A new month began on Thursday evening: the Hebrew month of Elul. Traditionally, Elul is the time when we prepare ourselves for the aseret y’mei t’shuvah, the ‘ten days of return’ that begin on Rosh Ha-Shanah and conclude on Yom Kippur. The month of Elul lasts 29 days, so, in four weeks’ time exactly it will be Rosh Ha-Shanah, literally, the ‘head’ – rosh – of ‘the year’ – ha-shanah. Falling at the beginning of the seventh month of Tishri, Rosh Ha-Shanah is the high-point of the year, marking the moment, when, six months having passed, the year turns.
Rosh Ha-Shanah marks a turning point, and so, apart from, proclaiming a New Year, the shofar, the ram’s horn, calls us to reflect on our actions, turn our lives around, and return to one another, to our true selves – and to the Eternal: which for some means God; and for others represents a sense of the Transcendent; that which is larger than ourselves and our finite lives. Rosh Ha-Shanah: the first of the ten days of t’shuvah – an intensive period of repentance, that culminates in Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, At-one-ment.
So: Elul, the month when the work of repair begins, or rather, we prepare to make the journey of repair. Like the names of the other months of the Hebrew calendar that were derived from our people’s exile in Babylonia, the word, Elul is Babylonian. It originated in the Akkadian word for ‘Harvest’, elūlu, and first appears in TaNaKh, in the Hebrew Bible, in the Book of Nehemiah, which relates the return of Nehemiah to Jerusalem forty years after the destruction of the city, to oversee the work of repair. Significantly, the month of Elul is mentioned in the context of a verse in chapter six of the Book of Nehemiah stating that ‘[t]he wall was finished on the 25th of Elul, after fifty-two days’. Then, later, chapter 8 relates how the Israelites, having settled back into their towns, assembled before the Watergate at the beginning of the seventh month, and listened to Ezra the scribe read ‘the scroll of the teaching of Moses’ – seifer torat Moshe.
The Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem and King Solomon’s Temple in 586 BCE. When the Persians defeated the Babylonians in 539 BCE, King Cyrus of Persia permitted our ancestors to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple. The scene described in the Book of Nehemiah relates to that great rebuilding project. And it also hints at another kind of repair: the repair of the people as they ‘assembled before the Watergate at the beginning of the seventh month’.
In S.Y. Agnon’s marvelous anthology, Days of Awe, we find this story: “A tale is told of one who sat in study before the zaddik Rabbi Mordecai of Nadvorna, of blessed memory, and before Rosh ha-Shanah came to obtain permission to be dismissed. That zaddik said to him, ‘Why are you hurrying?’ Said he to him, ‘I am a Reader, and I must look into the festival prayer book, and put my prayers in order.’ Said the zaddik to him, ‘The prayer book is the same as it was last year. But it would be better for you to look into your deeds, and put yourself in order.’” Well, this year the coronavirus pandemic has meant that I have, quite literally, had to spend a great deal of time already putting the prayers for the yamim nora’im, the ‘awed days’ ‘in order’; shortening them because since the synagogue remains closed, we are having to hold all the services online, and so need to avoid screen fatigue.
Nevertheless, the tale reminds us of the purpose of aseret y’mei t’shuvah, the ten days of return that begin on Rosh Ha-Shanah and conclude on Yom Kippur, and of the unique opportunity that the month of the Elul provides for us to examine our deeds of the past year and resolve to restore our relationships. By the time Rosh Ha-Shanah arrives, there is so little time to make amends. How much more sensible to begin the process in Elul. There is an interesting difference between Sephardi and Ashkenazi practice in this regard. In Sephardi tradition, which originated with the Jews of Sepharad – those who lived in Spain and Portugal until the expulsions of 1492 and 1497 – it is customary to recite prayers for s’lichot, ‘forgiveness’ and blow the shofar at the end of shacharit (morning prayer) from Rosh Chodesh (the new moon of) Elul until the eve of Rosh Ha-Shanah. In the Ashkenazi tradition that has its roots in Jewish life in northern and central Europe during the Middle Ages, s’lichot prayers and the blowing of the shofar only begin from midnight on the Saturday prior to Rosh Ha-Shanah. Since this year, Rosh Ha-Shanah falls on Shabbat, S’lichot will be on the previous Saturday night – 12th September.
Ashkenazi Jews may seem to lose out when it comes to making the best use of Elul as a month of preparation for the yamim nora’im. But there are other Elul traditions to help us prepare. There is the custom of expressing our best wishes to people l’shanah tovah – ‘for a good year’ – both in person, and when writing letters – and these days, emails, tweets, Facebook posts and instagram. This simple practice serves as a daily reminder to ourselves and others that the New Year is approaching. It is also traditional to visit the graves of loved ones during Elul – reminding ourselves of our connection with those who went before us, and the legacy we have received from them. On a more demanding level, Elul is the time to begin the work of t’shuvah; to return to the true path of our lives, to ourselves and to others, to recognise our mistakes and the hurts we have inflicted and make amends.
So: the month of Elul has begun. It signals a new beginning. But it is important to acknowledge that Elul of its self does not bring renewal; it is up to us, as it was up to our ancestors before us, to use the month for this purpose. Disconcertingly, a similar word in the Bible, the Hebrew noun, Elil, means ‘worthlessness’ – as when the prophet Jeremiah railed against the worthless divinations and deceits of false prophets. Spelt almost identically – except for the difference of a vowel – ‘u’ (shurek) in Elul, ‘i’ (chiriq) in Elil, the words Elul and Elil – the one Hebrew, the other, Babylonian – are not related; although, curiously, in Jeremiah 14:14 Elil is written to look like Elul. But even without this scribal error, the surface similarity between these two very different words teaches us an important lesson: Unless we begin to renew our lives during Elul, the gift of Elul will be worthless.
With the rain and wind of the past week, we know that autumn is fast approaching. A line from one of my favourite Simon & Garfunkel songs comes to mind: ‘August – die she must; the autumn wind blows chilly and cold’. It is no accident that Rosh Ha-Shanah falls at the beginning of the seventh month; the turning point of the year, when the abundance of summer begins to fade. The chorus from another Simon & Garfunkel song captures the sense of loss: ‘And the leaves that are green turn to brown, / And they wither with the wind, /And they crumble in your hand’.
As autumn gathers pace, we won’t be able to do anything about the leaves turning from green to brown and withering with the wind, but we can turn ourselves towards the task of renewal. As Rosh Ha-Shanah approaches, may each one of us find the courage to take our first steps. And let us say: Amen.
Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah
Brighton and Hove Progressive Synagogue
22nd August 2020 – 2nd Elul 5780