Elul: The Penitential Season
This article provided courtesy of Travelujah
According to an ancient collection of legends (Pirkei d'Rabbi Eliezer-The Teachings of Rabbi Eliezer), the beginning of the Hebrew month of Elul marks the beginning of an especially solemn period of forty days that concludes with Yom Kippur. When you add the 30 days of Elul to the special 10 day period from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur (1st to the 10th of Tishrei-the 10 days of repentance) you arrive at the number 40, which is exactly the amount of days Moses spent in heaven before receiving the second set of tablets. This period is the most auspicious time on the Jewish calendar for cheshbon hanefesh...an accounting of one's soul, something the Jewish people engage in during the penitential season.
If you are visiting Israel, or any observant Jewish community in the Diaspora, you may notice or hear that there are special customs and observances that mark this period. Below are some of them:
1. Except on the Sabbath, the shofar is sounded every morning during the month of Elul as a reminder to everyone that this is the time to repent. The piercing blasts of the shofar are supposed to wake us up from our spiritual slumber. Essentially, the shofar acts as spiritual alarm clock reminding us that this is the time to repair our relationships with the environment, other human beings, and of course, God. The shofar is not sounded the day before Rosh Hashanah in order to make a distinction between the custom of blasting in Elul and the shofar blowing that we are commanded to perform on Rosh Hashanah.
2. After the shofar is blown in the morning service, we immediately turn to the reading of the 27th Psalm. The psalm is part of the liturgy from the first of Elul until Hoshanah Rabbah, the holiday that falls out right before the 7th day of Sukkot. This custom is based upon a midrash, or interpretation of the first line of the psalm, "The Lord is my light..." The phrase "my light" is interpreted as referring to Rosh Hashanah and the next phrase, "my salvation..." is connected to Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Psalm 27 is a truly inspirational psalm that gives voice to the many worries and concerns that we all have as we look forward and contemplate the future, or in this case, the new year.
3. Another custom practiced in Elul is the recitation of penitential prayers before the morning service during the month of Elul and between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Sefardic Jews (defined as Jews who trace their ancestry to Spain and North Africa), "begin reciting Selichot on the first day of Elul; the Ashkenazim (Jews who trace their ancestry to Eastern Europe), on the Sunday before Rosh Hashanah." (Rabbi Isaac Klein, A Guide to Jewish Religious Practice, pg. 178). According to the Ashkenazic practice, it works out that there are at least four days when the penitential (selichot) prayers are recited. Rabbi Klein points out that this four day period corresponds to the four day period when sacrifices were examined for blemishes and defects before they were sacrificed at the magnificent temple in Jerusalem.
If you have the time, I would recommend that when you visit Israel you make sure that you tour the Jerusalem Archaeological Gardens and the Davidson Museum, which are located side by side right inside the Dung Gate. This site gives us an idea of what a pilgrim may have experienced upon arriving in Jerusalem to offer a sacrifice at the temple. If you imagine walking from Tzippori in the Galilee, all the way to the temple in Jerusalem, you can understand why pilgrims bought their sacrifice in Jerusalem, and did not walk with them for 3 solid weeks. A blemish or flaw would disqualify the animal for sacrifice. Walking up the restored southern steps of the temple is an amazing spiritual experience. When Neil Armstrong (the first man to walk on the moon) visited Jerusalem, and was guided on the southern steps which Jesus surely ascended when he entered the temple, he was overcome with emotion. He told his guide (who told me the story) that walking in the footsteps of Jesus was a more powerful journey then any other he had taken in his life!
In a perceptive comment, Rabbi Klein suggests a powerful metaphor. We should view ourselves like a sacrificial offering on Rosh Hashanah, hence requiring four days of self-examination. In fact, I would suggest that we extend that period for the four days before Rosh Hashanah and all of the ten days of repentance, through Yom Kippur. In fact, this process is actually quite similar to, if not the same, as cheshbon hanefesh, or an accounting of the soul. This time period is considered the most auspicious period to ask for forgiveness, repent and examine carefully one's soul and direction in life.
If you are in Jerusalem before Rosh Hashanah you may find some Sefardic synagogues conducting special penitential prayers after midnight and early in the morning. Many of these synagogues are located in the neighborhood Nachlaot, located not far from the central bus station near the entrance to Jerusalem.
The rabbis teach us that while our sacrifices may not have any flaws when we offer them to God, our hearts must be broken when we approach the Holy One and ask for forgiveness. The Baal Shem Tov, the Master of the Holy Name, who was the founder of Hasidism, once said that in God's habitation, there are many rooms and different keys for every lock. As we approach the days of awe, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the master key to the dwelling place of the Holy and Blessed one, is a broken heart. "When a man truthfully breaks his heart before God he can enter into all the gates of the apartment of the King above all Kings, the Holy One..." (Or Yesharim, a book about righteous behavior).
L'shanah tovah...may God bless all of us with a good year, and may we all be inscribed well in the Book of Life.
Rabbi David Ebstein