Month of Elul
and spiritual preparation as we approach the High
Holidays. Learn more about the meaning and
traditions of this time period.
The month of Elul is a time of prayer, introspection, and spiritual preparation as we approach the High Holidays. Learn more about the meaning and traditions of this time period.
Getting ready for the spiritual high of the High Holy Days?
Prepare yourself with the mitzvah of tzedakah.
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Elul Traditions and the Jewish New Year
A Period of Preparation
Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, The High Holy Days, start off the new Jewish year. The month of Elul, which leads up to the High Holy Days, is a month of introspection, prayer, and spiritual preparation, as we pray for a good new year.
Rosh Hashana is the first day of the new Jewish year. Judaism tells us that this is the time that we are judged by Hashem, the day on which everything that will happen the coming year is decreed and written down. Hashem opens the book of Life, Judaism says, and decides who will be inscribed in it, to live a good life in the next year.
There are ten days between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, called the Aseres Yemei Teshuva or the 10 Days of Repentance. We use these days to gather more zechuyot (merits) in advance of Yom Kippur, because Yom Kippur is the day that the decree for the coming year, written on Rosh Hashana, is sealed.
On Yom Kippur itself, known as the Day of Atonement, we fast and spend the day in prayer, beseeching Hashem to seal a good decree for us the coming year.
Then, there’s the holiday of Sukkot, which is four days after Yom Kippur and a time of intense joy. After all the repentance and atonement, we’re sure that there’s a wonderful year in store for us, and we celebrate our newfound connection to Hashem.
Each holiday, as you can see, builds on the previous one. They are rungs in the spiritual ladder we climb in search of a closer connection to Hashem. The month of Elul is the first step in this holy process of ascension, as we get ready for the spiritual high of the month of Tishrei.
Teshuvah, Tefillah, Utzedakah
So how can we start preparing ourselves spiritually for the coming holidays? There are many special Elul traditions that Jews perform this time of year. Most of them center on the theme of the following verse, “Teshuva, tefillah, utzedaka maavirin es ro’ah hagezeirah,” which is translated as, “Repentance, prayer, and charity take away the evil decree.”
During the month of Tishrei, Hashem inscribes the decree for the coming year. He looks at every person’s actions and deeds from the past year, counting the merits and the sins. It’s based on this accounting that Hashem inscribes the decree for the
coming year. The more merits we earn, the more chance we have of having a ‘Shana Tova Umesukah’ (or Shana Tova Umetukah), a sweet and good new year. And Elul is our last chance at grabbing those zechuyos (or zechuyot) before the year is over.
To be deserving of being inscribed in the Jewish Book of Life, the first of the Elul traditions is teshuva, repentance. We want to show Hashem that we truly regret all the misdeeds we’ve done in the past year, so that those deeds won’t be counted in the reckoning of the Day of Judgment, Rosh Hashana. Confessing to our sins, feeling true regret over having done them and committing to leave behind the misbehavior, never to repeat it, makes up the process of true teshuva.
Then there’s tefillah, prayer. Praying is always a primary way to strengthen our spiritual connection, and it is a big part of the Elul traditions. During this month, we add a psalm for Elul. At the end of every prayer service during Elul, we recite Psalm 27, which contains references to the holidays of Tishrei that we are preparing for in Elul.
Reciting psalm 27 gives our prayers extra strength, as promised by great tsaddikim who wrote about this elul tradition. It’s also a daily reminder that the Days of Awe are coming, and it gives us a push to put more focus into our prayers. We continue saying Tehillim 27 throughout the month of Tishrei as well.
The third part of the formula for taking away all evil decrees and ensuring a wonderful judgment on Rosh Hashana is tzedaka, charity. Jewish charity is a tremendously powerful mitzvah, as the verse says, “Tzedaka tatzil mimaves,” the mitzvah of tzedaka can save a person from death.
This is an easy one of the Elul customs to fulfill, by donating to any of the Jewish tzedaka organizations or Jewish charities in Israel. Many Jewish charity organizations will distribute the funds to needy people for the upcoming holidays, which is a great merit.
Specific Elul Traditions
The mitzvah of blowing shofar can only be fulfilled on the day of Rosh Hashana. So then why do we blow the shofar in Elul?
The call of the shofar is designed to bring thoughts of teshuva to every listener-and that’s applicable throughout the month of Elul.
So every day of Elul, after the daily morning services, shofar blasts are blown. Hearing the shofar reminds everyone that Rosh Hashana, called Yom Teruah-a day of blowing, is on its way. And it’s time to do teshuva so we can be ready for the day of judgment.
Another of the Elul traditions is to check the mezuzahs (parchment scrolls) on our doorposts. Mezuzah is a mitzvah that serves to protect those
who live in the house. As Rosh Hashana approaches, we want to ensure that we have maximum spiritual protection. If a mezuzah is ruined or not written correctly, then we aren’t fulfilling the mitzvah and we lose that protection.
By hiring a sofer (Jewish scribe) who is an expert in the proper fulfillment of mezuzah, to check our scrolls, we ensure that we’ll have the merit
of this mitzvah as a protection.
Preparing for Rosh Hashana
As we get spiritually ready for Rosh Hashana in Elul, there’s another custom to think about, and that is wishing others ‘L’shanah Tova’, a greeting meaning, ‘Have a sweet New Year’. You can do this by sending Jewish new year cards to your acquaintances, accompanied by Rosh Hashana gifts if applicable.
Jewish new year greeting cards usually have the words ‘L’shana Tovah’ already written on them, and you can add your own best wishes beneath that.
The day of Rosh Hashana is significant in several ways. First, it’s the beginning of a new year. It’s also the Day of Judgment, as discussed above. After a month of Elul customs to prepare ourselves for the day, there are many special traditions for the holiday of Rosh Hashana itself, meant to sweeten the decrees.
We eat special foods, known as the Rosh Hashana simanim, to symbolize our hopes for a sweet new year. The most well-known of these
is the apple dipped in honey, which symbolizes sweetness. There’s also pomegranate, which symbolizes our desire for a year filled with spiritual growth and mitzvahs, just as a pomegranate is filled with seeds. Many people eat a bit of fish from the head of the fish, to symbolize hopes of being like the head, which is the leader of the body.
Rosh Hashana also commemorates the day of the creation of Man, beginning with Adam. It’s the day that Hashem, so to speak, became King of the World, as man recognized Hashem for the first time. This leads to a deeper significance to the day of Rosh Hashana, which is that of accepting upon ourselves Hashem’s dominion once again. We can also say that we are crowning Hashem as our King and as King of the Universe.
10 Days of Awe
Between the holidays of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, we have another chance at amassing merits before the decree for the year is sealed on Yom Kippur. These ten days between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are called the 10 Days of Repentance, because we use them to do more teshuvah.
We continue with the Elul traditions of teshuvah, tefillah, and tzedakah, increasing our performance of mitzvoth. Because these days are a continuation of Elul, it’s sometimes referred to as Elul 40 Days of Repentance: the 30 days of Elul along with the first 10 days of Tishrei.
Use this time to add prayers for your family’s welfare in the coming year, to donate to Jewish charities in their merit, and to make a sincere commitment to self-improvement.
The Yom Kippur Fast
Known as the holiest day of the year, Yom Kippur is a day of repentance. Many people spend the day in shul, praying and listening to the Yom Kippur readings from the Torah, which center around the goal of repentance.
We abstain from all food, drink and physical comforts for the entire 25 hours of the Yom Kippur fast, during which we do not do any melacha (forbidden work) just as on Shabbos. Fasting Yom Kippur is a mitzvah, and we want to be strong enough to fulfill it properly. Therefore, we eat a meal just before the Yom Kippur fasting begins, called the Seudah Hamafsekes.
At the Seudah Hamafsekes, parents bless their children, saying the traditional Jewish blessings of Yivarechecha (a verse that asks Hashem to bless them). After the meal is over, Jewish men will don a white kittel, or coat. The white garment reminds them that on this day, Jews become pure like angels, who have no physical needs like food or drink.
Beginning Erev Yom Kippur, in the Minchah prayer, viduy (confession of sins) is recited, and every congregant beats his chest with his fist. Every Yom Kippur prayer contains viduy. Throughout Yom Kippur, viduy is recited a total of 10 times, as part of our striving for forgiveness.
Then it’s Yom Kippur night, time for the heart-stirring recital of the Kol Nidrei prayer. Jews fill the shuls as the chazzan (prayer leader) chants Kol Nidrei in its inimitable tune. Following this is the Maariv service. Many remain in shul after the services are completed, saying Tehillim deep into the night.
Yom Kippur morning prayers begin with Shacharis, followed by the unique Mussaf tefillah of Yom Kippur. During Mussaf, we recite the powerful and moving prayer of Unesaneh Tokef, which reminds us that today is the day of sealing the decree of Life.
Mussaf includes a recounting of how the Kohen Gadol (High Priest) performed the service on Yom Kippur in the Kodesh Hakodashim (Holy of Holies) in the time of the Bais HaMikdash (Temple).
Indeed, services continue throughout the day, as most adults are immersed completely in prayer for the duration of the fast, intensely concentrated on the avodah (service) of the day. What about the kids on Yom Kippur? While children under Bar/Bas Mitzvah (twelve for a girl, thirteen for a boy) are allowed to eat on Yom Kippur, kids often find it hard to be in shul for so many hours. If you’ll be entertaining children this Yom Kippur, it’s worthwhile to plan some meaningful activities with them. Yom Kippur for kids can include a Jewish storytelling time, saying Tehillim, mock-shul time at home, and/or some learning about the meaning of the day for preteens.
After the Minchah prayer comes the prayer that is said only on Yom Kippur: Neilah. The meaning of Neilah is closing, and indeed, we daven with a sense of desperation, knowing that the spiritual elevation and intimacy of the past week of introspection is now coming to a close.
As the day of Yom Kippur fades away, we end with one final shofar blast and the hope that we will merit the Final Redemption shortly. Then, purified and uplifted, everyone davens Maariv and goes home to make havdalah and break the fast on a meal.
Tishrei’s Holiday Climax
After the fast of Yom Kippur is over, we’re on a spiritual high, confident that we’ll be having a wonderful year. We’ve spent the month gaining a deeper connection with Hashem, and we’re sure that our repentance has been accepted.
This feeling of joyful relief translates into the happy holiday of Sukkos, which follows immediately after Yom Kippur just four days later. In fact, many have the tradition to begin building their sukkah (hut) for Sukkos as soon as Yom Kippur is over, to keep ourselves in a spiritual flow of mitzvos.
Sukkos is a holiday of tremendous joy, and it’s actually a mitzvah to be happy on Sukkos! On this holiday, we revel in our renewed closeness to our Creator. To symbolize this closeness, we build a sukkah, where we spend the seven days of Sukkos together with Hashem. We eat lavish meals in the sukkah and buy new clothing, to express our feelings of joy.
In honor of the holiday, many donate to Jewish charities with a holiday fund, to share the happiness with the needy. This way, the entire Jewish nation can celebrate Sukkos with the joy that the holiday calls for.