אלול comes every year

preparing for my beloved

As we begin Elul, the month before Rosh haShan­nah, prepa­ra­tions for the new year start.

blowing shofar

blow­ing sho­far

As I wrote last year (August 20, 2009) at this time, the Hebrew word אלול is con­sid­ered an acronym for the phrase from the Song of Songs: 6:3a…

אני לדודי ודודי לי = I am my beloved’s, and my beloved is mine.

The phrase is meant to sug­gest a lov­ing rela­tion­ship between the Cre­ator and the Jew­ish peo­ple, or at this time of year a much more per­son­al rela­tion­ship between God and each indi­vid­ual who is ready to re-eval­u­ate hirs actions as the world begins to con­strict (at least in the north­ern hemi­sphere). [“hirs” is my own con­trac­tion or com­bi­na­tion of “his” and “hers”]


To help in this prepa­ra­tion, I have brought for­ward links to a num­ber of tools I devel­oped last year at this time. Dur­ing the month of elul and through Yom Kip­pur, they will avail­able in the side­bar on the right.

name the day

One way of prepar­ing is to blow sho­far each day of Elul to “wake us up” to the tasks ahead.

There are many ways of approach­ing Rosh haShan­nah. Two of the terms that refer to this day can help us focus on its imme­di­ate mean­ing for us as indi­vid­u­als. These are Yom Harat Olam: The day of the cre­ation of the world and Yom Teru’ah the day of the sho­far blast; the lat­ter com­ple­ments and adds mean­ing to the for­mer.

Long ago, there was debate as to which sea­son should be cho­sen as that for the cel­e­bra­tion of the New Year. One rea­son that this time, the new moon clos­est to the autum­nal equinox was select­ed was the unique coin­ci­dence that the first word of the Torah בראשית is an ana­gram (has the same let­ters, but mixed up in a dif­fer­ent sequence) as the Hebrew term for today’s date: א בתשרי (the first day of the month of Tishre). The begin­ning began on this day, Rosh haShan­nah! Not only that, the ancient rab­bis taught that it was on this day, Rosh haShan­nah, and in the first hour of this day that the thought came to the cre­ator to form Adam: human­i­ty.

This con­cept of a cre­at­ed world is of great impor­tance. It is so sig­nif­i­cant that we Jews cel­e­brate the event of the cre­ation. We do this by rec­og­niz­ing that just as the world was cre­at­ed and is cre­at­ed anew each year, so we, as crea­tures with­in the world have the abil­i­ty to renew and be renewed each year. In fact, think of it a moment: of all the things in this world with which we come into con­tact, what is the most com­plex sin­gle cre­ation over which we have the abil­i­ty to shape, renew and improve? Our­selves. The idea of a cre­at­ed world and re-cre­at­ed human being serves as a basis for the con­cept of free will. In fact it is so impor­tant that the ancient rab­bis believed that when an indi­vid­ual, —let’s say I— act incor­rect­ly dur­ing the year, a record of the trans­gres­sion is inscribed in faint ink in the Book of Life (like writ­ing in lemon juice on paper). If I repent and cor­rect my ways dur­ing the ten days of repen­tance, the record is erased. But, if I don’t, it is rewrit­ten in indeli­ble ink (the heat gen­er­at­ed by my not repent­ing caus­es the lemon juice to become vis­i­ble), and these acts become an in-expunge-able part of my char­ac­ter.

invisilbe ink message revealed

invisilbe ink mes­sage revealed

unabashed confrontation

And so, at this time of year, we are forced into an unabashed con­fronta­tion with life. We turn back from those things we did that we would have been bet­ter off not hav­ing done. And we look around us and watch the nat­ur­al world doing the same thing. Autumn approach­es and we see the world draw­ing into itself. Vis­i­ble growth slows down. Ani­mals and plants take the time now to col­lect their ener­gies and focus their activ­i­ties on what they must do to ensure that they also are inscribed in the Book of Life for the new year.

The Bible also gives cer­tain lit­er­ary hints that this may have occurred dur­ing the pro­ces­sion of gen­er­a­tions on the earth. For ten gen­er­a­tions after the cre­ation, the Bible tells us, the ways of human­i­ty dete­ri­o­rat­ed: from the mur­der of Able by Cain his broth­er, through the haughty build­ing of the tow­er of Babel, till the tenth gen­er­a­tion, that of Noah. It was then after ten gen­er­a­tions when repen­tance was pos­si­ble but did­n’t occur that God decid­ed to clear away the dross and begin again. God made a new attempt at cre­ation after the waters of the flood reced­ed. (And, on top of that, tra­di­tions sug­gest that the cleans­ing flood even began in Tishre. How­ev­er, even the descen­dants of Noah did not live up to God’s expec­ta­tions. Not much time passed before they, too, began to act in evil ways. But this time (again, after ten generations—a nice lit­er­ary device), instead of destroy­ing the world and all human­i­ty, God tried a dif­fer­ent method: focus on one part of the world, one fam­i­ly among all of human­i­ty, the fam­i­ly of Abra­ham. God decid­ed (the ancient rab­bis tell us) that through the descen­dants of this cou­ple (Abra­ham and Sarah), the world would be inscribed for life. Ten gen­er­a­tions after Noah marked the birth and selec­tion of Abra­ham and Sarah; a new attempt to cre­ate a per­fect world.

And, I’ve heard, anoth­er ten gen­er­a­tions passed since the time of Abra­ham dur­ing which peri­od we lived through the most try­ing time of our ear­ly his­to­ry. After famine occurred in our land we went to Egypt where we were tricked into slav­ery and began serv­ing oth­er gods. A new cre­ation hud­dled in the shad­ows of Pharao­h’s store­hous­es, ready to take its place in his­to­ry. From the fam­i­ly of Abra­ham and Sarah to the Nation of Israel. In our strug­gle toward for­ma­tion we received ten con­strain­ing Com­mand­ments.

blacksmith at work

black­smith at work

Like the heat­ed iron of the black­smith, put into the hot coals, then beat­en on the anvil, we were shaped, con­cen­trat­ed, com­pact­ed till our for­ma­tive process was com­plet­ed and we were cast into the world, ready to re-enter our land. Ten gen­er­a­tions of cre­ativ­i­ty shaped by lim­i­ta­tions and formed by con­trac­tions: Adam to Noah, Noah to Abra­ham and Sarah, Abra­ham and Sarah to Moses.

we have the ability to create our selves

Our prepa­ra­tion begins now, at the begin­ning of Elul, as our cre­ation begins on Rosh haShan­nah. For ten days we con­cen­trate those ener­gies, cleans­ing our­selves, puri­fy­ing our­selves, to be inscribed into the Book of Life on Yom Kip­pur.

helpful reminders

elul alert

elul alert

But, we often need help. We need reminders, alerts and alarms to get us to cut back and encour­age us to begin the process. The sho­far helps.

That oth­er name: Yom Teru’ah, the day of the Sho­far Blast. Yes, even the youngest of us knows that on Rosh haShan­nah we blow the Sho­far. But to name this great and awe­some day after a musi­cal instru­ment or a part of an ani­mal? There must be more to it all. And there is. The clue is, of course, in one of the Torah read­ings for Rosh haShan­nah: the Akedah, the bind­ing of Isaac. The sto­ry of Abra­ham and Isaac’s jour­ney pro­ceeds at an unbear­ably rapid pace, and for a time it tru­ly seems that Isaac will actu­al­ly be sac­ri­ficed. As though, like us, Abra­ham must cut back on an aspect of him­self at this time of year to con­tem­plate his cre­ation, and Isaac (per­ish the thought) is what must be giv­en up! In fact, when I first start­ing think­ing these thoughts, I awoke from a night­mare in a sweat, hav­ing dreamed that indeed Abra­ham had actu­al­ly sac­ri­ficed his son as a par­ing away of his own unruly growth. We all know that Isaac was not sac­ri­ficed, and yet, the Bible’s sto­ry is awe­some­ly pow­er­ful and com­pelling each time we read it.

awesome horns

awe­some horns


What was it that Abra­ham offered in place of Isaac? The ram. We read that an angel told Abra­ham not to slaugh­ter his son. I like to think that this was actu­al­ly the bray­ing of the ram stuck by its horns in the thick­et that caught Abra­ham’s atten­tion. It was the ram’s horn itself that sig­naled the change in the turn of events and deter­mined that even if Abra­ham was to draw back on his unbri­dled growth, he was cer­tain­ly not to sac­ri­fice his son, his only son, whom he loved, Isaac. Sim­i­lar­ly, the sho­far, this ram’s horn is also a sym­bol, and when sound­ed, a cry out to us that it is time to change our ways.

The word [many browsers do not dis­play the point­ed Hebrew well] שׁוֹפַר (sho­far) is, of course, a noun, but when pro­nounced: שִׁפֵּר (sheepair), it becomes a verb and actu­al­ly means to improve and to cleanse! The ancient rab­bis, aware of the poet­ic pos­si­bil­i­ties inher­ent in this dou­ble mean­ing taught that God says: If you cleanse your deeds, then I will be to you like the sho­far. Just as the sho­far draws in the air from the nar­row end and emits it from the wide end, so I will get up from the throne of Judg­ment from which I make tight, strin­gent, deci­sions and sit down upon the throne of Mer­cy, and turn for you the attribute of judg­ment into the attribute of mer­cy.

We can also see this in the actu­al shape of the sho­far, its sound and the method for pro­duc­ing that sound. It takes great con­cen­tra­tion of mind and mus­cle at the nar­row end of the sho­far, before the broad pow­er­ful tones come out the open end. The tones them­selves play a role in the con­cen­trat­ing and redi­rect­ing of our cre­ative lives. The ancient rab­bis tell us that, metaphor­i­cal­ly, the sound of “Tek­i’ah” urges us to beg for God’s mer­cies. Then, the sound of “Teru’ah-She­varim” actu­al­ly shat­ters the enslave­ment of our hearts to unwor­thy desires.

A sto­ry is told about the West­ern Wall of the Tem­ple in Jerusalem which has been the object of fric­tion between Arabs and Jews for many years. In 1929, the British con­trolled the area. To appease the Arabs, the British for­bade the tra­di­tion­al sound­ing of the sho­far at the West­ern Wall at the end of Yom Kip­pur. But the Jew­ish under­ground of the time ignored this pro­hi­bi­tion.

That Yom Kip­pur as the ser­vice at the wall came to the final prayers, the Ne’i­lah. The can­tor chant­ed the final Avinu Malka­ynu. He added a phrase to the prayers– “Avinu Malkeinu, Our Father our King, we have the sho­far; draw a cir­cle around us.” The British guards were obliv­i­ous, but the Jews under­stood the Hebrew, but did not know what to expect. Sud­den­ly, at one end of the wall, a clear sho­far sound came out of a child’s voice. The British police imme­di­ate­ly sur­round­ed the child. At that very moment, a Teki­ah Gedolah, the long sho­far sound for the end of the ser­vice for Yom Kip­pur, rever­ber­at­ed from the oth­er end of the wall.

All the wor­shipers spon­ta­neous­ly recit­ed “Next year in Jerusalem rebuilt” and then sang Hatik­vah.

The fol­low­ing year, a man named Moshe Segal blew the sho­far at the con­clu­sion of Yom Kip­pur. He was imme­di­ate­ly arrest­ed by the British. They held him at the police sta­tion with­out food until mid­night, when he was released. Only then did he learn how his release came about: the chief rab­bi of Pales­tine, Abra­ham Isaac Kook had phoned the British and said, “I have fast­ed all day but I will not eat until you free the man who blew the sho­far.”

The sec­re­tary had replied, “But the man vio­lat­ed a gov­ern­ment order.”

Rab­bi Kook replied, “He ful­filled a mitz­vah reli­gious com­mand­ment.”

Years lat­er dur­ing the Six-Day War, when the Israeli Defense Forces recap­tured the Old City of Jerusalem Jews gath­ered at the West­ern Wall for the first time since 1948. The sho­far was again sound­ed to pro­claim the vic­to­ry and to reassert the right of Jews to wor­ship in free­dom at that sacred site. A few months lat­er, at the end of Yom Kip­pur that year, the sho­far was sound­ed at the West­ern Wall—by that same man, Moshe Segal. The sho­far, once again, sound­ed as a sym­bol of con­ti­nu­ity, call­ing us to pay close atten­tion to our actions in this world.

I do not know where I first learned this sto­ry. How­ev­er, some­thing about it does not make sense. The boy referred to “Moshe Segal” is lat­er known as Moshe Meron. The Wikipedia arti­cle about Meron men­tions that he was born in 1926, but did not make Aliyah until 1936. Either he was too young to have blown sho­far in 1929, or was not there until years after the event report­ed in the sto­ry.

Every­thing about this sea­son as we approach the days of Rosh haShan­nah and Yom Kip­pur is direct­ed at encour­ag­ing us to draw in our unbri­dled ener­gies and con­cen­trate them anew in the appro­pri­ate direc­tions. We have the sho­far, with its sounds, shapes and method for pro­duc­ing tones, sig­nal­ing us that the time has come to re-eval­u­ate. There are the ten days, between Rosh haShan­nah and Yom Kip­pur, sym­bol­ic of the var­i­ous ten gen­er­a­tions dur­ing which the work of God’s cre­ation con­tract­ed and was redi­rect­ed anew. And final­ly, and per­haps most sim­ple, we have the exam­ple of that cre­at­ed world all around us as it begins to draw into itself in re-cre­ation.

Elul, begins this peri­od that offers us the chance, one might say presents us with the respon­si­bil­i­ty of renew­ing the con­cep­tion and cre­ation of our selves. It is our choice.

The sages said “God will say to Israel, even to all human­i­ty, — ‘My chil­dren, I look upon you as if today, on Rosh haShan­nah, you have been made anew, as if today I cre­at­ed you—a new being, a new peo­ple, a new human­i­ty.’ ” On Rosh haShan­nah, Yom Harat Olam, the day of the cre­ation of the world, we are cre­at­ed with a con­ser­va­tion of our ener­gies so they can be direct­ed cor­rect­ly. Rab­bi Tahli­fa said: “The Com­mand­ments con­cern­ing all sac­ri­fices read: ‘And you shall offer,’ but the one con­cern­ing sac­ri­fice on Rosh haShan­nah reads ‘And you shall make.’ ” How­ev­er, he con­tin­ues: “We should read: ‘And you shall be made,’ for after you are dis­missed from the Tri­bunal of Jus­tice above, where you have sac­ri­ficed your inap­pro­pri­ate behav­iors, and then leave, being blessed by the attribute of mer­cy, you are as fresh­ly cre­at­ed.”

As a final reminder—which we learn dur­ing the sho­far ser­vice, we should be aware that all good things come to Israel through the sho­far. We received the Torah with the sound of the sho­far all around Mount Sinai. We con­quered in the Bat­tle of Jeri­cho through the blast of the sho­far. We are sum­moned every­day this month and through Rosh haShan­nah until Yom Kip­pur to repent through the sound of the sho­far. And we will be made aware of the Redeemer’s arrival through the great sho­far blast that is yet to occur.

just jew it

just jew it

Date: 2000s
Size: 5.6
Pin Form: safe­ty
Print Method: cel­lu­loid
Text JUST JEW IT

your lapel buttons

Many peo­ple have lapel but­tons. They may be attached to a favorite hat or jack­et you no longer wear, or poked into a cork-board on your wall. If you have any lay­ing around that you do not feel emo­tion­al­ly attached to, please let me know. I pre­serve these for the Jew­ish peo­ple. At some point they will all go to an appro­pri­ate muse­um. You can see all the but­tons shared to date.

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4 Responses to אלול comes every year

  1. Rabbi Darah Lerner says:

    This morn­ing I was read­ing two arti­cles and struck by their jux­ta­po­si­tion: the lat­est from Women of the Wall and the strug­gle to pray and blow the Sho­far at the Wall and your reflec­tion on strug­gling to pray and blow the Sho­far at the Wall.

    May we soon and in our day see these women for the heroes they are and retell their sto­ry too.

    • davka says:

      Darah,

      Thank you for point­ing out the jux­ta­po­si­tion. Even if (as I sug­gest) the sto­ry of the ear­li­er sho­far blow­ing at the Wall is not 100% accu­rate, we should be able to hear women blow­ing sho­far at the wall.

      That was one of my rea­sons for find­ing a pho­to­graph of a woman black­smith to include in the post.

  2. jgo says:

    Why is it pronounced/transferred across lan­guages as “Elul” and not, e.g. “Alol” or even “Alv­el”. It’s slow learn­ing with­out a prop­er teacher.… and now, ye olde Power­Book does­n’t do well with a lot of the new­er web sites that do offer sound files.
    Good and sweet new year to you, RMark, and your fam­i­ly.

    • davka says:

      John,
      It’s good to hear from you. I asked a cou­ple of friends for a more author­i­ta­tive response to your ques­tion. The fol­low­ing thoughts come from Dr. Joel Hoff­man.

      Here’s the sto­ry, with a lit­tle back­ground.
      Hebrew nouns are gen­er­al­ly built on pat­terns known as mishkalot (sin­gu­lar, mishkal). One par­tic­u­lar­ly com­mon pat­tern is to pre­fix a מ to a root. Anoth­er is to put the vow­el /u/ between the sec­ond and third let­ters of the root. There are many more.
      After the pat­tern is built, vow­els are added accord­ing to rules.
      In the case of a pre­fix מ, the מ before the first two let­ters of the root nor­mal­ly cre­ates three con­so­nants at the begin­ning of word, which almost always caus­es the vow­el /i/ to be insert­ed between the first and sec­ond con­so­nants of the trio. Final­ly, the default vow­el /a/ is insert­ed before the final con­so­nant. So, for exam­ple, from G.D.L, we get MGDL then MIGDL then MIGDAL (“tow­er”). Sim­i­lar­ly, MISHKAL, MIVNEH (with no /a/ at the end because one isn’t need­ed). Also, MAQOM (with no /i/ because there are only two con­so­nants at the begin­ning of the word). And so forth.
      In the case of the /u/, nor­mal­ly no more vow­els are need­ed. So we have ZVUV (“fly”). But a SHVA under an א at the start of a word nor­mal­ly becomes /e/. So we get ELUL. (This is the same /e/ we find in, for exam­ple, ECHTOV [“I will write”].)

      I hope this helps.

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