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At Rosh Hashanah 1:1 the Mishnah explains that 'there are four Israeli new years." The first of Nisan (usually in early Spring), the first of Elul (the sixth month of the Hebrew calendar), the first of Tishrei (known as Rosh Hashanah) and the 15th of Shvat (known as Tu B'Shvat, which is usually in late January or early February).
Ellul 1st is the New Year for the Tithing of Cattle. In ancient times this was a very important event. The month of Elul is, more importantly, the month of preparation for the High Holy Days, when all flesh is judged by our Creator. It is said that during this month HaShem leaves His Holy Place to walk among us, looking for souls to forgive and restore.
Elul is therefore known as the month of teshuvah or repentance. It is a time for intensive introspection. During Elul we are encouraged to clarify our goals and plans for the upcoming year and beyond. More importantly however, this is the time for renewed spiritual communion and of coming closer to G-d. It is a time for realizing ones purpose in life and for developing greater emunah. During Elul our attention leaves sense gratification and turns to spiritual pursuits. We become increasingly aware that we will soon stand before the Judge of all judges and so we prepare our cases by seeking to right all uncorrected wrongs and to purify consciousness.
During Elul the shofar is sounded each day. Some Poskim rule one is to begin to blow the Shofar from the first day of the Elul Rosh Chodesh (being the 30th of Av) while other Poskim rule the blowing of the Shofar begins the second day of the Rosh Chodesh (being the first of Elul).
Our sages explain that the four Hebrew letters of the word Elul (aleph-lamed-vav-lamed) are the first letters of the four words אֲנִ֤י לְדוֹדִי֙ וְדוֹדִ֣י לִ֔י הָרֹעֶ֖ה בַּשׁוֹשַׁנִּֽים׃ (ס) — I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine (Song of Songs 6:3). During the month of Elul HaShem abides with His people in special intimacy bestowing His Mercy upon us.
Shir HaShirim (Song of Songs) Chapter 6:1-3"Where has your beloved gone, O fairest of women? Where has your beloved turned, that we may seek him with you?"
"My beloved has gone down to his garden, to the spice beds, to graze in the gardens and to gather roses.
I am my beloved's, and my beloved is mine, who grazes among the roses."
Elul is a most intimate and sacred time for communing with the Beloved. In his commentary on the Torah Parsha Toldot, the Ar'zal speaks of the "Extended Countenance" of the Beloved (known as Arich Anpin, the "Long Face/Extended Countenance") when referencing the revelation of His Divine Mercy. The term Arich Anpin derives from the Hebrew phrase Erech Apaim, meaning "slow to anger" -- literally the "long nose" -- indicating how the Divine Mercy flows downward from Keter through the Dikna or Beard of Adam Kadmon.
It is taught that when the Tree of Life is represented in the anthropomorphic configuration known as Adam Kadmon, the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy may be visualized as the thirteen strands of hair in the beard of Adam Kadmon. To be clear, there is absolutely nothing physical, let alone anthropomorphic about these Divine Emanations – this is just a metaphor, a visual aid and nothing more. However with this image we can conceive how these Divine Mercies descend, as a "beard," to Chochmah (Wisdom), as the beard of Adam Kadmon enlightened by the Supernal Light. Each of these thirteen "strands of hair" are likened to a channel of soul rectification. The Thirteen Attributes flow from the Mind of G-d. During the month of Elul they flow forth like a mighty river. Hence in Kitvei Arizal it is written:The light that issues from the beard, via the hairs, is called mazal, because it “flows” drop by drop -- Likutei Torah and Sefer Halikutim on Parshat Toldot.
Each strand of the Supernal Beard is symbolic of a channel of Divine Rectification (or Tikunai Dikna). The "hairs" of the Beard further symbolise Tzimtzum, the Constrictions or Concealments of the Divine Light, known as the Ohr Ein Sof, the Supernal Light of Being. As Divine Mercy flows downward into our world from on High the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy become ever more accessible to the lower realms, ultimately flowing into Malkuth, the realms of our daily experiences. This process empowers our teshuvah and promotes Devekut. This blessed state of Mercy exists most tangibly during the month of Elul.
Writing about the mystical intentions (or kavanot) of the month of Ellul, Rabbi Chaim Vital quotes his teacher, the Holy Ari:…During the month of Elul, the thirteen sources of the Thirteen Rectifications of the Beard [in Aramaic, Tikunei Dikna] of Atika are opened, and they are revealed and shine below into the Makif of the brains [mochin] of the partzufim of Abba and Imma. This is as we have clarified in the beginning of the “Idra [Zuta]” in the Zohar, parashat HaAzinu, that from outside the brains of Abba and Imma, their light breaks forth and shines, in the secret of the “surrounding light” [“Or Makif“]; it is there that these Thirteen Rectifications of the [Supernal] Beard of Atika become revealed -- Shaar Ruach HaKodesh, pg. 44a
During the month of Elul the Thirteen Attributes are poured forth into our world as the Holy One metaphorically leaves His Throne seeking whom He may bless. In preparation for the High Holy Days it is advised by the Arizal and others that one should fast and perform teshuvah on the two days following Rosh Chodesh Elul in order that the Light of the Thirteen Attributes of Divine Mercy might be revealed to us as we enter into the rectifications of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Through these rectifications anyone can achieve devekut, true attachment to the Beloved.
Its thirteen fragrances are not to be taken lightly. Our introspection begins on the first day the Hebrew month of Elul.
During the month of Elul we take stock of ourselves spiritually and socially. Have we offended anyone? If so, we should make every reasonable effort at making amends. We should sincerely ask for forgiveness, not just mutter the words due to our Elul traditions. Has anyone offended us? If so we should freely grant our forgiveness, while considering our part in the situation and seeking forgiveness for our involvement (whether the other party seeks our forgiveness or not). Of course we should do this everyday, but especially during Elul we consider where we may have been lax in this. Our preparations before the High Holy Days empowers us to observe the various traditions with a clear mind. When our consciousness is clear of negativity we are elevated and empowered to receive forgiveness and reconciliation from HaShem.
The tradition of making amends is therefore very important! If we hold hard feelings towards others, anyone, rightly or wrongly, these negative emotions will block our desired communion with the Holy One whose Mercy we crave and do not deserve. So, don't wait until Yom Kippur to begin. Take advantage of the Causeless Mercy of the Month of Elul
What's different about Elul?
The Holy Zohar explains that at the beginning of Elul we are achor el achor, "back to back" with G-d. In other words, as we begin the month of repentance our "backs" are turned away from HaShem. As result of our free will choices His Back is turned to us. But by the end of Elul we become panic el panic, we are "face to face" with the Holy One due to our teshuvah (repentance).
How is this remarkable transition possible? In a word, Ra ch em! Mercy! Our sages teach that during the month of Elul HaShem metaphorically walks among us. Chassidut often uses the phrase "the King is in the Field” seeking us out, inspiring us to begin to our teshuvah as though we had been asleep. "Awaken souls," the King cries out; "Seek HaShem while He is near!" (Isaiah 55:6)
Our enhanced awareness of both our relationship with HaShem and with others makes Elul a very special time. As His Voice penetrates our consciousness we ponder: Is there anything negative between me and the Eternal One? Between me and my family members? My friends? My neighbors? Am I doing everything I can to help in the work of Tikkun Olam (i.e. repairing this broken world)? Am I actively blessing others? Blessing Israel? Blessing the country in which I dwell to stand with Israel and for righteousness? What am I doing to bless and repair my world (tikun olam)? What am I doing with the precious time HaShem is affording me?
We begin with our own people. Are there divisions between me and my fellow Jew? Do I feel part of our people or do i feel separated from them? Do I embrace all Jews as family or do I view those of other Movements and opinions as outsiders? Do I act judgemental or with love towards my fellow Jews?
The Chofetz Chaim teaches us how important forgiveness and the unity of people is:Our Sages state: "Jerusalem was destroyed only because its inhabitants limited their decisions to the [letter of the] law of Torah" (Bava Metzia 30b). This seems difficult, for Scripture records many sins of which that generation was guilty.
Our discussion sheds light on the matter. Had the people overlooked the wrong caused them, then HaShem would have forgiven them as well. However, they were absolutely unrelenting toward each other, demanding from one another whatever they could possibly extract according to the law -- and Heaven judged them accordingly
Rav Kook, the first modern Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem stated that "As there are enough people practicing rejection, I choose to be one who embraces." Ask yourself, "Do I embrace my fellow Jews, giving them the benefit of the doubt?
Elul is the time to get back on the derech (the Path of G-d). It is the season of seeking and freely granting forgiveness.
Beginning on the first day of Elul we start sounding or hearing the shofar blasts. A Shofar is a specially prepared ram's horn. Many Jews use other kosher horns from halachichally permissible animals as you see me using in the photo below). Each morning, immediately after Shacharit (i.e. our morning prayers) we sound the shofar. Of course, one should never sound the shofar on Shabbat nor on the last day Elul. The shofar reminds us of many things. Rambam says it is the call to our souls. The sounding is an alarm to awaken us from slumber and to prepare us to meet our Maker. The shofar blast reminds us of Isaac's willingness to be sacrificed by his father, of Avraham's obedient willingness to sacrifice his son, and of HaShem's mercy through the sacrificial ram He provided instead. And so we ponder: would I be willing to sacrifice myself for the sake of others? For the sake of Israel? For the sake HaShem? The sound of the shofar recalls the bellowing trumpets of thunder as HaShem revealed His Glory at Mount Sinai to all of our people. Our sages say that every Jew, past, present, and future, including all converts, heard that shofar blast and are required to hear it annually on Rosh Hashanah. The shofar connects our souls together as the "servant" of HaShem and elevates our cries and teshuvah to the King who is among us during this holy season. The sound/vibration of the Shofar reaches into collective and individual souls in innumerable ways.
The Three Blasts of the Shofar
Many Jews sound or hear the shofar every day during Elul, and then, during the shofar services, the ba'al tekiah (of 'master of the sounding') blows three distinct notes in different combinations as called out by the service leader. At the end of the shofar service, a very long tekiah, the tekiah gedolah is sounded.
On Rosh Hashana when it is time to sound or hear the shofar, the whole congregation stands, eager to listen and to join their consciousness with the holy cries. First we recite the blessing for the mitzvah of hearing the shofar. Note that the mitzvah is not for sounding the blasts, but for hearing them. Of course, the ba'al tekiah receives blessings for enabling the hearers to hear even as he hears the sound himself.
Tradition holds that shevarim is the melancholy broken heart crying out to HaShem, and that teruah is the sound of the soul weeping before the Creator. As you hear or sound the shofar allow your sorrow to wash over and through you. The Shofar is not a joyous sound. It is the cry of the repentant heart. Experience the sorrow of our people and allow the sound of the shofar to wash over you and to cleanse your soul. Hearing this cry is healing.
Baruch atah, Adonai elohainu, melech haolam,
ahshair keedshanu bimetzvotav vtzevanu leeshmoah kol shofar
"Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Ruler of the universe,
Who makes us holy through His mitzvot and Who instructs us to hear the sound of the shofar.
Baruch atah, Adonai elohainu, melech haolam,
shehecheyanu vikeemanu v'heegeanu lozzmon hazeh.
Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Ruler of the universe,
for giving us life, for sustaining us, and for enabling us to reach this season.
As Elul draws to a close we begin reciting selichot or special prayers for forgiveness until Yom Kippur (except on Shabbat when we transcend this world for the Olam Haba). Each day we pray and ask HaShem to forgive us and to grant us His undeserved mercy and pardon as we forgive others. As part of this redemptive process we recite:
- Tekiah: This is a single, solid blast lasting between five and ten seconds.
- Shevarim: This is a broken blast of three bleeps. It should last about the same duration as a single tekiah.
- Teruah: This is the alarm cry. It consists of nine rapid-fire bleeps, again lasting about one tekiah.
- Tekiah gedolah: This blast is maintained for as long as the ba'al tekiah is able. It is cry of the hearers extending upward to the Throne of HaShem, may He be merciful and receive our heartfelt teshuvah (repentance).
The Thirteen attributes of MercyFollowing the incident with the Golden Calf, Moshe Rabbeinu asked HaShem to explain His system for redeeming the world. HaShem's answer is known as the "13 Attributes of Mercy." This section of the Torah forms the essence of the "selichot " prayers.
- א-ל / G-d — mighty in compassion to give all creatures according to their need;
- רַחוּם / rachum — merciful, that humankind may not be distressed;
- וְחַנּוּן / ve’chanun — and gracious if humankind is already in distress;
- אֶרֶךְ אַפַּיִם / erech apayim — slow to anger; (once, to the righteous)
- אֶרֶךְ אַפַּיִם / erech apayim — slow to anger; (repeated again for the wicked)
- וְרַב-חֶסֶד / ve’rav chesed — and plenteous in kindness;
- וֶאֱמֶת / ve’emet — and truth;
- נֹצֵר חֶסֶד / notzer chesed — keeping kindness
- לָאֲלָפִים / laalafim — unto thousands;
- נֹשֵׂא עָוֹן / noseh avon — forgiving iniquity;
- וָפֶשַׁע / vafeshah — and transgression;
- וְחַטָּאָה / vechata'ah — and sin;
- וְנַקֵּה / venakeh — and pardoning.Merciful God, merciful God, powerful God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abundant in kindness and truth. Preserver of kindness for thousands of generations, forgiver of iniquity, willful sin and error, and Who cleanses -- Exodus 34:6-7
Traditionally the Selichot are recited before Shacharit (i.e. the morning prayers) so we wake up a bit earlier during these days. It is preferable that they be recited with a minyan (i.e. 10 Jewish males according to traditional halacha), however they can be recited, in a slightly abbreviated form, without a minyan. Check your favorite siddur for details on this.
The heart and soul of Elul is teshuvah (repentance), which includes our rectification. In order to have clear communion with HaShem it is vital that we have a clear consciousness devoid of hate, resentment, and fear. Teshuva is vital for this. During Elul we seek to re-establish peace with everyone in our social circle and beyond. We ask for their forgiveness, we perform deeds of restitution as needed, we perform good deeds for no reason at all, and we spend extra time with HaShem through secluded personal prayer (known as hitbodedut). During this period before the High Holy Days we seek to enhance our religious experiences and practices and to attach ourselves ever more securely to HaShem as we seek His Mercy.So "L'shanah tovah tikatev v'taihatem!"
"May you be inscribed and sealed [in the Book of Life] for a good year!"
For more info see:
Holy day Guides
Questions & Answers
Boycott Hatred of Jews!
Echoes From Shoah
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