The Month of Elul
Rosh Hashanah, which falls on the 1st day of the month of Tishrei (this year, Sunday night, September 9th), marks the beginning of the new year 5779. This counts the years since the world’s creation, which happened on the 1st of Tishrei, year 0. Interestingly, Rosh Hashanah does not celebrate the creation of the physical world. The first of the six days of creation began on the 25th day in the month of Elul–the month before Tishrei. The 1st of Tishrei was the sixth and final day of creation on which Adam, the last thing to be created, came into being. When Adam appeared, everything was in place and ready for him. Since humanity is the purpose for creation, the Torah considers the 1st of Tishrei as the day of the world’s creation. That was also the day on which Adam and Eve sinned by eating from the tree of knowledge of good and bad and were judged. As a result, the 1st of Tishrei, Rosh Hashanah, is also the day of judgement for all of their progeny.
The preceding month of Elul is the month of preparation for Rosh Hashanah’s awesome judgement, which is just over the horizon. From the beginning of Jewish History, Elul had become a month of mercy and forgiveness for the Jewish people. Starting just after the Jewish people had sinned by making the golden calf on the 17th of Tamuz, when Moshe saw what had occurred and smashed the first set of tablets that he had brought from Sinai, Hashem wanted to destroy the Jewish people. But Moshe intervened and averted the imminent destruction. For the next forty days, from the 18th of Tamuz, until the last day of the month of Av, Moshe pleaded with Hashem to forgive the people for the terrible sin that they had committed. Finally, on the next day, the 1st day of Elul, Hashem acquiesced and told Moshe to come back up Mount Sinai to receive the second set of tablets. Moshe stayed in heaven for the next forty days to receive the second set of tablets, returning with them on Yom Kippur.
Therefore, the forty days from Rosh Chodesh Elul, the 1st day of Elul, until Yom Kippur, viz, the days that Moshe was in heaven receiving the second set of tablets, are days set in the Jewish calendar as days during which Hashem showed extra mercy to His people. Giving us the second set of tablets represents Hashem’s ultimate forgiveness.
Imagine the following scenario.
You are invited to your friend’s son’s wedding. The hall is full with family and friends, and the rabbi, witnesses, and bride and groom stand proudly under the chuppah.
Suddenly, the bride turns around, looks down from the stage, spots a handsome young man standing in the back of the hall, and, in a flash, bolts from the stage, runs down the aisle, and leaves the building hand in hand with the stranger in the back.
Can you imagine the groom and his family’s embarrassment? After such a slap, would the groom ever consider marrying this girl again?
This is exactly what happened with the Jewish nation. The Talmud tells us that Mount Sinai was suspended over the heads of the Jewish nation like a chuppah. The Tablets were the wedding ring. Shortly after the Chuppah, when Moshe was about to give them the ring, they were dancing with the golden calf, a different suiter. And yet, a mere 40 days later, Hashem was prepared to renew His relationship with the Jewish nation once again. What supreme forgiveness!
Even though Hashem is always ready and willing to accept our repentance and grant us forgiveness for our misdeeds, during the month of Elul and the ten day between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (the “Aseret Yemai Teshuva”), He is ever more accessible and much more forgiving.
To inspire us to use the month of Elul properly, the Sages added various components to the daily prayers during that month to remind us of the importance of the time we are in, and of the impending day of Judgement.
The Ashkenazic Jews, (1) blow the shofar after morning prayers every day except Shabbat, and (2) add Chapter 27 of Psalms after the morning and evening prayers.
- The source of the custom of blowing the shofar comes from the day that Moshe went up the mountain on the first of Elul to receive the second set of tablets. On that morning, the shofar was blown to alert the entire nation that Moshe was called up to heaven to receive the second set of tablets and that Hashem had forgiven them for their sin. It was also a warning message: Do not to make the same mistake that you made the last time that Moshe ascended the mountain.
The message of that shofar blowing is very relevant to us also, reminding us that this is a time for forgiveness; for during this time many years ago, Hashem forgave the Jewish people for the sin of the golden calf. Use the time wisely! The shofar also warns us to better our deeds and not do the sins that we have become accustomed to doing. What a great message to start each day of Elul with.
- The addition of Psalm 27 is because of the words in the first verse, which say:
ספר תהילים פרק כז
(א) לְדָוִד יְדֹוָד אוֹרִי וְיִשְׁעִי מִמִּי אִירָא יְדֹוָד מָעוֹז חַיַּי מִמִּי אֶפְחָד
By David: Hashem is my light, and my salvation, whom shall I fear? Hashem is my life’s strength, whom shall I dread?
The Sages explain “my light” refers to Rosh Hashanah. “My salvation” refers to Yom Kippur.
How are we to understand this explanation of the Sages? They use a parable to help us penetrate to the depths of this concept.
What is the difference between going to a photographer for a portrait and going to a doctor for a visit?
When a person sits for a portrait, even if he is the most unkempt person in the world who always has stains on his shirt, his tie is always askew, his jacket is creased, his hair is a mess, and he always needs a shave, before sitting for the portrait he will shape himself up. He will don his best suit freshly cleaned, a fresh clean starched shirt, and a new tie. He’ll be sure to take a haircut and a shave. Then he’ll stand in front of the mirror, making sure that everything looks picture perfect. If he has a pimple on one side of his face, he’ll show the other side of his face to the camera. He may have the world’s sourest disposition, but for the camera he is going to put on his most charming smile.
When you would take one look at the picture of him on his wall you would burst out laughing. Who is that? He never looked like that a day in his life. Who is he fooling by dressing up and posing like that for the photo? He never look like that, ever!
The answer is that he is not fooling anybody. Everybody knows that for a photo you want to look your best.
On the other hand, just the opposite obtains when a person goes to the doctor. They put him in a room, and while handing him a flimsy robe they tell him to take everything off. When the doctor finally comes in, he bares himself and his soul to the doctor telling him all that ails him. “And when I lift my arm up like this, it hurts right here!” He doesn’t want to leave anything out, because he wants the doctor to heal every last pain that he has.
Rosh Hashanah is אורי – my light– a portrait. Think of it as the flash of the camera taking your portrait. In that flash of light you want to look your best. Even though you may look sloppy during the year, on Rosh Hashanah you want to show Hashem what you are capable of looking like.
On Rosh Hashanah we make no mention our sins at all. Instead, the prayers are about Hashem being the King of the universe, and as we proclaim Hashem the King of the world, we accept Him upon ourselves as our king. This is what a picture – perfect Jew looks like – a servant of the King ready to serve.
Yom Kippur is like going to the doctor. Hashem is ישעי – my salvation, my savior from all my ailments. I want to expose all of my ailments and flaws so the doctor can heal them once and for all.
On Yom Kippur we thus confess all of our sins with the hope that Hashem will forgive them so that we can be the person who Hashem saw in the portrait on Rosh Hashanah.
On Rosh Hashanah we sit before Hashem for a portrait; on Yom Kippur we visit Hashem, the doctor, to heal all of our ailments.
The Sephardic Jews prepare for Rosh Hashanah in a very different way than their Ashkenazic brothers. They do not blow the shofar after the morning prayers, and they do not add a chapter of Psalms. Instead, they say special prayers that ask for forgiveness calledסליחות (slichot). The Ashkenazim also say slichot just prior to Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur, but the Sephardim say them for the entire month of Elul and until Yom Kippur.
The Sephardic slichot are very different than the Ashkenazic ones. While the Ashekenazim will have a different set of slichot for each day that they are said, the Sephardim say the same slichos every day for almost 40 days. During the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the עשרת ימי תשובה, “Aseret Yemai Teshuva” – Ten days of Teshuva – a few extra paragraphs are added. But otherwise, they say the same slichot every day. They are beautifully poetic yet easy to understand making it very meaningful to say them.
Additionally, over time, tunes and melodies have developed, and many of the slichot are sung in unison by the congregation. This creates a powerful feeling of unity in the congregation. All in all, it is a very uplifting and holy experience.
There is something very curious about the month of אלול (Elul). It is the only month that has many hints in Scripture. The key is the four letters א ל ו ל which are found in sequence as the first letters of four words in a sentence of Scripture. Let’s look at a few of them and derive a list of instructions of how to prepare ourselves for the day when we will come before Hashem for judgement.
By far the most famous of all the hints is the one in שיר השירים (Shir Hashirim) – The Song of Songs, composed by King Solomon. (6:3)
ספר שיר השירים פרק ו
(ג) אֲנִי לְדוֹדִי וְדוֹדִי לִי הָרֹעֶה בַּשּׁוֹשַׁנִּים
3) I alone am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine.
The word אלול in this verse is telling us that during this month of Elul, our Beloved, Hashem, wants to be very close to us. When we make overtures to Hashem our Beloved, He will respond in kind and return the closeness to us. But, the instructions are clear: it must all start with us, and it must arise from love. But, when we properly reach out to Him, He will respond immediately and bring us close.
There is another verse in Deuteronomy (30:6) that also has four words in a row whose first letters spell אלול.
ספר דברים פרק ל
(ו) וּמָל יְדֹוָד אֱלֹקֶיךָ אֶת לְבָבְךָ וְאֶת לְבַב זַרְעֶךָ לְאַהֲבָה אֶת יְדֹוָד אֱלֹקֶיךָ בְּכָל לְבָבְךָ וּבְכָל נַפְשְׁךָ לְמַעַן חַיֶּיךָ:
6) Hashem, your God, will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, to love Hashem, your God, with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live:
This verse informs us that not only will Hashem bring us close to Him in the month of Elul, He will help us to be better by removing the offensive part of our hearts and the hearts of our children so that we can serve Him better.
Coupled with the previous hint, the clear message is that once we make the proper overtures to Hashem, He will actually cut away the blockages in our hearts of flesh that separate us from connecting to Him.
Exodus (21:13) contains yet another verse with four consecutive words whose first letters spell אלול.
(1) ספר שמות פרק כא
(יג) וַאֲשֶׁר לֹא צָדָה וְהָאֱלֹקִים אִנָּה לְיָדוֹ וְשַׂמְתִּי לְךָ מָקוֹם אֲשֶׁר יָנוּס שָׁמָּה:
- But for one who had not lain in ambush and God had caused it to come to his hand, I shall provide you a place to which he shall flee:
This is telling us that even if we have some inappropriate deeds, in the month of Elul Hashem has given us a place of refuge where we can be protected from the consequences of our sins. In this month, our teshuva (repentance) is accepted much more easily and it is easy to escape from the sins in our hands.
The next hint is from a verse is in the Megillah of Esther that we read on Purim. (9:22)
ספר אסתר פרק ט
וּמִשְׁלוֹחַ מָנוֹת אִישׁ לְרֵעֵהוּ וּמַתָּנוֹת לָאֶבְיוֹנִים:
- And sending gifts to one another and gifts to the poor.
This verse is gives us another clue how to achieve a good judgement – by giving gifts and presents to the poor.
Proverbs (10:2) tells us
ספר משלי פרק י
וּצְדָקָה תַּצִּיל מִמָּוֶת:
- Charity saves from death.
By giving charity and presents to the poor, we can sweeten the judgement against us. Hashem judges us based on how we judge others, and if we are kind and charitable to others, Hashem will treat us the same.
Of the many more hints to the month of Elul in scripture, I have brought only a few as a sampling and to teach us some of the tricks of the trade.
The question is, though, why does the month of Elul of all the months contain all of the hints? Maybe the answer can be found in a statement of the Sages.
(1) מדרש משלי – פרשה כב
די לחכימא ברמיזא ולשטיא בכורמיזא
A hint is sufficient for a wise man, and for a fool even a sledge hammer won’t help.
In other words, when it comes to Elul, only a wise man will pick up on the importance of the month and use it to the fullest. These ideas will be inaccessible to the foolish who lack the wisdom to understand the deep ideas that are contained here.
Let us hope that we can count ourselves among the wise and take the hint from the month of Elul.