The Hebrew month of Elul is just around the corner—Rosh Chodesh is this coming Sunday—and I have to say, it is my favorite time of year.
There is something magical in the air towards the end of the scorching Middle Eastern summer, when a cool breeze wafts in and big, puffy clouds start to appear on the horizon, softening the once-brutal sun. Sometimes those clouds even bring with them a few drops of promise-rain. The sky, almost white during the end of summer from the dust in the air, clears to a deeper blue. The squill, a tall pyramidal flower with small white blossoms, pops up suddenly from the brittle brown of the sun-dried grasses. This flower, known in Hebrew as the ḥatzav, is the harbinger of autumn in Israel. And then there are the pomegranates. I never saw pomegranate trees growing along the coast where I spent my first decade in Israel, but here in Judea they grow wild and you can see them ripening during Elul. Best of all, you can buy massive amounts of them and stain your fingers to your heart’s content with their crimson juice, because they become the cheapest fruit by the kilo at our local supermarket when they’re in season. Nothing says Elul and Tishrei like the tangy sweetness of pomegranate.
From before sunrise on the first day of Elul and every morning until Yom Kippur, the Sephardi and Mizrahi men gather in the synagogue to recite seliḥot, the special prayers in the days preceding the High Holidays asking God for forgiveness. During the services, the rousing call of the shofar—the ram’s horn—carries into the streets from the synagogues. Throngs of tourists—most of them Israeli—flood to the old neighborhoods in the ancient cities of Jerusalem and Safed for “seliḥot tours,” visiting the many synagogues there with their different traditions, prayers, and melodies. Ashkenazim begin to recite seliḥot the Saturday night preceding Rosh Hashana, or, if Rosh Hashana falls in the first half of the week, the Saturday night before that one.
Elul is a month of introspection, reflection, soul searching, prayer, and forgiveness. The Sages say that this month, “The King is in the field.” If God is compared to a king in a palace, where most of the time, it takes many hurdles and obstacles and bureaucracy to gain an audience with Him, during Elul it is as if He has flung open the palace gates and walked out towards you in the field. This allegory means that it is a time of particular spiritual closeness to God.
I loved this time of year in high school. You know me, I’m a “soul archeologist” by nature and introspection is one of my favorite pastimes—sometimes to a fault!—so I especially loved activities geared towards making us think about spirituality and our relationships with God. They’d invite people, often Jews who used to be secular and went through a process of becoming religious, who would speak to us about their spiritual journey of teshuva (return to their spiritual roots). We would have concerts of soft spiritual music, and that music would stir awake the yearning for God that we often ignore. I have several memories of lying on the grass somewhere, looking up at a sky full of stars, singing softly, with tears pouring down my face, just feeling that strange mingling of an unquenchable yearning with an overwhelming sense of being loved by Him.
These days I don’t have evenings of spiritual music built in to my curriculum, but I do have those clouds, that sky, that gentle breeze, the sound of the shofar echoing from the Sephardi synagogue near my home.
The Ten Days of Repentance
I will elaborate on the Jewish concept of repentance, teshuva, in a later post. The first ten days of the month of Tishrei focus on teshuva as a national, collective process. The reason for this is that on Rosh Hashana—the Jewish new year, the first two days of Tishrei—it is believed that God figuratively “opens the books” and sets down all the decrees for the coming year, based on what we merit, deserve and need according to our deeds from the previous year. However, tradition has it, on Rosh Hashana God does not “seal” our fates; he merely “writes them down,” and does not seal them until the end of the tenth of Tishrei, which is Yom Kippur (literally “the Day of Atonement”). So during the ten days between lighting the candles of Rosh Hashana and the final shofar blast of Yom Kippur, we have the power to change those decrees, through teshuva, giving charity, and prayer.
Now, as you will see in the letter about teshuva, on an individual level, we can change the spiritual influence of our sins at any time during the year. So the question arises, why do we need the Ten Days of Repentance? What does it mean that the decrees are “written” and “sealed”? The answer is that the Ten Days of Repentance are not really about individual teshuva, though they are an opportune time to focus on it. They are about teshuva as a community, as a collective. We are not really coming together on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur to pray for ourselves as individuals, and nor for just ourselves as a community; we come together to pray for the entire universe.
Rosh Hashana is the Jewish new year because it is believed to be “the birthday of the world.” But it is actually not the day we believe the world was created. It is the day we believe that humans were created. That is, the sixth day of creation, not the first. So why do we count starting from Adam’s birthday, and not from the day God said “Let there be light”?
Because the Torah’s focus is on humans and our role in elevating the universe spiritually. It is really all about us. The famous Hassidic rebbe, Rabbi Simcha Bunem, taught his students that they should carry two notes, one in each pocket, at all times. One note should read, “The world was created for me”; and the other should read, “And I am dust and ashes.” The idea is that on the one hand we should remember the greatness of the role and responsibility for which we were created; and on the other hand, we must remember that we are made of dust and will return to dust, and must balance that responsibility with humility.
As Jews, our responsibility is that much greater, in that we believe God gave us a unique and crucial role in the process of spiritually elevating the universe. And during the Ten Days of Repentance, the weight of that responsibility is heavy. God asked us to be a light unto the nations, to spread knowledge of Him throughout the world, to abolish injustice and evil. And when we stand before Him on the day the world is judged, we have to answer for ourselves and what we have done, as a nation, in the past year, to further that goal.
That is why the High Holidays (Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur) are often seen as being very grave and serious holidays. They are also known as the Days of Awe. But they are also filled with joy, singing, celebration, and a strong sense of community.
Rosh Hashana is a Yom Tov. Yom Tov literally means “good day,” and it applies to holidays that are listed in the Torah (the first five books of the Bible). What it means in practice is that it is a holiday that is celebrated very similarly to how we celebrate Shabbat; we light candles at the beginning and make havdala at the end, have festive prayers, eat two feasts (one at night and one during the day), and observe almost the same restrictions (barring certain activities that are related to preparing food). Now, in most cases, there is a difference between the duration of the holiday depending on whether you are in Israel or outside it. Inside Israel, a Yom Tov lasts one day. Outside of it, it lasts two. The reason is this: before we had calendars, Jews would calculate the months and the holidays according to observations of the moon. A month in the Jewish calendar, you see, can sometimes be 29 days, and sometimes 30. A witness for the Sanhedrin, the great rabbinical assembly, would have to sight the new moon and announce it to the rest of the nation. If you lived in Israel at the time, chances were that by the time the 15th of the month came around (which is when most Jewish holidays fall), you would have heard from these witnesses and would have an accurate calculation of the beginning of the month. If you lived outside of Israel, however, the news might not reach you by then. So Jews in the Diaspora observed two days of Yom Tov, just in case they had miscalculated and the holiday actually fell a day later than they thought.
In the case of Rosh Hashana, however, the holiday falls on the very first day of the month, and there was concern that even those in Israel would miscalculate. Therefore, even in Israel, we observe two days of Rosh Hashana instead of one.
Due to the intensity and significance of the High Holidays, the prayer services during Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are particularly long. There are so many additional prayers that we have special prayer books only for the High Holidays, called maḥzorim (literally meaning “cycles”). If a normal Shabbat morning service runs from 8:00-10:30, Rosh Hashana services will easily run until 1pm, depending on the congregation, how fast the cantor goes, how much singing there is, etc.
One thing that is unique about the Rosh Hashana services is the blowing of the shofar.
A shofar is a hollowed out horn from a kosher animal that is blown like a musical horn. It was used as a call to battle during Biblical times, and features in the story of how Joshua defeated Jericho. It symbolizes the ram that was sacrificed in place of Isaac, and its purpose is to “awaken” our souls to repent.
My most poignant experience of hearing the shofar blown was actually not on Rosh Hashana at all. It was in the spring, in the Łopuchowo Forest in Poland. (More about my trip to Poland here.) We were standing over a mass grave there, where all the residents of the town of Tykocin were murdered by the Nazis. After a small ceremony we held in their memory, the principal of my school stood in front of us. “There are things,” he said, “that are so raw, so powerful, so great, that they can’t be expressed in words. Sometimes the only way to express how you feel is to cry out from the depths of your soul. And sometimes, even the human voice is not enough to give expression to this cry.” He reached in his bag and took out a shofar. “When I blow this shofar,” he said, “let it be your voice.” He blew it, and there wasn’t a dry eye in the crowd. Since that day, every time I hear the shofar I am transported back to that moment in the Łopuchowo Forest, with my soul crying out in pain, in yearning, in hope.
That is the idea of the shofar. It gives a voice to the deepest cries of our souls.
A Sweet New Year
Now, as with all Jewish holidays, food has a significant role in the celebrations. 😉 As I mentioned, there are two feasts, one during the evening and one during the day. Like on Shabbat, the meals are preceded with Kiddush over wine and a blessing over two loaves of bread. On Rosh Hashana there is a custom to use round loaves of bread, symbolizing the cycle of the year. Additionally, there is a custom to dip the bread in honey, as a sign that we are wishing for a “sweet” new year. We take this further with the iconic symbolic food eaten on Rosh Hashana: apples dipped in honey. The apples, which are round, also symbolize the year.
Many also have the custom to eat other symbolic foods, whose Hebrew names are reminiscent of other things we are wishing for. One of the most widely eaten ones, is pomegranates. As I mentioned, the pomegranates are just starting to ripen. They are one of the Seven Species, and my personal favorite fruit. Their many seeds are symbolic of prosperity and fertility—and the Torah. You see, if you ever sat down and counted all the seeds in a pomegranate, you would discover that the number of seeds comes out astonishingly close to 613—the number of mitzvot, commandments in the Torah.
When we eat pomegranate on Rosh Hashana, we say, “May it be Your will, our God and God of our forefathers, that our merits be as numerous as [the seeds of] a pomegranate.”
Yom Kippur is the climax of the Ten Days of Repentance. Tradition has it that this is the day the fate of the world in the coming year is sealed. Thus, it is the holiest day of the Jewish year, the “Sabbath of Sabbaths.”
I am constantly emphasizing that Judaism is about life on this world, about elevating the mundane and channeling our base desires for a higher spiritual purpose. Yom Kippur is the only day of the Jewish year on which we deny ourselves worldly pleasures rather than use them as part of our service of God and spiritual refinement. It is the day we try to be like the angels, which in Jewish thought are messengers of God or channels through which He manifests His will in the physical world, and thus have no will of their own. Many of us wear white clothing to symbolize purity from sin.
The restrictions of Yom Kippur are the same as Shabbat, with the added restrictions of a major fast day, which include eating, drinking, wearing leather shoes, washing, anointing ourselves with oil, and marital relations. Not much left to do, then, except pray! And pray we do. Yom Kippur is the only day in the Jewish year with five prayer services: one in the evening (ma’ariv), one in the morning (shaḥarit), one right after shaḥarit (mussaf), one in the afternoon (minḥa), and one just at the end of the fast, called “ne’ila,” which means “locking,” as in the “locking of the gates of prayer.”
In the evening, the first prayer is the famous Kol Nidre. Well, actually it’s not so much a prayer as a kind of juristic declaration that annuls all personal vows (ones you take upon yourself, not ones that involve other people) made in the last year, and declares it permissible to pray with outcasts and sinners. The origin of the formula is unknown, but it is believed that it was created during the Geonic period (the last half of the first millennium C.E.), during a time of extreme persecution where many Jews were forcibly converted to Christianity or Islam. The common theory is that the idea of the passage was to welcome such Jews back into the fold and declare their conversions to those other religions null and void.
One would imagine that it was a very important prayer to crypto-Jews during the time of the Spanish Inquisition. There are those who theorize that the haunting melody most commonly sung has its origins in pre-expulsion Spain. It is certainly reminiscent of the saetas in Andalusia during Holy Week.
The evening continues with the reading of the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy, a formula God gave Moses when he was pleading that God forgive the Israelites for the sin of the Golden Calf. There are a number of powerful liturgical poems that are sung. One of my favorites is “Ki Hinei KaḤomer,” “Like Clay”: “For like clay in the potter’s hand/With his will, he expands it, and with his will, contracts it/So are we in Your hand, Rememberer of Kindness/Look to the Covenant, and disregard the evil inclination…” Seliḥot are also said, as well as the usual Amidah prayer for the High Holidays. There is also an added passage of confession: a double acrostic poem of all different kinds of sins, written in first person plural: “For the sin we have committed before You under duress or willingly… for the sin we have committed before You by hard-heartedness…” Through speech, or through deceit, or through disrespect, or inadvertently—“And for them all, God of pardon, pardon us, forgive us, atone for us.”
The morning services are also full of beautiful prayers and poems. If you ever get a chance to flip through a High Holiday maḥzor, I highly recommend it.
It is really hard to describe the experience of the prayers of Yom Kippur. There is an intense sense of connectedness, both with the community, and with God; a sense of standing bare-hearted before the King of Kings, and saying, “I know I haven’t been all I could be, and I want to be better.” I used to say that Yom Kippur was my favorite holiday because it was the day I felt closest to God. These days, between fasting and taking care of little kids, it’s much harder to connect in that way. But even so, even if I manage to spend just a little time in synagogue, or take the time to say some of my favorite Yom Kippur prayers… it feels like peeling away the layers of my soul, one by one, sometimes painfully, to touch the Divine core of my being, and connect with He from whom that core originates. Because you see… what Yom Kippur really is, is the cleansing of our souls from the stains of sin, of doubt, of fear, of distance from God and from ourselves and what we want to be.
When the fast is over, traditionally, the first thing we do (after guzzling water and stuffing our faces with cake, of course), is start building the Succah (what’s that? Stay tuned!). Because that is the major mitzvah of the next holiday that comes up only five days later, and we want to act on our freshly renewed commitment to our covenant with God, and get the year off to a good start with our shiny clean souls.
Wishing a meaningful Elul full of self-discovery and renewal to all of us, and may we be written and sealed in the Book of Life.