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 Mishnah Berurah (Orach Chayim 581:1) states the following in the name of Acharonim: “It is the custom in our countries that from Rosh Chodesh Elul through Yom Kippur, we say LeDavid Hashem Ori (Psalm 27) every day at the conclusion of the morning and evening tefillah, and then we recite Kaddish. We, however, are accustomed to say it until Shemini Atzeret, which includes the day of Shemini Atzeret as well.”
The Mishnah Berurah continues: “On days when we say Mussaf [such as Shabbat, Rosh Chodesh, or Yom Tov], we say it at the conclusion of Shacharit, before Ein Kamocha. In the evening, we say it at the conclusion of Minchah [or Maariv according to Nussach Ashkenaz]. In places where it is recited after [Mussaf] on Rosh Chodesh, it is proper to first say Barechi Nafshi [Psalm 104]. In places where it is said after Shacharit, it is proper to first say Shir Shel Yom.”
We find almost identical language in Matteh Ephraim (by R. Ephraim Zalman Margolies of Brod), Orach Chayim 581:6, where we find the commentary Elef Hamagen (by Rav Meshulam Finkelstein of Warsaw), who notes, as we stated, that some say LeDavid Hashem Ori after Maariv and not after Minchah.
It would seem that those who say LeDavid Hashem Ori after Maariv would start saying it the eve of Rosh Chodesh Elul while those who say it after Minchah would only start saying it the following day. However, Likutei Maharich, who cites Matteh Ephraim (see also Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 128:2), seems to imply that either way, we only start saying it the morning of Rosh Chodesh Elul. He writes that “we say it in the morning and in the evening.” Indeed, that is our custom. Both those who say LeDavid Hashem Ori after Minchah and those who say it after Maariv only begin saying it the morning of Rosh Chodesh Elul.
Most agree that we continue saying this psalm through Shemini Atzeret.
In Otzar Erchei HaYahadut (by Rabbi Joseph Grossman, p. 246), the source for saying LeDavid Hashem Ori at this time of year is explained. Rabbi Grossman cites Midrash Shocher Tov, which states that the word “ori – my light ” in this psalm refers to Rosh Hashanah. (In Elef Hamagen ad loc. R. Finkelstein cites R. Israel Hapstein, the Koznitzer Maggid, who explains that out of fear of Hashem’s judgment, darkness descends upon man. Then, Hashem in His great mercy, shows light to man from afar.) Midrash Shocher Tov states further that “veyish’i – and my salvation” refers to Yom Kippur; “ki yitzpeneini besukko – He will conceal me in His tent” alludes to Sukkot; and “mimi i’ra – whom shall I fear” alludes to Hoshana Rabba, which is understood to include Shemini Atzeret as well.
As to why we say LeDavid Hashem Ori for the whole month of Elul, Rabbi Grossman cites Minhagei Yeshurun (13a), which notes that the word “lulei” (lit. “that I would”) in the penultimate verse in the psalm contains the letters alef, lamed, vav, and lamed, which are the letters of “Elul.” This explanation also accounts for why we recite this psalm only starting on the second day of Rosh Chodesh Elul, since the first day of Rosh Chodesh is actually the last day of the previous month, Av.
We find another custom relevant to the month of Elul, as cited by Ba’er Heitev (Orach Chayim 581:10): “When a person writes a letter to his friend [in Elul], he should mention at the beginning that he wishes a year full of goodness for him.”
Today we expand upon this practice during the entire month: When we meet and greet people, we wish them either a “ketiva vechatima tova – May you be written and inscribed for good,” or the variant, “Leshana tova tikatevu vetechatemu,” which means the same.
Likutei Maharich (ad loc.) notes that the Ba’er Heitev is essentially quoting the Maharil, and an allusion to this custom might be found in Parashat Yitro (Exodus 18:7): “Vayetze Moshe likrat chotno vayishtachu vayishak lo vayish’alu ish lere’ehu leshalom vayavo’u ha’ohela – Moses went out to meet his father-in-law, and bowed and kissed him, and each inquired about the other’s well-being, and then they came into the tent.” The words “vayish’alu ish lere’ehu leshalom” begin with the letters vav, alef, lamed, and lamed, which form the word Elul, meaning that during the month of Elul, we inquire about each other’s well-being.
Likutei Maharich points out that some start their letters with this greeting (as seen in the introduction to Avodat Hagershuni as well as in Matteh Ephraim) while others sign off with these words as a salutation.
(To be continued)Rabbi Yaakov Klass