Elul and the High Holy Days

“I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine.”King Solomon, third and last king in the ancient Kingdom of Israel, renowned for his wisdom, his prolific writings, and his building accomplishments. (Quote is from Song of Solomon 6:3)Back in the summer of 2012, I discovered the Jewish holiday known as Tisha B’Av (the 9th of Av), which is an annual fast day in Judaism, on which a number of disasters in Jewish history occurred, primarily the destruction of both Solomon’s Temple by the Neo-Babylonian Empire and the Second Temple by the Roman Empire in Jerusalem. Tisha B’Av is regarded as the saddest day in the Jewish calendar and it is thus believed to be a day which is destined for tragedy. Tisha B’Av falls in July or August in the Gregorian calendar–our Western Calendar (quote source here). I have previously written five blog posts on Tisha B’Av on my regular blog (see search link here) beginning with my first blog post published on July 29, 2012, titled Tisha B’Av and 9/11.”

The minor holiday of Tu B’Av follows Tisha B’Av six days later, and it is known as a Jewish Valentine’s Day. Tu B’Av was the topic of my last blog post published on August 14th on this blog titled, A Day of Love.” I have also previously published a blog post on my regular blog on this holiday on August 5, 2017, titled, Tu B’Av 5777 (2017).”

Av is the eleventh month on the Jewish calendar (the Jewish civil year), and it is followed by the month of Elul, the last month of the Jewish civil year. The following information gives a brief description of the activities associated with the month of Elul leading up to the High Holy Days and Sukkot which follows the High Holy Days:

Elul usually occurs in August–September on the Gregorian calendar (Western calendar). In the Jewish tradition, the month of Elul is a time of repentance in preparation for the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur…. “Elul” can be understood to be an acronym for the phrase “Ani L’dodi V’dodi Li” meaning “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine” (Song of Solomon 6:3). Elul is seen as a time to search one’s heart and draw close to God in preparation for the coming Day of Judgement, Rosh Hashanah, and Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur.

During the month of Elul, there are a number of special rituals leading up to the High Holy Days. It is customary to blow the shofar every morning (except on Shabbat) from Rosh Hodesh Elul (the first day of the month) until the day before Rosh Hashanah. The blasts are meant to awaken one’s spirit and inspire him to begin the soul searching which will prepare him for the High Holy Days. As part of this preparation, Elul is the time to begin the sometimes-difficult process of granting and asking for forgiveness. It is also customary to recite Psalm 27 every day from Rosh Hodesh Elul (1st day of Elul) through Hoshanah Rabbah on Sukkot (Hoshanah Rabbah is the seventh day of Jewish holiday of Sukkot and the 21st day of Tishrei, the first month of the new year on the Jewish civil calendar). (Quote source here.)

From the first day of Elul through the last day of the Jewish holiday of Sukkot (Hoshanah Rabbah), these dates convert to the following dates on our Western calendar for 2019: September 1, 2019 through October 20, 2019. This time period will start on Sunday, September 1st, which is one week from today. Actually, it will start at sundown on Saturday, August 31, 2019, as days on the Jewish calendar start at sundown.

As an introduction to the month of Elul, Chabad.org states:

Elul is the 12th and final month in the Jewish calendar (the sixth month counting from Nisan). It is a month that connects the past year with the coming year—a time when we reflect on where we stand and where we should be going.

It is called “the month of repentance,” “the month of mercy” and “the month of forgiveness.” Elul follows the two previous months of Tammuz and Av—months of tragedies that were brought upon us through our sins. In Tammuz, the Jews sinned with the golden calf; on Rosh Chodesh Elul, Moses ascended to Mount Sinai for a third 40-day period until Yom Kippur, when he descended with the second tablets (luchot) and G‑d’s word of joyful, wholehearted forgiveness. (The first time Moses ascended was to receive the first tablets; the second time was after the sin, to ask for forgiveness; and this third time was to receive the second set of tablets.) These were days when G‑d revealed to the Jewish people great mercy. Since then, this time has been designated as a time of mercy and forgiveness, an opportune time for teshuvah”repentance.

The four letters of the name “Elul” are an acronym for the phrase in “Song of Songs (6:3): “I am to my beloved and my beloved is to me.” “I am to my beloved”—we approach G‑d with a desire to return and connect. “And my beloved is to me”—G‑d reciprocates with Divine expressions of mercy and forgiveness.

This is the month when “the King is in the field.” Read: The King is in the Field

G‑d, the King of all Kings, is accessible. All can approach Him, and He shines His countenance to all. (Quote source here.)

In an article titled, Elul: 5 Things to Know About the Lead-up to the High Holidays,” by Jane E. Herman, senior writer and editor at the Union for Reform Judaism, she writes:

Elul is the Hebrew month that precedes the High Holidays (Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur).

Some say that the Hebrew letters that comprise the word “Elul”–aleph, lamed, vav, lamed–are an acronym for “Ani l’dodi v’dodi li,” a verse from Song of Songs that means “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine.” Most often interpreted as love poetry between two people, the phrase also reflects the love between God and the Jewish people, especially at this season, as we assess our actions and behaviors during the past year and hope for blessings in the coming year.

Several customs during the month of Elul are designed to remind us of the liturgical season and help us prepare ourselves and our souls for the upcoming High Holidays.

1. Blowing the shofar

Traditionally, the shofar is blown each morning (except on Shabbat) from the first day of Elul until the day before Rosh HaShanah. Its sound is intended to awaken the soul and kick start the spiritual accounting that happens throughout the month. In some congregations the shofar is sounded at the opening of each Kabbalat Shabbat service during Elul.

2. Saying special prayers

Selichot (special penitential prayers) are recited during the month of Elul. A special “Selichot” service is conducted late in the evening–often by candlelight–on the Saturday night a week before Rosh Hashanah.

3. Visiting loved ones’ graves

Elul is also a time of year during which Jews traditionally visit the graves of loved ones. This custom not only reminds us of the individuals on whose shoulders we now stand and helps us honor their memories, but also prompts us to think about our own lives and the legacies we will leave to others–kind words spoken, comfort offered, love given and received–which take on added meaning as we enter the High Holiday season. Rabbi Daniel B. Syme explains more about this custom.

4. Reading Psalm 27

It is customary to read Psalm 27 each day from the beginning of Elul through Hoshana Rabbah, which is the last day of Sukkot.

5. Reflecting

It also is a month during which we are encouraged to study and take time for personal reflection around our actions of the past year and to seek forgiveness from those we have wronged or with whom we otherwise have “missed the mark” in our interactions and behaviors. Many readily available resources can help you make this process interactive, including:

Whether you participate in some, none, or all of these Elul traditions, may you find meaning and fulfillment in this time leading up to the High Holidays. (Quote source here.)

Regarding the daily reading of Psalm 27, in an article titled, I Am My Beloved’s and My Beloved is Mine,” by Reuven Hammer, Ph.D., former president of the International Rabbinical Assembly, and author of The Torah Revolution: Fourteen Truths that Changed the World,” he writes:

The selection of Psalm 27 is very interesting. The interpretation of that psalm found in the rabbinic commentary on Psalms, Midrash Tehilim, indicates that from ancient times this psalm was connected to the Days of Awe. “The Lord is my lighton Rosh Hashana, since this is the day of judgment… The Lord is my salvationon Yom Kippur, when He saves us and forgives our sins” (27:3).

The psalm itself is complicated. On the one hand, it begins by asserting that because of closeness to the Lord, one has no reason to fear or be afraid (verse 1); yet toward the end, the psalmist pleads, “Do not hide Your face from me; do not thrust aside Your servant in anger… do not forsake me, do not abandon me…” (verse 9). It seems that the psalmist very much desires the closeness of God–echoing the idea of “I am my Beloved’s and my Beloved is mine”but feels he has not yet attained it, and God is still far from him. Thus he does feel fear and trepidation, which he has to work to overcome.

He concludes by encouraging himself to continue the search and not give up–“Look to the Lord: be strong and of good courage! O look to the Lord!” (verse 14). The message being conveyed by the psalm is that it is not easy to attain the feeling of intimacy with God, which is desirable and will banish our fears, but we must work toward it and never abandon the search.

There is no question that feelings of concern and even trepidation are part and parcel of the High Holy Day experience, even if they do not define it. The reason is simple. As we confront a new year, we begin to think of what lies ahead–and one never knows what that is. Uncertainty breeds concern.

This is expressed most openly and strongly not in the order of prayer itself, but in “piyyutim”–liturgical poems–that have been added to it, especially the magnificent “Unetaneh Tokef,” which describes the Day of Judgment.

The images there are taken from prophetic books in which the end of days, the final day of judgment, is depicted. “Who will live and who will die,” we say….

Fortunately, the month of Elul gives us the opportunity to grapple with these feelings, of accepting responsibility for those things that are within our control, namely our own actions, of seeing how we can improve and, most of all, of moving closer to a relationship of love with God which will help us to deal with our fears.

“I am my Beloved’s and my Beloved is mine”: These are our tasks during the month of Elul. (Quote source here.)

This post has turned out to be an introduction of sorts to the Jewish month of Elul, a time of reflection and repentance. I will most likely, later in the month, be following up with a blog post or two on the Days of Awe/High Holy Days and Sukkot.

As Chabad.org states, “The High Holiday season begins during the month of Elul, when the shofar is sounded every weekday morning, a clarion call to return to G‑d in advance of the sacred days that lay ahead” (quote source here). For a brief introduction to what follows, click here.

I’ll end this post with the last verse in Psalm 27 (verse 14): Wait on the Lord; Be of good courage…

And He shall strengthen your heart…

Wait, I say . . .

On the Lord . . . .

YouTube Video: “Psalm 27 (One Thing)” by Shane & Shane:

Photo #1 credit here
Photo #2 credit here

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.