This post is dedicated in memory of Etya Sarah bat Yitzchak ha-Levi. May it be an aliyah for her neshama.
By: Samantha Hulkower
Rosh Chodesh, the first of each Jewish month, is always a mini-holiday in Judaism. It's a mitzvah to eat bread, like on Shabbat and Yom Tov, and people tend to greet each other with a smile and a 'Chodesh Tov!'. There is something extra special about Rosh Chodesh Elul, which falls on Shabbat and Sunday August 15 and 16 this year.
After the sin of the worshipping the Golden
Calf, Moses went back up to Mount Sinai on Rosh Chodesh Elul, where he stayed for 40 days until he came down on Yom Kippur and told the Jews that God forgave them. Symbolically, this point in time is the start of a period of thinking about the previous year. While Moses was up on the mountain, the Jews down below probably spent a fair amount of time thinking about what they did wrong, regretting it, and I'm fairly certain, vowing not to do those things again. These are the 3 parts of teshuvah, or repentance. Today, in order to get into the right mindset we have several customs.
First up is the blowing of the shofar during Elul after Shacharit (except on Shabbat). Not the 100 times like we hear on Rosh Hashanah, but enough to remind you what's coming up. I had the opportunity to see Mattisyahu in concert a few years back during Elul. As a lady who also happens to not be a morning person, I don't make it to synagogue for morning prayers and therefore don't get to hear the shofar during Elul. But during this concert, Mattisyahu had someone come out and blow. It was an amazing experience - the hairs stood up on the back of my neck as I felt the sounds flow out the rams horn and through me. The Rambam says that the sound is supposed to awaken those sleeping, and I can tell you that I felt something stir within me. Yes, the several Miller Lites I had during the concert might have enhanced the experience, but at that moment I understood why we have this custom. It's a physical act that gets your mind in the right place.
There is also a practice that when writing a letter to a friend (emails count!) that you sign off, "Ketivah vachatimah tovah" which is sort of a blessing to the person that they should be written and inscribed for good (that is in the book of life for the upcoming year. We'll talk more about these things when it gets closer to Rosh Hashanah). Here is another physical act that gets you thinking about the upcoming Big Day, and hopefully inspiring you to improve your actions.
The last major act Jews take on during Elul is saying selichot, which are specific prayers from Tehillim (Psalms) and other places in Jewish scripture. Depending on Ashkenazi or Sefardi custom, they are either said after midnight or very early in the morning. Yet again we are saying words that are intended to arouse feelings of repentance and general awareness of our everyday actions, so that when we get to Rosh Hashanah, we feel ready to stand before God.
As someone who has a tendency to procrastinate, I love the concept of Elul, because it's a whole month designed to think about the previous year, what I did wrong and right, and where I would like my next year to go. The 10 days from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur are a special time set aside to do teshuvah, so it can seem a little Type-A to start worrying about Yom Kippur 40 days before it arrives, but Elul is about more than that. Think about how much more prepared you are for a final exam if you spend a full month beforehand reviewing the course material as opposed to craming for the test the week before. Not only will you be less stressed the week before the exam, but you'll feel better on the day of the final, knowing that you gave it your all.
This Elul, set aside some time to think about your actions: where they are as opposed to where you want them to be, instances where you regretted your behavior and how you would change if the same opportunity presented itself again, words you said to people that you perhaps want to take back. The effort we put in now to improve ourselves won't just pay off when we're at the Neilah prayer of Yom Kippur, but ideally for the rest of our lives.