Question: Where does the name Elul come from? Also, how can Elul be both the last month of the year and the prequel to the holidays (Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur) that occur in the following month, Tishrei, the first month of the new year? Finally, can you please discuss the religious practices of Elul?
Miami Beach, FL
Summary of our response up to this point: Elul is really the sixth month of the year, as the Torah counts the new year from Nissan when the Jewish nation was freed from slavery and able to serve G-d exclusively. The Gemara explains that Rosh Hashanah is when we are judged for the coming year; that’s why Tishrei is also considered the beginning of the year (Rosh Hashanah 7a). Rosh Hashanah is mentioned as the time for being judged and blowing the shofar (Numbers 29:1).
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The Yamim Nora’im, a time of introspection and reflection as we await our annual judgment, are properly introduced by the month of Elul, which acts as a facilitator to the great task ahead. Thus, each year, with the arrival of Elul, we start the process of teshuvah (repentance).
One way we begin the intensified focus on teshuvah is with the sounds of the shofar. The shofar, which we blow throughout Elul, is mentioned by the prophet Amos: “Im yitaka shofar be’ir ve’am lo yecheradu – Is the shofar ever sounded in a city and the people do not tremble?” (Amos 3:6). Amos emphasizes the unique property of the shofar’s blasts – the piercing sound, which causes one to tremble.
Likkutei Maharich (Dinei U’minhagei Chodesh Elul 55b) states: “It happens to be the custom in all Jewish communities to blow the shofar in the month of Elul.” He cites the Tur (Orach Chayim 581), who gives Pirkei DeRabbi Eliezer (chapter 46) as the source for this practice. There we read: “On Rosh Chodesh Elul Moses went up on the mountain [Sinai] to receive the second set of Tablets. They then sounded the shofar in the encampment. Therefore, our sages instituted that we blow the shofar starting on Rosh Chodesh Elul every year.”
Likkutei Maharich continues: “In Yitav Panim by the Sigheter Rav, Rabbi Yekusiel Yehuda Teitelbaum, he quotes his grandfather, Rabbi Moshe Teitelbaum, author of Yismach Moshe, who provides a beautiful hint for the source of our custom.” He points out that there are 12 words containing the syllables ha-lle-lu in Psalm 150. The first mention corresponds to Nissan, the first month, and the sixth mention – “Halleluhu be’teka shofar – Praise Him with the sound of the shofar” – appropriately corresponds to Elul, the sixth month. (The practice of saying Hallel on Rosh Chodesh in general is alluded to in these 12 mentions of ha-lle-lu, writes the Beit Yosef [Tur Orach Chayim 422, in the name of Shibbolei HaLeket].)
Likkutei Maharich continues: “In Sefer Roke’ach (siman 208) we find that the original enactment was to sound the shofar from Rosh Chodesh Elul until Yom Kippur, just as they sounded the shofar all 40 days that Moses was on the mountain to receive the Tablets, but Sefer Roke’ach concludes that in ‘this country’ [i.e., the custom in his day] we sound the shofar only until Rosh Hashanah.”
The Maharshal (Shabbos 89a, in the back of our Vilna Shas) cites a dispute between Rashi and Tosafot (89a ad loc.) on whether the day Moses ascended the mountain is considered part of the 40-day count. He cites Pirkei DeRabbi Eliezer as proof to Tosafot’s contention that we count Moses’ ascent on Rosh Chodesh as the first day of the count of 40 – which will be arrived at if we include his ascent on the first day of Rosh Chodesh, which is the 30th day of Av (Av is always a “full” month containing 30 days whereas Elul is always “deficient,” containing only 29 days).
However, in Bava Kamma (82a s.v. “Kedei Shelo etc.”) Tosafot states that in the year Moses went up to receive the luchot, Elul was a “full” month, containing 30 days. Thus, he would have gone up on the first day of Elul (see Bach, Orach Chayim 581).
The above dispute is relevant to the discussion concerning when to begin blowing the shofar – on the first or second day of Rosh Chodesh Elul.
Tosafot reasons that in the year Moses went up on the mountain, Elul was a “full” month. Today, therefore, when Av is always a “full” month and Elul is “deficient,” we surely do not start to blow the shofar on the first day of Rosh Chodesh, which is now always the 30th of Av.
Indeed, our minhag is to blow the shofar only starting on the second day of Rosh Chodesh, according to the Aruch HaShulchan (Orach Chayim 581 ad loc.), up until and including Rosh Hashana, with the exception of Shabbatot, when we are prohibited to blow the shofar, and Erev Rosh Hashanah, when we refrain from blowing so as to differentiate between tekiot reshut, optional shofar blasts, and tekiot chovah, biblically-required blasts.
As for why we only blow the shofar for 30 days, not 40, Matteh Moshe (ad loc.) and Likkutei Maharich (loc. cit. quoting Minhagim) explain that there is a hint to this custom in Psalms 81:4-5: “Tik’u bachodesh shofar bakesseh leyom chagenu – Blow the shofar at the moon’s renewal when [the moon] is covered on our festive day.” The verse seems to suggest that we blow the shofar for a month, which is generally 30 days. And that is what we do. Elul is 28 days (excluding Erev Rosh Hashanah) and Rosh Hashanah is two days, giving us 30 days.
(To be continued)