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
Answer: The month of Elul as a special period of repentance is marked by the recitation of special supplication prayers, Selichot (lit. the plural of “forgiveness”). To better understand these prayers, we quote Rabbi Nosson Scherman, general editor of Mesorah Publications, in his insightful introduction to the ArtScroll Selichot:
“Within the Siddur and synagogue service, the mood of repentance is expressed in the selichos, prayers of supplication. They are of ancient origin; some of them are even mentioned in the Mishnah (Taanis ch. 2) where special prayers for rain are discussed, but almost all of them were composed between the eighth and sixteenth centuries. The composers of these selichos include some of the outstanding figures of ancient times, among them Geonim (7th-10th century Torah authorities) and Rishonim (11th-15th century authorities). Consequently, it should be clear that their compositions are not merely inspired poetry.
“The central theme of all selichos, as well as of the Yom Kippur Maariv and Neilah services, is the Shelosh Esreh Middot Harachamim, the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy. This passage appears in the Torah (Exodus 34:6-7) at the time when G-d proclaimed His readiness to do away with the Jewish people after the sin of the Golden Calf. According to R. Yochanan’s interpretation (Rosh Hashanah 17b), Moses felt that Israel’s sin was so grievous that there was no possibility of his intercession on their behalf. Thereupon, G-d appeared to him in the form of a chazzan wrapped in a tallis and taught him the Thirteen Attributes, saying, ‘Whenever Israel sins, let them recite this in its proper order and I will forgive them.’ Thus, this appeal to G-d’s mercy reassures us both that repentance is always possible and that G-d always awaits our return to Him. The implication is also plain that if we emulate G-d’s merciful ways, He will treat us mercifully in return.
“When it appears in the Selichos service, the Thirteen Attributes is introduced by one of two prayers: The first time during each Selichos service, it is introduced by ‘Kel Erech Appayim – O G-d, [You are] slow to anger…’ All other times, the introduction is ‘Kel Melech Yoshev – O G-d, King who sits …’ After the Thirteen Attributes there is always a direct prayer for forgiveness, following the example of Moses, who, after being taught the Thirteen Attributes, pleaded that G-d forgive Israel (Exodus 34:8-9).
“It is illustrative to see what that repentance brought. Prior to the sin of the Golden Calf, Moses had received the Tablets of the Law from Sinai. When he saw the painful spectacle of the nation of G-d prancing around a false god, he smashed the Tablets – something he had to do because the people no longer deserved them. Then came a long period of prayer, highlighted by the vision of G-d showing Moses how to pray and what to say, and the promise that if Israel would perform this prayer – by making themselves agents of mercy to others – then they could rely on His help in the worst situations. The result was that Moses came back from Mount Sinai on Yom Kippur with the Second Tablets.
“This was a lesson for all time. Jews can lose the Torah and get it back. They can lose G-d’s mercy and win it back. G-d loves us and wants us so much that He shows us how to pray and promises that His ear is always cocked, as it were, waiting for us to call Him, to repent, to evoke His mercy, and to come back to where we were before we fell.”
As to when we commence saying Selichot, we find the following in the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chayim 581:1): “It is our custom to arise at the ashmoret (the [last] night watch, while it is still dark) to say Selichot and Tachanunim from Rosh Chodesh Elul and onward until Yom Kippur.”
This view of the Mechaber (Rabbi Yosef Caro), as we shall soon see, reflects the custom of the Sephardic and Oriental communities.
The Rema in his glosses (ad loc.) notes, “And the custom of the Ashkenazi communities [most of European Jewry] is different … to rise at the ashmoret starting on the Sunday before Rosh Hashanah – if Rosh Hashanah does not fall on Monday or Tuesday, for in that instance they start on the Sunday a full week earlier.”
The source of this dispute can be found in the Tur (Orach Chayim 581). Ritz Ge’ut (see Bach, ad loc.) is of the view that we should commence saying Selichot from Rosh Chodesh Elul, while R. Hai Gaon is of the opinion that we should start saying them on the Sunday before Rosh Hashanah and continue through Aseret Yemei Teshuvah.
Consistent with the first view, we read in Sefer HaManhig (25): “There are places in Sepharad [Spain and Mediterranean and Oriental areas] that start saying Selichot from Rosh Chodesh Elul. And I have a support for their custom, since Moses went up on high [Mt. Sinai] on Rosh Chodesh Elul to receive the second Luchot and he came down with them on Yom Kippur.”
Therefore, the custom spread among Spanish and Oriental communities to rise at the ashmoret during the entire month of Elul as well as during the Ten Days of Repentance. So states the Mechaber.
However, we find in Machzor Vitri, a reliable and early source (p. 345), that we say Selichot the week before Rosh Hashana. This is the view of Rema.
A basis for the Rema’s view is the Ran (Rosh Hashana 16a), who explains that according to the view of R. Eliezer (Rosh Hashana 11a), the world was created in Tishrei, and man on Friday. This view maintains that creation really started on the 25th of Elul. From that day there were an intervening four days before the creation of man (“techilat ma’aseicha”) on the 1st of Tishrei. Rosh Hashanah is therefore the Day of Judgment of man.
Thus, it is proper to commence Selichot a minimum of four days before Rosh Hashanah, according to the view of Rema.
It is interesting to note the Ran’s statement that in Barcelona the custom is to say Selichot from the Sunday before Rosh Hashanah. Since Barcelona is in Spain, we can conclude that in some places in Spain and other Sephardic lands, the custom wasn’t to start saying Selichot on Rosh Chodesh Elul.
Let us hope that because of our recitation of Selichot and blowing the shofar, along with heartfelt repentance, the Heavenly Creator will hasten to answer our prayers for a happy and healthy New Year, one that is marked by our speedy redemption.
Rabbi Yaakov Klass