakes in their relations with God and with fellow humans. Blowing the shofar during a break in Kaddish, the mourner's prayer that praises God, is also a way to grab God's attention and plead for forgiveness.

Immediately after the service, a plate is passed around to gather coins and dollar bills for tzedakah. Within minutes, the men don tallit and lay tefillin for the morning service known as Shacharit.

Despite waking up so early, several congregants said they won't wilt by midday. Connecting with God so early in the day creates just the opposite effect, they said.

"It's enlightening, like an awakening," Matut said before heading to work. "The more you do things like this, the more it becomes natural."