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Question: I am interested both in the name “Elul” and that month’s unique position as the last month of the year as it is connected with Tishrei, the month that follows, and its holidays, Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. I am also interested in the religious practices during the month of Elul.

M. Goldman
Miami Beach, FL



Synopsis: Last week we established that Elul is the sixth month of the year, as the Torah counts the months from Nissan, when the Jewish nation was freed from slavery and was able to begin serving G-d exclusively. The Gemara explains that Rosh Hashana is when we are judged for the coming year, starting from Tishrei; therefore, this month as well is considered a beginning of the year (Rosh Hashana 7a). Rosh Hashana is mentioned as the time for being judged and for blowing the shofar (Numbers 29:1). This week we continue with the customs of Elul, the month preceding Tishrei, a month devoted to the preparation for the New Year.

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Answer: In the Mishna Berura (Orach Chayyim 581:1) we find the following in the name of the 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 tefillah morning and evening, 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 Mishna Berura continues: “On days when there is a Musaf prayer [such as Shabbat, Rosh Chodesh, or Yom Tov] at the conclusion of Shacharit, before Ein Kamocha. In the evening we say it at the conclusion of the Mincha tefillah [Nusach Ashkenaz say it at the conclusion of Maariv]. In places where it is recited after the completion of the [Mussaf] tefillah on Rosh Chodesh, it is proper to first say ‘Bar’chi Nafshi’ [Psalm 104]. In places where it is said after the Shacharit tefillah, it is proper to first say the Shir Shel Yom [and then LeDavid Hashem Ori].”

We find an almost identical text in Matteh Ephraim, Orach Chayyim 581:6 (by R. Ephraim Zalman Margolies of Brod), 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 Mincha.

The relevance of this difference applies to when we start reciting this Psalm and when we conclude. If we say it after Maariv, we would start to say it on Rosh Chodesh eve after Maariv, but if we say it after Mincha, we would not start reciting it until the next morning, after Shacharit.

Likutei Maharich, who cites Matteh Ephraim (see also Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 128:2), appears to answer our question when he states, “…we say it in the morning and in the evening….” Indeed, such is our custom – whether we say LeDavid after Mincha or after Maariv – that we first start to recite it on Rosh Chodesh Elul after Shacharit.

As to when we conclude saying LeDavid Hashem Ori, most agree that those who follow Nusach Ashkenaz say it for the last time on Shemini Atzeret after Shacharit. If one follows Nusach Sefarad, it is still recited after Mincha on that day.

In Otzar Erchei HaYahadut (by Rabbi Joseph Grossman, p. 246) the source for saying this particular Psalm during this period, namely from the second day of Rosh Chodesh through Shemini Atzeret, is explained.

Rabbi Grossman cites Midrash Shocher Tov (on Psalm 27), who extrapolates the following from the Psalm: “Ori – my light” refers to Rosh Hashana. (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). “Veyish’i – and my salvation” refers to Yom Kippur. “Ki yitzpeneini besukko – He will conceal me in His tent” alludes to Sukkot. We then go back to the beginning of the verse, “mimi i’ra – whom shall I fear,” alluding to Hoshana Rabba, which is understood to include Shemini Atzeret as well.

As to the question of why we say LeDavid Hashem Ori before Rosh Hashana during the entire month of Elul (as the Midrash makes no reference to that period), Rabbi Grossman cites Minhagei Yeshurun (13a), who notes that the word “Lulei” (lit. “that I would”), which is the next to the last verse in the Psalm, contains the letters alef, lamed, vav, and lamed, which are the letters of “Elul.” This would explain why we recite this Psalm starting on the second day of Rosh Chodesh Elul, since the first day of Rosh Chodesh is the last day of the previous month, namely, the 30th of Av.

We find another custom relevant to the month of Elul, as cited by Ba’er Heitev (Orach Chayyim 581:10): “When a person writes a letter to his friend [in Elul], he is supposed to mention at the beginning that he wishes for him a year full of goodness.”

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 Responsa Avodat Hagershuni as well as in Matteh Ephraim, while others sign off with these words as a salutation.

Being that the month of Elul is a special period of repentance it is therefore marked by the recitation of special supplication prayers, Selichot (lit. the plural of “forgiveness”). To better understand these prayers, we cite Rabbi Nosson Scherman, general editor of Mesorah Publications, in his 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 Hashana 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 these Selichot, we find the following in the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chayyim 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 HaKippurim.”

This view of the Mechaber (R. Yosef Caro), as we shall soon see, reflects the custom of the Sephardic and Eastern communities.

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 Hashana – if Rosh Hashana 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 Chayyim 581). Ritz Ge’ut (see Bach ad loc.) is of the view to commence Selichot from Rosh Chodesh Elul, while R. Hai Gaon is of the opinion to start Selichot on the Sunday before Rosh Hashana and continue through Aseret Yemei Teshuvah.

Consistent with the first view, we read in Sefer HaManhig (se’if 25): “There are places in Sepharad [Spain and the Mediterranean and Eastern communities] that start [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 (Tablets) and he came down [with them] on Yom HaKippurim.”

Therefore, the custom spread among the Spanish and Eastern communities to arise at the ashmoret during the entire month of Elul as well as on the Ten Days of Repentance. This is the view of the Mechaber.

However, we find in Machzor Vitri, one of our reliable and early sources (p. 345), that the custom is to recite Selichot the week before Rosh Hashana. This is the view of Rema.

A basis for the view of Rema 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 the 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 Hashana is therefore the Day of Judgment of man.

Thus, it is proper to commence Selichot a minimum of four days before Rosh Hashana, according to the view of Rema.

It is interesting to note Ran’s statement that in Barcelona the custom is to say Selichot from the Sunday before Rosh Hashana. Since Barcelona is in Spain, we might conclude that not in all places of Spain and the Sephardic lands was it established to start saying Selichot on Rosh Chodesh Elul.

Let us hope that our recitation of Selichot and blowing the shofar, along with heartfelt repentance, find favor in the eyes of our Heavenly Creator Who will hasten to answer our prayers and bestow upon us a happy and healthy New Year and redeem us with the arrival of His anointed one.


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Rabbi Yaakov Klass is Rav of K’hal Bnei Matisyahu in Flatbush; Torah Editor of The Jewish Press; and Presidium Chairman, Rabbinical Alliance of America/Igud HaRabbonim.