"See, this day I set before you blessing and curse: blessing if you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I enjoin upon you this day; and curse if you do not obey the commandments of the Lord your God but turn away from the path that I enjoin upon you this day and follow other gods, whom you have not experienced." Deuteronomy 11:26-28
Elul is the final month on the Hebrew calendar prior to the commencement of Rosh Hashanah, or the civil Jewish New Year. While the High Holy Days themselves are commonly known as a time of repentance and forgiveness, the month of Elul is a month of spiritual preparation and personal reflection (cheshbon hanefesh, or the accounting of the soul) in anticipation of the High Holy Days.
In Jewish tradition, God cannot fully pardon our sins until we obtain forgiveness from the individual we may have wronged, so to ensure a Shanah Tovah, Elul is the time to begin asking for this forgiveness prior to the High Holy Days. Ultimately, Elul is a month of redemption, not just in the here and now as we seek to correct course with God’s teachings in His Torah, extend our hand of mercy to those in need via charity, and repair our broken relationships with one another, but also points toward the future redemption that the Jewish people look forward to in the Messianic era yet to come.
There are no festivals, memorial days, fast days, or days of simcha in Elul, and this was no accident, according to the sages. According to Jewish tradition, the Jewish people needed time to mentally and spiritually prepare for Rosh Hashanah and the themes of forgiveness and seeking apologies from others that would be ahead of us. Thus, there is a lack of distractions with other holidays on the Jewish calendar so that one can focus on the personal reflection needed to go forth with asking for forgiveness from others and God.
Some will cite Elul as a season of divine mercy when Moses received God’s forgiveness on behalf of the people for the sins involved in the golden calf incident. In Jewish tradition, Moses went to Mount Sinai on Rosh Chodesh Elul to prepare the second set of tablets after the golden calf incident and descended from Mount Sinai on the 10th of Tishri (the end of Yom Kippur) when the fate of one’s soul is sealed (Exodus 34:1, 27–28; Deuteronomy 10:1–5). Including these themes as a month of mercy and forgiveness, Elul is Jewish primetime for teshuvah, prayer, charity, increased ahavat Yisrael (love for a fellow Jew), introspection, and seeking the face of God.
Fascinatingly, the four Hebrew letters that comprise the name "Elul" are an acronym, Ani l’dodi v’dodi li ("I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine), as found in Song of Songs 6:3. The term "Elul" first appears in Nehemiah 6:15 in the Hebrew Bible. As the Song of Songs allegorically portrays the love story between God (the Beloved) and Israel (the "I"), it could be said Elul is a time to recommit our lives to He who should be our Beloved—our First Love, Our Father Who Art in Heaven.
"Like two lovers who may have become distant, we yearn to be in a stronger relationship with each other," Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz wrote on this concept of Elul and the Song of Songs. "Now is the time that all my thoughts should be directed towards my Beloved (God); then, my Beloved is also to me; my Beloved helps, assists, and cares for me," is another description expanding on this concept taken from the Aruch HaShulhan (a rabbinic teaching of Rabbi Yechiel Michel Epstein during the 19th century).
In Aramaic, Elul means "to search," which is also fitting as one searches his or her heart for any roadblocks between his or her ways and God’s ways. Elul is very much dedicated to introspection, personal growth, and strengthening one’s relationship with not only man but with the eternal.
During Elul, it is customary to hear the shofar blowing each weekday (and certainly not on Shabbat, per rabbinic teachings) at the conclusion of morning services at one’s local synagogue. The shofar blasts, usually tekiah, shevarim-teruah, and tekiah, are to remind us of the impending judgment and the need to wake up from one’s slumber and repent. As Maimonides wrote about the shofar-blowing traditions of Elul, "Awake all of your who are asleep. Search your ways and mend them in repentance."
Some congregations may also include Selichot prayers (prayers for forgiveness) in their daily cycle of religious services, which are recited at midnight on the first night of Elul, usually in a large community service setting following a sermon by the rabbi, and in the early morning on the following days prior to the normal daily shacharit service. These additional prayers mean that services last about 45 minutes longer than usual.
It is also traditional during Elul for congregations to recite Psalm 27 daily. The tradition seems to originate in Rabbi Binyamin Benish Cohen’s work, Sefer Shem Tov Katan, published in 1706. According to his writings, to whomever recites Psalm 27, God will impart holiness, purity, concentration, and answers to his or her prayers. A few, however, cite an alternative tradition involving 16th-century mystics reciting Psalm 27 during the High Holy Day season. Regardless of the origins of incorporating Psalm 27 into Elul traditions, how it may be incorporated into synagogue services varies. Some may simply recite it after the morning and afternoon prayers. Others will incorporate it into the morning service after the song of the day but before the Aleinu.
Each congregation will have their own traditions, as this is not something scripturally mandated, but regardless of implementation, Psalm 27 is usually recited during the duration of Rosh Chodesh Elul through either Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, or perhaps even Simchat Torah or Shemini Atzeret, depending on the congregation.
A key part of the selichot service is the recitation of the thirteen attributes of God’s mercy that Jewish tradition says were revealed to Moses after the golden calf incident. Some of these attributes include HaShem, God, mercy, grace, longsuffering, abundance in goodness and truth, keeping mercy unto the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, forgiving transgression and sin, and He who cleanses and purifies our souls. HaShem and God count as different attributes because different names for the same Creator imply different characteristics of God.
In terms of other traditions, some may write letters to their friends or family or arrange to meet with friends or family, including the greeting "ketivah vachatimah tovah," which translates to "May you be inscribed and sealed for a good year." Three additional chapters of Psalms may be recited each day, spanning the month of Elul and lasting through Yom Kippur. Some Jewish faithful may arrange to meet with an accredited scribe to verify that their tefillin and mezuzot are in good condition and do not have any defects that would render them scripturally unacceptable or otherwise invalid before God.
Some people will visit cemeteries at this time, as that is a setting where people often reflect on their own mortality and whether their hearts are right with God as to whether they will spend eternity in the New Jerusalem or asleep in the dust forever.
Jewish tradition will describe the month of Elul with the phrase, "The king is in the field." This is an analogy based on rabbinic teachings explaining the relationship between God and humanity. "For the average man (or woman), the king is inaccessible, away in his palace, distant and removed," Rabbi Chaim Richman describes it. "He never dreams he will actually see the king, let alone speak with him. Then suddenly, one day, while this man is bent over his menial labor in the field, he feels a gentle tap on his shoulder. He turns around, and to his shock, it is the great king himself who is standing over him." This has been extrapolated to the month of Elul, where the king is analogous to God, and during this month prior to Rosh Hashanah, God comes to earth from a faraway, distant place otherwise known as Heaven to join us humans on earth in the "field." Thus, Elul has become a month in which Jewish people believe that God and humans on earth can deepen their relationship.
As disciples of Yeshua who may not be Jewish, our faith does not provide access to an equivalent of the Days of Awe automatically built into our religion. That does not mean that forgiveness or making amends with one another and with God are not necessary. For us as believers, it means we have to be more intentional in taking the time to make amends, searching our hearts, studying our Bibles, and seeking God with all our strength and all our hearts as we seek His ways and not our ways. We do not have the communal setting or the traditions integrated into our church to put it on everyone’s radar. There are not as many sermons from many Christian churches that emphasize these messages and themes as there are in Jewish tradition.
For those of us who are disciples of Yeshua, forgiveness should be extended to all, whether that person repents or asks for our forgiveness or not, for we know from scripture that if we do not forgive, God will not forgive our sins. Yet may we not fall into the traps of cheap grace, especially in physically, emotionally, verbally, or sexually abusive situations, allowing ourselves to be manipulated by messages of "forgiveness" when the offender has not truly changed his ways. Forgiveness is not the same as reconciliation. In some cases, one can and should, in time, come to forgive, but the most merciful thing is to have no further contact with an individual if the individual is unrepentant. Forgiveness is not a blank check for someone to continue offending while manipulating scripture to demand forgiveness.
Forgiveness does not mean returning to unhealthy or abusive relationships, and sometimes offenders may need to take further steps before reconciliation is possible, if it is ever possible. Forgiveness is commanded in due time and should not be rushed, but due to the sinful nature of a fallen world, reconciliation is not always possible. While forgiveness is essential per the teachings of Yeshua, may it not be twisted into a message manipulating someone to reenter an unhealthy situation.
As believers who believe the Coming of Our Lord is near and that the final trumpet blast is nigh, may we forgive all those who have offended us, regardless of whether they are repentant or not, regardless of whether reconciliation is possible at this time or not, such that our hearts are pure and we can stand ready and undefiled upon the soon return of our Messiah and Redeemer of Israel, Yeshua HaMashiach, the only hope for all of Yisrael.