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A Basic Introduction to the Holy Month of Elul
The Month of Teshuvah

By Shlomo Phillips © August 09, 2011 (last updated August 12, 2015)

As we approach the High Holy Days we need to prepare ourselves. This is a serious time, and is not to be taken lightly. Our introspection begins during the Hebrew month of Elul. As with all Jewish holidays, the date of Elul changes each year on the Western calendars. This year it will be Sunday, August 16 - Sunday, September 13, 2015.

During the month of Elul we take stock of ourselves spiritually and socially. Have we offended anyone? If so we should make amends and ask for forgiveness. Has anyone offended us? If so we should grant our forgiveness freely while considering our part in the situation and seeking forgiveness (whether they seek our forgiveness or not). Of course we should do this everyday, but during Elul we consider where we may have been lax in this. This preparation before the High Holy Days permits us to observe the various traditions with a clear mind. When our consciousness is clear and elevated we can be sure to receive forgiveness from HaShem.

What's different about Elul?

This enhanced awareness of both our relationship with HaShem and with others makes Elul a special time. 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 could be to help in the work of Tikkun Olam (i.e. repairing this broken world)? Am I actively blessing others? Israel? the country in which I dwell? The world? What am I doing with my precious time?

The Chofetz Chaim teaches us how important forgiveness 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

Elul is the time of forgiveness. Beginning on the first day of Elul we begin sounding the shofar (a specially prepared ram's horn; many Jews use other kosher horns from halachically permissible animals as you see me using above) every 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 of many things. Rambam says it is the call to our souls. The sounding is an alarm to awaken us from slumber and prepare us to meet our Maker. The shofar reminds us of Isaac's willingness to be sacrificed by his father, and of HaShem's mercy through the sacrificial ram He provided. 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's revealed His glory at Mount Sinai. The shofar connects with our souls in innumerable ways.

The three blasts of the shofar are sounded:

As Elul draws to a close with its final Shabbat, 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 mercy and pardon. As part of this redemptive process we recite the Thirteen attributes of the Holy One.

Following the incident with the Golden Calf, Moshe 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.
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 however they can be recited, in a slightly abbreviated form, without a minyan. Check your favorite siddur for more details on this.

The heart and soul of Elul is teshuvah (repentance), which includes our rectification. In order to have a 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). Doing this period before the High Holy Days we seek to enhance our religious experiences and attach ourselves ever more securely to HaShem.

So Leshanah tovah tikatevu vetehatemu!

"May you be inscribed and sealed for a good year!

For more see:

Be the Blessing you were created to be
Don't let the perfect defeat the good

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