Fans of “Seinfeld” may recall an exchange between Jerry and Elaine in which they discuss the appropriate timeline for delivering new year greetings. “I once got Happy New Year'd in March … it’s pathetic,” griped Jerry.
The Jewish calendar has a natural marker for when it’s appropriate to start wishing friends and loved ones a happy New Year. The Jewish month that precedes the Jewish New Year is called Elul, and the first day of Elul, Rosh Chodesh Elul, is the official beginning of the High Holiday season.
During the month of Elul, there are many traditions that help us prepare for the renewal that awaits us during the Yamim Noraim (The Days of Awe):
- We blow the shofar each day to awaken our spirits, and to remind us to begin thinking about the things we need to repent for and the people to whom we need to apologize. We are called to look inward to find ways in which we can take action.
- It is customary to recite Psalm 27 every day from Rosh Chodesh Elul through the beginning of Sukkot: “God is my light and my helper, whom shall I fear?” These words remind us that we are never alone. As we begin this journey toward repentance, forgiveness, and bringing out the best in ourselves, God is always with us.
- We begin reciting selichot (penitentiary prayers) with a special service held at late at night, generally on the Saturday before Rosh HaShanah. In Hebrew, selichot means “forgiveness.” The prayers we say in this service are repeated throughout the High Holiday season and allow us to reflect on what we’ve done wrong in the past, and to find ways to be better people in the coming year. In the Sephardic tradition, selichot prayers typically are recited throughout Elul.
- Many people celebrate the new year by tasting new fruits or fruits that haven’t been in season since the previous High Holiday season. Pomegranates are often used because it is our hope that our blessings in the coming year will be as plentiful as its seeds. Eating a new fruit gives us an opportunity to say the Shehecheyanu, a prayer that shows our gratitude for being able to celebrate special occasions. In Europe, Elul arrives when the plums are purple and ripe and the pears are ready for picking. As a result, Jews called Elul the time of the “flaumen un die beren” (the plums and the pears). In Yiddish these two words have additional meanings: “flaumen” means flames, and “beren” means to burn. These words symbolize the fact that Elul is a time to search our hearts and to seek God with fiery, burning intensity. Enjoy plums and pears as you do so!
Rosh Chodesh Elul – September 4, 2016 – had a special, personal meaning for me this year, as it was the day my husband Dan and I were married. Fittingly, Elul is an acronym for the phrase “Ani l'dodi v'dodi li” – I am my beloved and my beloved is mine – a verse from the Song of Songs. This phrase, engraved on our wedding bands, emphasizes the importance of caring for ourselves and our loved ones. In doing so, we demonstrate that we were created in God’s image and by treating ourselves and other people well, we are continuing God’s holy work. During the High Holiday season, we ask forgiveness from ourselves, others, and God. The acronym of “Ani l’dodi v’dodi li” reminds us that each of these aspects of forgiveness is equally important.
In Aramaic (the language spoken by Jews when the months were named), Elul means “search,” and, indeed, it is a time to search our hearts, reflect on the past, and look to the future. During Elul we celebrate our ability to maintain our independence, individuality, and uniqueness, even as we enter into relationships and recommit ourselves to those we love. As such, Elul is said to be an auspicious time for weddings. We anticipate the new year – a blank slate – just as couples bask in the newness of their lives together as husband and wife.
Newness, however, is not always joyful. Sometimes, we begin the new year in a difficult place – hopeful that things will improve. Along these lines, it is traditional to visit the graves of loved ones during Elul, helping us remember and honor people in our past who inspire us to live more fully in the future.
For some, the arrival of Elul 5776 might seem like an ordinary day. I challenge you to use this month to find ways to transition into 5777 with an element of newness: incorporate a new ritual into your life, try a new food, or even buy new clothes!
Although Jerry Seinfeld may disagree, it is never too early or too late to offer people new year wishes – along with the hope that they will experience opportunity and blessing in the year ahead.
Shana tova u’metukah – wishing you a sweet new year!