Monday, August 29, 2011

Elul: A Time of Anticipation

Tonight begins the two days of rosh chodesh Elul, the new month of Elul. (Don't get confused. Tonight starts the last day of Av, and tomorrow night starts the first day of Elul. Both days are rosh chodesh Elul. That's two-day rosh chodesh for you!)

Elul is the last month of the Jewish calendar, as we eagerly anticipate the High Holydays next month, in Tishrei.

I think that's the essence of Elul: Anticipation. We anticipate, so we prepare. Anticipation manifests itself in many ways, sometimes positive, sometimes negative. Anticipation can be scary or it can be intoxicating. You anticipate medical test results, but you also anticipate your birthday. This year, I personally hope to tap into the excitement aspect of anticipation.

I think of Elul as completing the circle of the year. I begin to look towards the new year with new goals and new things to do, but I still need to tie up the loose ends of the current year. We're preparing for the upcoming High Holidays, but we're also reflecting on our actions over the past year. 

One of my favorite mystical ideas/"trivia questions" in Judaism is that Elul may be an acronym for "Ani l'dodi v'dodi li," "I am my Beloved's and my Beloved is mine" (Song of Songs, Shir haShirim 6:3).

So how do we prepare? 

There are some changes to the liturgy during Elul:
  • Psalms/Tehilim 27 is added to the end of shacharit and mincha prayers. If you keep turning pages, you'll see it.
  • The shofar is blown after sharcharis each morning. The shofar is often associated with a wake-up call. That makes Elul the ultimate snooze button. It is not blown on Shabbat (which is an interesting rabbinic debate for another day).
  • Near the end of the month, we begin reciting slichot, penitential prayers (your community custom will determine the appropriate time). I'll write more about slichot later this month.

Some other customs:
  • This is the time to begin seeking forgiveness from others before Yom Kippur. Hashem cannot forgive you for your sins against other people until you have sought forgiveness and made atonement with the other person.
  • Likewise, this is a time of reflection on the year. What goals did you accomplish? Where did you fall short? What middos (character traits) should you focus on in the coming year? How can you improve your relationship with Hashem and with your fellow human beings?
  • Focus on teshuva (repentence), prayer, and tzedakah.
  • From rosh chodesh Elul until Rosh Hashanah, greet others with a wish that they be inscribed and sealed in the book of life for a good year: "K'siva v'chasima tovah." It literally means "A good writing and sealing." Don't worry if you don't memorize that. You don't sin or create a faux pas by not saying it. You can even say, "You too!"
  • Some have their tefilin and mezuzot checked during this month.
  • Some visit cemeteries to visit the resting place of loved ones and reflect on mortality.

May you experience unprecedented growth this Elul!


  1. Some have the custom to say slichos starting on the second day of Elul.

    1. Originally posted: August 29, 2011 at 11:21 AM

      ...Then I guess I better write that post earlier than I thought.

  2. Thanks for the explanation of the two-day rosh chodesh! This is one thing that's always perplexed me. It also has something to do with how many days are in the month - if it's a 30-day month, then there's a two-day rosh chodesh (day 30 and day 1), but if it's a 29-day month there's a one-day rosh chodesh (day 1) or something like that...

  3. Foryourhonor: your understanding is correct.

    Another way to think of it is that the first of any month is Rosh Chodesh. If there's a 30th day, it's also Rosh Chodesh, and the "first" and "second" days [which have no practical differences] follow from the order.