The Jewish month of Elul
Hodesh haRahamin vehaSelihot
A Month of Mercy and Forgiveness.
The month of Elul1 is the last month of the Jewish civil year. However, according to the biblical Calendar, it is also the sixth month, counting from Nisan which is called the “first of the months” in the Torah (Ex. 12:2). Elul precedes the month of Tishrei (called the seventh month, Numbers 29:1).
Placed as the last of the months and followed by the New Year, Elul invites an introspective reflection on the year that has been. Elul begins the important liturgical season of Return and Repentance which culminates with Rosh HaShanah,2 the Days of Awe3 and Yom Kippur4 (1-10 Tishrei). Elul takes its place as an important preparation time for repentance.
Elul follows the months of Tammuz and Av, both catastrophic months for Israel according to tradition. Tammuz is remembered as the month in which the people of Israel built the Golden Calf (Ex. 32) and Av, the month of the sin of the spies (Num. 13). The proximity of Tammuz and Av to Elul underscores the penitential mode of this, the last of the months, before the new beginning and spiritual re-creation that is precipitated with the New Year beginning the following month of Tishrei. The Jewish calendar carries the message that in the cycle of life estrangement can and should be followed by reconciliation.
Tradition teaches that Elul was the month when Moses ascended the mountain for the second time and remained there for forty days after the incident of the Golden Calf (Ex. 32; 34:27-28). Jewish tradition recounts that Moses spent the period between the new moon of Elul (Rosh Chodesh Elul) and Yom Kippur (10th day of the month of Tishrei), i.e., 40 days, praying for God’s forgiveness for the people of Israel, only descending when the period of repentance was complete. That Moses did descend from his period of seclusion with God of the mountain and he did so with the second set of tablets is seen as testimony to God’s great mercy towards the people (Bava Bathra 121a).
Elul... An invitation. Wisdom through Understanding
During the month of Elul each person and, indeed, the Community of Israel as one, reflect upon the past year, entering, on the first day of Elul, into a forty day period of introspection.
Kabbalists interpret the Gematria5 associated with Elul
(Elul = 67) with binah / understanding
[בינה | binah is also numerically equivalent to 67.]
Elul is a time to grow in wisdom, to reflect with understanding upon one’s standing within the framework of God’s mercy and justice. Spiritual reflection associated with the preceding month, Av, pictures God as having retreated within a concealed inner sanctum—a reflection, in fact, of human distancing and withdrawal from God. Elul becomes a time to make good, to reflect, to advance in wisdom (through understanding [binah]), and to begin setting things to rights—the beginning of the “teshuvah” process.
The King is in the Field
Jewish mystical thinking encourages the idea that reflection upon one’s inner motivations and thoughts one is able to engage the “power” of the soul within the body, reshaping the way in which we live and respond—re-orientating our “will” to God and to good.
"...And his heart shall understand and he shall return and be healed" (Isa. 6:10).
An Hasidic parable
During the season of repentance, and particularly on Yom Kippur, God is envisaged as Father and King. Hasidic reflection sees God as, “the king in the field” during Elul, drawn out of “concealment” and approachable. Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi6 in his Likkutei Torah explains the Hasidic teaching of the approachful-ness of God during Elul. The teaching takes the form of a parable.
A king normally lives in a palace, separated from and unapproachable by ordinary people—this is how our relationship with God seems as we become bound up in the world with its distractions, frailties and concerns. During Elul, however, the king (God) might be experienced as having left the hiddenness of the palace and having entered into the field (i.e., that place where ordinary people are) and so becoming available to his subjects. In this month of Elul, while people continue with their normal activities they are at the same time aware of the presence of God and are drawn to prayer, reflection and response.
This parable, like much of Hasidic philosophy, invites us to enter a period of personal reflection where our ultimate goal is to uncover the Divine point which is within. This is the holy point (Yehidah) within every person’s heart—the “living soul,” which is partnered with the Divine Eternal and which, in the course of everyday life, becomes covered and hidden. During Elul we are the ones who “come into the field” seeking the King, and it is during Elul that we turn to prayer and seek to draw close to God remembering the Divine attributes of Mercy and Forgiveness. According to The Sefat Emet7 it is in our Divine point that God has implanted eternal life in us and it is this Divine point which we must seek to uncover in order that we might be renewed; released from our sinful and imperfect selves, and “inscribed for life”—that God will inscribe “Life” on our hearts—with the coming of Rosh HaShanah.
Elul — A Month of Mercy and Forgiveness
Elul is called the “Month of Mercy” and “Month of Forgiveness” (Hodesh haRahamin vehaSelihot). It is a time for teshuvah (return) to God, to renew one’s efforts in prayer, Torah study and charity, and to seek forgiveness for transgression, especially against one’s fellows. It is the belief in Jewish tradition that God does not forgive sins committed against another person unless one first endeavors to be reconciled with those wronged. During Elul, the last month before the Days of Awe, Jews, mindful of the great sin of the Golden Calf, enter into a spiritual and practical cleansing which will culminate with Yom Kippur.
According to a complex form of Gematria, Elul = 13: א+ל+ו+ל = 1+30+6+30 = 67.
Accordingly, the number thirteen suggests a connection with The Thirteen Attributes of Divine Mercy and the month of Elul which is developed through the month of Elul.
“The LORD! The LORD! A God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgressions and sin” (Ex. 34:6-7).
Liturgical customs during Elul include the recitation of Selihot.8 Selihot prayers, mentioned in the Mishnah (Ta’anit 2:1-4), originated as prayers for fast days. Selihot are recited by Sephardim9 from the first day of Elul; by Ashkenzim10> as the month draws to a close The chief theme of the Selichot of Elul and the Days of Awe is the Thirteen attributes of Divine Mercy (Shelosh Esreh Middot haRahamim, Ex. 34:6-7).
The custom and association of The Thirteen Attributes of Divine Mercy with the forty day period of Elul and the Days of Awe, culminating on Yom Kippur, is drawn from ancient tradition. The Tur11 in Orah Hayyim records a midrash (found in Pirkei de Rabbi Eliezer12) which recounts that after the incident of the Golden Calf, when Moses re-ascended the Mountain, there began for Israel a forty day period of reconciliation culminating in the revelation of The Thirteen attributes of Mercy to Moses (on Yom Kippur.)
In the Ashkenazic tradition the recitation of Selihot through Elul reaches a climax on the eve of Rosh HaShanah with the inclusion of a collection of Selihot called Zechor Berit, which invoke the merits of the Patriarchs and recall Divine promises. “Remember the covenant with Abraham and the binding of Isaac…”
The Holy City and its regions are turned to shame and to spoils and all its desirable things are buried and hidden and nothing is left except this Torah.
(from Zechor Berit Avraham, Selihot 42, composed by Gershom Ben Judah).
Elul and the Shofar
The shofar is sounded every morning after the Shaharit services from the second morning of Elul to the twenty eighth day. This practice, related to the sounding of the horn at Sinai, calls attention to the significance of Elul as a period for reconciliation and introspection. Maimonides13 described the sound of the shofar in Elul as a “wake up call,” a reminder to those who are “asleep” that it is time to rise up from complacency and travel the pathways of repentance (Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Teshuvah 3:4). [Jump to “The Shofar Speaks” below]
During the month of Elul the custom is to recite Psalm 27 communally from Rosh Chodesh Elul until the middle of the Sukkot, 45 days later. Midrash suggests the first verse: “God is my light and my helper, whom shall I fear?” alludes to the High Holydays. God is “my light” on Rosh HaShanah, and “my salvation” on Yom Kippur; further, “for he will hide me in his Sukkah” (v. 5) hints at Succot (Kitzur Shulhan Aruch 128:2)14.
The Baal Shem Tov15 instituted the custom of reciting three additional chapters of Psalms each day, from the 1st of Elul until Yom Kippur (on Yom Kippur the remaining 36 chapters are recited, thereby completing the entire book of Psalms)
Lulei – “Had I not trusted!...”
There is a further allusion to Elul found in Psalm 27
“Had I not trusted that I would see the goodness of God in the land of life…” (v. 13).
The Jewish scribal tradition has accentuated the word lulei (Had I not) by placing dots over the word in the text. The word lulei in Hebrew, לוּלֵא, when read backwards (i.e., left to right) spells Elul.
The Talmud relates King David’s uncertainty regarding his “reward in the land of the living.” According to the Tanna, Rabbi Jose,
David spoke before the Holy One, blessed be He: ‘Master of the world, I am sure that you will pay a good reward to the righteous in the world to come, but I do not know whether I shall have a share in it’? This was because David was afraid that a sin of his might cause his exclusion or cause God’s promise to be unfulfilled. (Berachot 4a).
The psalm teaches us that the possibilities that David envisaged, “Had I not the confidence that I would enjoy the goodness of the LORD”, are so terrible the psalmist does not complete the thought.
According to The Pri Tzadik16 the word lulei (had I not) is significant because it is a hint that this is a time for a person to fix his or her actions so that their sins do not cause them to lose out on the reward in the world to come. The Baal Turim17 writes that lulei (לוּלֵא) are the letters of word Elul (אִלוּל) “because from Elul onwards I tremble before God.” (Devarim 30:6)
ELUL — Introspection and Spiritual preparation
A number of spiritual teachings are derived from acronyms formed from the Hebrew letters of Elul.
Aleph / Lamed / Vav / Lamed | א.ל.ו.ל
A famous dictum which comes to the fore during the High Holy Days is:
“Teshuvah, Tefillah and Tzedakah can change the evil decree.”
Usually translated as Repentance, Prayer and Charity, this dictum is reflected in spiritual associations made during Elul and further developed during the Days of Awe where the possibility that one’s name will be inscribed for Life of Death in the Book of Life adds an incentive to “improve oneself” through, repentance, prayer, service to God and acts of charity.
Penitential Themes in Acronyms of e.l.u.l.
Penitential themes are especially evident in the teachings derived through associations
with the letters of the word Elul – א.ל.ו.ל – and biblical verses.
(usually translated, Repentance).
And the LORD your God will circumcise your heart, and the heart of your offspring (Deut. 30:6).
(usually translated, Prayer).
I am my Beloved’s and my Beloved is Mine (Song of Songs 6:3).
(usually translated, Charity).
Each man [shall give gifts] to his fellow, and presents to the poor (Esther 9:22).
- Torah Study. (“A place of Refuge for us” ~Makkot 10a)
If [God] allows it [the unintentional death], into his hand I will designate for you [a place he may flee]
usually translated, “I will assign you a place to which to flee” (Ex. 21:13).
- Kulo La-HaShem (Total Devotion to God).
One for a burnt offering and one for a sin offering (Lev. 12:8).
- Guelah (Redemption).
To the LORD, and they said, saying, “I will sing…” (Ex. 15:1).
1. TESHUVAH — REPENTANCE — RETURNING to the LORD
אֶת-לְבָבְךָ וְאֶת-לְבַב | Et L'vavcha V'et L'vav
Your heart and the heart [of your descendants]…
And the LORD your God will circumcise your heart, and the heart of your offspring, to love the LORD thy God with all your heart, and with all your soul, that you may live (Deut. 30:6).
Circumcision is a sign of the covenant between God and Israel; “circumcision of the heart” speaks of a total binding of the soul to God. The verse in our quotation, significantly, comes from the Torah portion always read on the last Sabbath before Rosh Hashanah.
During the month of Elul this verse has particular pertinence. It is an invitation and a reminder that teshuvah (returning) to the ways of God is the way to LIFE.
In context, the verse (Deut. 30:6) speaks of the experience of both the negative and the positive events that will occur in life and the divine promise that if you “shavta ad Adonai Elohekha”(turn toward the LORD your God) God will help you by extending the divine capacity for love and empathy (v.3) and the LORD will gather you, indeed, fetch you from wherever you are scattered (v.5). The verb “shuv” (to return) occurs seven times in Deuteronomy 30:1-10 and appropriately these verses are read at the beginning of the High Holy Days.
The passage speaks in the context of “end times” inviting teshuvah (return and repentance). In the penitential time of Elul it contains the promise of renewal in the new year beginning with Rosh HaShanah.
2. TEFILLAH — PRAYER — “Service of the Heart”
אֲנִי לְדוֹדִי וְדוֹדִי לִי | Ani l’dodi v’dodi li
I am my Beloved’s and my Beloved is Mine (Song of Songs 6:3).
It has been customary to interpret “Beloved” in this verse from the Song of Songs as referring to God and the close and loving relationship that exists between Israel and her “Beloved.” During Elul the connection formed between this verse and the penitential mode of the season becomes an invitation to reflect upon that relationship. The Aruch HaShulhan21 suggests, “Now is the time that all my thoughts should be directed towards my Beloved (God) then, my Beloved is also to me; my Beloved helps, assists, and cares for me.” Elul becomes one way of creating Sacred Time.
Also found in this verse is an illusion to the forty days after which the repentance of Israel was accepted by God. [The last Hebrew letter of each of the four words is yud. Yud = 10 x 4 = 40].
Mishna Berura states,
This alludes to the forty days from the beginning of Elul until Yom Kippur for during these forty days repentance is [more readily] accepted so a person should bring their heart near to their Beloved [God] with repentance, and then the Beloved will be close to them to accept the repentance with love (Berura 581:1).
Ani l’dodi v’dodi li is an invitation to prayer—Service of the Heart—ha’avodah she’ba’lev.
“What is service of the heart?” ask the rabbis. “It means prayer” (Ta’anit 2a).
3. TZEDAKAH — CHARITY — Justice, justice, you shall pursue…
אִישׁ לְרֵעֵהוּ וּמַתָּנוֹת לָאֶבְיוֹנִים | Ish L'Rei'eihu U'Matanot L'Evyonim
Each man [shall give gifts] to his fellow, and presents to the poor. (Esther 9:22)
While these acts [giving gifts] constitute acts of loving kindness they also constitute a response to the Divine mercy and forgiveness which is anticipated and sought throughout the month of Elul. In the story of Esther the verse is the foundation for the halakhic requirement to celebrate, at Purim, the transformation from grief to joy. The book of Nehemiah (8:10–12), likewise, links the sending of manot (gifts) to those who have no prepared food, along with eating and drinking well, to constitute the celebration of the holy day, Rosh Hashanah.
4. TORAH STUDY — “The Words of Torah are a Refuge”
By means of another verse suggested by the acronym: א.ל.ו.ל [Elul] becomes a “Refuge in Time,” creating space for a spiritual preparation for Rosh HaShanah and the Days of Awe leading to Yom Kippur.
אִנָּה לְיָדוֹ וְשַֹמְתִּי לְךָ | Ina L’yodo V’Samti Lecha
If [God] allows it [ the unintentional death], into his hand I will designate for you
[a place he may flee] usually translated, “I will assign you a place to which to flee” (Ex. 21:13).
This verse comes from the passage in Exodus which speaks of the cities of refuge. Elul, now associated with this passage, becomes a place of refuge [a Refuge in Time] for sinners. In Elul we are invited to take advantage of created refuges in “Time” and “Space.”
How? The Torah becomes a refuge in Time because according to the rabbis, “the words of Torah are a refuge” (Makkot 10a).
The Sefer Ha-Ḥinuch22 discusses six commandments associated with the six cities of refuge which focus upon God’s presence and the importance and centrality of them in our relationship with God. These commandments are pictured as “six walls” which surround us daily and constantly creating a refuge in Space.
- The ceiling. A constant reminder that “I am God your God.”
- The floor. Remain focused on God. Do not worship falsely.
- The front wall. Remember God is One to be worshiped with heart, soul and might.
- The right wall. Love and fear of God. God’s right hand eternally embraces us in love.
- The left wall. God’s left hand supports and lifts our head. We see the exalted and distant God.
- The back door. A reminder not to be led astray by our hearts or our eyes. We should guard our “back door” against temptations that might disconnect our consciousness of God.
The Arizal23 teaches that we learn from this verse “He did not lie in wait, but God placed it in his hand – I will give you places to flee…” (Ex. 21:13) that in the month of Elul, in the place of refuge, there will become for us a desire to repent of the sins of the entire year, including accidental sins.
The rabbis interpreted “places of refuge” in terms of Torah: “Exile yourself to a place of Torah” (Avot 4:14). The whole of the month of Elul becomes a spiritual refuge until the time of “trial” (Rosh HaShanah)—a time to prepare the spirit and heart for teshuvah (return) to God.
5. KULO LA-HASHEM — ALL for GOD
אֶחָד לְעֹלָה וְאֶחָד לְחַטָּאת | Echad L'olah V'echad L'chatat
One for a burnt offering and one for a sin offering (Lev. 12:8).
The verse “One for a burnt offering (olah) and one for a sin (chatat) offering” occurs three times in the Torah but with variations in the order of the offerings. The order “a sin offering (chatat) and a burnt offering (olah)” occurs twice (Lev. 5:7 and Num. 6:10); the order “one for an olah and one for a chatat” occurs only in Leviticus 12:8 in connection with the purification rites for a woman after giving birth.
While the olah takes first place in this recitation from the Torah the sages have noted that in the temple order of sacrifice the chatat sacrifice was offered before the olah. The Talmud relates a rabbinic discussion (Zevachim 90a) as to why the chatat in practice always preceded the olah. The chatat, they suggest, is “like an intercessor [to appease a king]; When the intercessor has appeased [the king], the gift [the olah, the votive offering]follows.
Naturally the question arises as to why the ordering: olah, chatat which appears in Leviticus 12:8 is chosen to be the one inferred in Elul. The answer, perhaps, lies in the unique character and role of the month of Elul in the religious and spiritual psyche.
The Hebrew word olah means “elevation”—the olah is an offering from below to above; the chatat on the other hand has a “drawing down” function—the offerer receives atonement from God. The olah reflects the desire to “set God before me always” (Ps. 16:8) while the chatat recalls the words of the psalmist “my sin is before me always” (Ps. 51:5).
The olah korban, the burnt offering, as described in the Torah, is a free offering, no “strings attached”. It is a pure gift to God (Leviticus Rabbah 2:7) which “goes up” both physically (as smoke) and spiritually, elevating the soul of the person making the offering. The root meaning of the word “korban” is to “bring close.”
The verse “one for an olah and one for a chatat” (Lev. 12:8) accentuates the olah over the chatat in a way that connects to and emphasizes the focus on the teshuvah of Yom Kippur—the totality of commitment of the person with God. The chatat is concerned with individual sin (which is important at Yom Kippur) but the olah prioritizes the commitment of total devotion to God (kulo la-Hashem), a priority that is maintained in the order of the vidui (confessions) of the Yom Kippur liturgy where olah related confessions precede the chatat type aggressions in the list.
The shofar speaks…
The Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer24 teaches that on Rosh Hodesh Elul [the new moon of Elul] God said to Moses, “Ascend the mountain to me” (Ex. 24:12) and instructed the people in the camp to sound the shofar as a reminder to stay faithful and not to worship idols. In this way “God was elevated through the shofar blast, as the verse states:
God has ascended [olah elohim] with the teruah;
the LORD with the call of the shofar (Ps. 47:6)”
[Olah Elohim b’ teruah; Adonai b’kol shofar]
Because of this The Tur25 in Orach Hayyim teaches that the Sages established the blowing the shofar on Rosh Chodesh Elul in every year, and for the entire month of Elul, in order to warn Israel to repent. Amos reminds us: “Is the shofar ever sounded in a city and the people not tremble?” (Amos 3:6).
The sound of the shofar goes up and God ascends (olah Elohim) throughout Elul.
There is everywhere, in all creation, the presence of God and the proximity of the Divine to humankind is never so accentuated as in the spirituality of Elul. God is both “in the field” and approachable, and elevated by human faithfulness. Perhaps Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik’s profound observation that “the Shofar melts away God’s strict, disciplinary judgment and leaves only His overriding love and mercy and sensitivity”26 helps us to understand the priority of the olah over the chatat in our verse.
The Midrash Tehillim (47) explains that God is elevated through the shofar, “God has ascended with the teruah blast” (Ps. 47:6) because through the shofar’s teruah the name Elohim, which is the name of God meaning Justice, ascends and becomes the name YUD HEH VAV HEH which is the divine attribute of Mercy.
Joseph Karo27 taught, “From the shofar of the desert we only learn that the shofar sound prevents us from sinning. We still need to learn that the sound of the Shofar awakens a person to repent.” (Beit Yosef, Orah Hayyim).28
6. GEULAH — REDEMPTION — “I will sing.”
לַיהוָה וַיֹּאמְרוּ לֵאמֹר אָשִׁירָה | L'Hashem Vayomru Lemor Ashira
To the LORD, and they said, saying, “I will sing…” (Ex. 15:1).
[This acronym for Elul is read here in reverse, i.e., left to right]
After the miracle of the crossing of the sea, Moses (and Israel) “sing” praises to the Lord. The introduction to the verse, “Then Moses and the Israelites sang this song” is, when interpreted from the perspective of Rabbinic Hebrew, translated as future tense.
אָז יָשִׁיר-מֹשֶׁה וּבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת-הַשִּׁירָה הַזֹּאת
לַיהוָה וַיֹּאמְרוּ לֵאמֹר אָשִׁירָה … (Ex. 15:1)
[יָשִׁיר (yashir | he will sing) is future tense; …שָׁר (shar | he sang) is past tense.]
The sages of the Talmud explain the verse’s use of the future tense is an illusion to the future; to resurrection.
R. Meir said, “Whence do we know resurrection from the Torah? From the verse, ‘Then shall Moses and the children of Israel sing this song unto the Lord’ not ‘sang’ but ‘shall sing’ is written.” Thus resurrection is taught in the Torah (Sanhedrin 91b).
Elul and Redemption
The linking between Elul and this verse (Ex. 15:1) connects the month of Elul with Redemption—Jewish interpretation of the verse helps form a bridge between Israel’s experience of redemption in the past and the hope of redemption in the future.
From the very moment of miraculous redemption from Pharaoh’s army by the hand of God, Israel said “I will sing.” Indeed the moment is recalled in the daily prayers on Weekdays, Sabbaths and Festivals.29 Just as God was present for the Israelites of old, God too will answer the prayers of the faithful today.
The Mekilta30, too, draws on the possibilities inferred in the words “Az yashir”—“Then he will sing…” (Ex. 15:1). As Israel sang in the past, the possibility remains that Israel will sing again in the future.
Then Sang Moses. Sometimes the word “then” (az) refers to the past and sometimes to what is to come in the future. … Rabbi says: It is not written here: “Then Moses sang” (Shar), but, “Then Moses will sing” (Yashir) . Thus we find that we can derive the resurrection of the dead from the Torah (Mekilta be Rabbi Ishmael, Tractate Shirata, Ch. 1).
Moses’ song is traditionally read in the Torah service with a special chant and written according to a special pattern in the form of “half brick over a whole brick, and a whole brick over a half brick” (Talmud, Megilah 16b).
David of Kotzk recounts a tradition that the angels wanted to sing praises to God but God said to them, “Wait, and let Israel sing first. Humans are able to praise only when they are inspired. If we do not give them the opportunity, the desire will pass” (Etz Hayim: Torah and Commentary, p. 407).
ELUL and the Days of Awe
As the month of Elul draws to a close the penitential mode which has been developed throughout the month intensifies as people enter the High Holy Days of Tishrei with Rosh Hashanah, the Day of Judgment, followed by the days of Awe, and Yom Kippur.