This past Saturday was the first day of the Hebrew month of Elul. Elul is very special because it is the month preceding Tishrei – the month the High Holidays fall in. Traditionally it is known as a month of preparation. This preparation, called Cheshbon HaNefesh, is a time we begin to take an accounting of our soul. We recall our thoughts and actions over the past year and begin to seek t’shuvah (repentance) for those things and with those we may have wronged.
In recognition of this special month, and in anticipation for the upcoming High Holidays, a few additions are added to our daily prayers. One of the most noticeable is the sounding of the Shofar every morning. Traditionally, we Jews only blow the Shofar once a year – every morning of the month of Elul leading up to, and on, Rosh HaShanah and Neilah (the concluding service) of Yom Kippur. The reason is because of the specialness of the blowing of the Shofar. Jewish tradition teaches that there is something spiritual and mystical about the blowing of the Shofar. According to the Talmud (b. Rosh Hashana 16b):
Rabbi Abahu asks, “Why do we sound the horn of a ram [on Rosh HaShanah]? Because the Holy One, Blessed be He, said, ‘Blow Me a ram’s horn that I may remember unto you the binding of Isaac the son of Abraham, and I shall account it unto you for a binding of yourselves before me.’”
For us Jews, the sounding of the shofar is not meant to be a quaint traditional practice, but a spiritual wake-up call! As the Rambam points out, it is meant to “Rouse the slumbers’ from their sleep!”
Another familiar addition is Psalm 27 – the Psalm associated with the High Holidays. Psalm 27 is added to all of the services beginning with the first day of Elul and continuing through Hoshanah Rabbah at the end of Sukkot (in some congregations, only through Yom Kippur).
How are we to understand this preparation period of Elul?
The rabbis teach us that Elul is actually an acronym. Each of the Hebrew letters – אלול – alef, lamed, vav, lamed – stand for the beginning letter of each word in the phrase “אני לדודי ודודי לי – ani l’dodi v’dodi li – I am my beloved’s, and my beloved is mine.” A familiar phrase taken from Song of Songs 6:3.
The illustration of Elul in Jewish thought is the preparation before a wedding. The holidays in Hebrew are called mo’edim, set appointed times when God chooses to meet with us. The High Holidays are the pinnacle of these appointed times. HaShem desires that we should be caught up in a love affair with Him. As Abraham Joshua Heschel points out, God is in pursuit of a relationship with us. God desires communion with creation and the High Holidays are set times which God “clears away His calendar” so to speak, and chooses to spend an even greater amount of time with us. Although we can meet with God anytime, the mo’edim are specific and special times.
The High Holidays are also when many believe the Mashiach will return – at the final blast of the Shofar. As such, the High Holidays will inaugurate the final consummation at the end of the age when the Groom returns for His Bride, and ushers in the Messianic Age.
That love of HaShem for us, and us for HaShem is the picture of Elul. It is preparation not just for “some holiday.” It is our preparation time to meet with God. Elul is also our preparation for the coming of Mashiach, and preparation for the Marriage Supper of the Lamb (see Rev. 19). I hope we’re ready for the month of Elul and all that it brings.
L’Shana tova tikateivu – May you be inscribed for a sweet New Year!