Elul: The Lead-Up to the High Holidays
Elul is the Hebrew month that precedes the High Holidays (Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur). Some say that the Hebrew letters that comprise the word Elul – aleph, lamed, vav, lamed – are an acronym for “Ani l’dodi v’dodi li,” a verse from Song of Songs that means “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine.” Most often interpreted as love poetry between a man and a woman, the phrase also reflects the love between God and the Jewish people, especially at this season, as we assess our actions and behaviors during the past year and hope for blessings in the coming year.
Several customs during the month of Elul are designed to remind us of the liturgical season and help us prepare ourselves and our souls for the upcoming High Holidays.
Traditionally, the shofar is blown each morning (except on Shabbat) from the first day of Elul until the day before Rosh HaShanah. Its sound is intended to awaken the soul and kick start the spiritual accounting that happens throughout the month. In some congregations the shofar is sounded at the opening of each Kabbalat Shabbat service during Elul.
Selichot (special penitential prayers) are recited during the month of Elul. A special Selichot service is conducted late in the evening – often by candlelight – on the Saturday night a week before Rosh HaShanah.
Elul is also a time of year during which Jews traditionally visit the graves of loved ones. This custom not only reminds us of the individuals on whose shoulders we now stand and helps us honor their memories, but also prompts us to think about our own lives and the legacies we will leave to others – kind words spoken, comfort offered, love given and received – which take on added meaning as we enter the High Holiday season.
It is customary to read Psalm 27 each day from the beginning of Elul through Hoshana Rabbah, which is the last day of Sukkot.
It also is a month during which we are encouraged to study and take time for personal reflection around our actions of the past year and to seek forgiveness from those we have wronged or with whom we otherwise have “missed the mark” in our interactions and behaviors. Many readily available resources can help you make this process interactive, including Rabbi Phyllis Sommer’s online initiatives, #BlogElul and #ElulGram, which provide numerous opportunities to blog and photograph your High Holiday thoughts, reflections, and preparations.
Whether you participate in some, none, or all of these Elul traditions, may you find meaning and fulfillment in this time leading up to the High Holidays.
Jane E. Herman , a.k.a. JanetheWriter, is the senior writer and editor at the Union for Reform Judaism. She is a graduate of Lafayette College in Easton, PA, and holds a master's degree in public administration from the School of Public Affairs at Baruch College, part of the City University of New York (CUNY) system. She grew up at Temple Emanu-El in Edison, NJ, and now belongs to Temple Shaaray Tefila in New York City. A proud New Yorker, she loves books, fountain pens, social media, Words with Friends, mah jongg, and all things Jewish. She blogs at JanetheWriter Writes.