The Month of Elul
Rosh Hashanah, the first day of the month of Tishrei, marks the beginning of the new year, 5778. It is the counting of years from the creation of the world, which happened on the first of Tishrei. It is interesting to know, that it was not the physical world coming into being that we celebrate on Rosh Hashanah. The first of the six days of creation actually was on the 25th day in the month of Elul- the month before Tishrei. The sixth and final day of creation, was the first of Tishrei, and Adam was the last thing created on that day. When man was created, everything was in place and ready for Adam. Since man is the purpose of creation, the Torah considers the first of Tishrei as the day the world was created. It was also on this very day that Adam sinned by eating from the tree of knowledge of good and bad, and was judged. Therefore, the first of Tishrei, Rosh Hashanah, is also the day of judgement for all his progeny.
Elul, is designated as the month of preparation for the awesome judgement of Rosh Hashanah, just over the horizon. From the beginning of Jewish History, Elul was a month of mercy and forgiveness for the Jewish people. It started just after the Jewish people had sinned by making the golden calf on the 17th of Tamuz. Upon seeing the Jewish people with the golden calf, Moshe broke the first set of tablets that he brought down 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 Jewish people for the terrible sin they had committed. Finally, the next day, the first 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 and came down with them on Yom Kippur.
Therefore, the forty days from Rosh Chodesh Elul until Yom Kippur, the days that Moshe was in heaven getting the second set of tablets, are days that have been set in the Jewish calendar as days that Hashem shows extra special mercy to His people. Giving us the second set of tablets, is the ultimate in mercy from Hashem.
Imagine the following scenario:
You were invited to the wedding of the son of one of your friends. The hall is full with family and friends, the rabbi, witnesses and bride and groom stand proudly under the chuppah.
All of a sudden, the bride, turns around and looking down from the stage, spots a handsome young man, standing in the back of the hall. In a flash, she 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 embarrassment of the groom and his family? After such a slap, would the groom ever consider this girl as a wife again?
This, with no exaggeration, is what happened with the Jewish nation. 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 wedding ring, they were with the golden calf, a different suiter. And then, a mere 40 days later, Hashem was prepared to enter into a 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 our forgiveness for our misdeeds, during the month of Elul and the ten day of Teshuva, He is ever more accessible, and much more forgiving.
To inspire us to use the month of Elul properly, the Sages have added various components to the daily prayers during the month of Elul to remind us of the importance of the time we are in, and of the impending Day of Judgement.
The Ashkenazik Jews, 1) blow the shofar after morning prayers every day except Shabbat, and 2) add Chapter 27 of
Psalms after prayers morning and evening.
1) The source of the custom for 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 you made last time Moshe went up the mountain.
The message of that shofar blowing is very relevant to us also. First of all, it reminds 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. Utilize the time wisely! The shofar is also a warning to us, to better our deeds and not do the sins we are accustomed to doing. What a great message to start each day of Elul with.
2) The addition of Psalm #27 is because of the words in the very first verse which say:
1( ספר תהילים פרק כז (
)א( לְדָוִד יְדוָד אורִי וְיִשְעִי מִמִי אִירָא יְדוָד מָעוז חַיַי מִמִי 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” is a reference to Rosh Hashanah. “My salvation” is a reference to Yom Kippur.
How are we to understand this explanation?
Our sages use a parable to help us penetrate to the depths of this concept.
What is the difference between a photographer and a doctor?
When a person goes to have a portrait taken by a photographer, even if he is the most unkempt person in the world who always has stains on his shirt, his tie always askew, his suit all creased, his hair a mess, and always needs a shave, for the portrait, he will shape himself up. He will put on his best suit straight from the cleaners, 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, and make 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 most sour disposition in the world, 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 hanging on the wall of his home, 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 for the photo like that? He never looks like that, ever!
The answer is, he is not fooling anybody. Everybody knows that for a photo you want to look your best.
When you go to the doctor, it is just the opposite. You take everything off, and you tell the doctor all the secrets of what ails you. You don’t want to leave anything out, because you want him to heal every last pain you have.
Rosh Hashanah is אורי my light. Think of it as the flash of the camera taking a portrait of you. In that flash of light, you want to look your best. You want to show Hashem what you are capable of looking like.
On Rosh Hashanah we do not mention our sins at all. This is the day that Hashem created the world, and our prayers proclaim Hashem as King of the universe. We, as Hashem’s subjects, coronate Hashem as our King, and we accept His kingdom upon us. This is what a picture-perfect Jew looks like.
On Yom Kippur, Hashem is like a doctor. Hashem is ישעי – my salvation, my savior from all my ailments, my sins. He is ready and able to cure us of all our sins, but we need to tell Him what our issues are, so He can cure us. Here, I want to expose all my ailments and flaws, so the doctor can heal them once and for all.
Therefore, on Yom Kippur we confess all our sins, with the hope that Hashem will forgive them so we can be the person Hashem saw in the portrait on Rosh Hashanah.
On Rosh Hashanah Hashem is a photographer, and on Yom Kippur, Hashem is our doctor.
The Sephardic Jews prepare for Rosh Hashanah in a very different way. They do not blow the shofar after the morning prayers, and they do not add a chapter of Psalms. Instead, they say special prayers asking for forgiveness called סליחות (selichot). Just prior to Rosh Hashanah the Ashkenazim also say selichot, but the Sephardim do so the entire month of Elul.
The Sephardic selichot are also very different than the Ashkenazic ones. While the Ashekenazim will have a different set of selichot to say for each day, The Sephardim say the very same selichot every day! During the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the ,עשרת ימי תשובה a few extra paragraphs are added, but for the most part, the very same selichot are repeated every day. There are many advantages to this system. Since the very same selichot are being said over and over again, it is possible to know the meaning of every word. Additionally, the Sephardic selichot are beautifully poetic, and very easy to understand. This makes reciting them with emotion and feeling very easy, since the understanding of the concepts and ideas flows naturally from the words. Additionally, for many centuries, catchy tunes and melodies have been used, and much of the selichot are sung in unison by the congregation. In addition to adding an enjoyable component to the slichot, this also creates a feeling of unity in the congregation which is very powerful. 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 of the year for which the Sages have found many hints in scripture. The hint comes in the form of the four letters א ל ו ל which are found in sequence as the first letters of four words in a sentence. 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) composed by King Solomon.
3( ספר שיר השירים פרק ו (
)ג( אֲנִי לֲדודִי וֲדודִי לֲי הָרֹעֶה בַשּׁושַ נים
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 bring us closer to Him. But, the instructions are, that it must start with us, and it must be out of love. But, once we reach out to Him, He will respond immediately and bring us close to Him.
The last four letters of the words comprising the letters of
אלול are all י which has a numeric value of 10. The four י
‘s (4X10) equal 40 the number of days until Yom Kippur that we have to get ready for the big day.
ספר דברים פרק ל
)ו( וּמָל יְדוָד אֱלֹהֶיךָ אֲת לֲבָבְךָ וֲאֶת לֲבַב זַרְעֶךָ לְאַהֲבָה אֶת יְדוָד אֱלֹהֶיךָ
בְכָל לְבָבְךָ וּבְכָל נַפְשְךָ לְמַ ען חַיֶיךָ:
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 is telling us that not only will Hashem bring us close to Him in the month of Elul, He will help us to be better by circumcising our hearts and the hearts of our children, so that we can serve Him better.
Coupled with the previous hint, once we make the proper overtures, Hashem will actually cut away the blockages and barriers in our hearts of flesh that separate us from connecting to Him and clear the way for a deeper more meaningful relationship.
1( ספר שמות פרק כא (
)יג( וַאֲשֶר לאֹ צָדָה וְהָאֱלֹהִים אֲנָה לֲיָדו וֲשַמְתִי לֲךָ מָקום אֲשֶר יָנוּס
13. 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 verse 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 hide and be protected from the consequences of our sins. In this month, our teshuva (repentance) is accepted much easier, and it is easy to escape from the sins in our hands.
ספר אסתר פרק ט
וּמִשְלו ח מָנות אֲיש לֲרֵעֵהוּ וֲּמַתָנות לֲאֶבְיונִים:
22. And sending gifts to one another and gifts to the poor.
This verse is giving us another clue how to achieve a good judgement. By giving gifts and presents to the poor.
The verse says:
ספר משלי פרק י
וּצְדָקָה תַצִיל מִמָוֶת:
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.
There are actually 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 concepts of Elul.
The question is, why does the month of Elul have all the hints?
Maybe the answer can be found in a statement of the Sages.
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 utilize it to the fullest. These ideas will not be accessible to the foolish, who don’t have 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 hints from the month of Elul.