“Return to the Lord your God, you and your children, and obey His voice in all that I command you today, with all your heart and with all your soul.” (Deuteronomy 30:2)
“This is what the LORD Almighty says: ‘Give careful thought to your ways.’” (Haggai 1:7)
Today is the first day of Elul, the last month of the Jewish civil calendar that ends on Erev Rosh Hashanah, Jewish New Year’s Eve (September 24, 2014).
As the last month of the calendar, it commences the critical liturgical season of return and repentance.
The Hebrew word for repentance or returning to the Lord is teshuvah. This is a word that indicates a turning back (shuv) to God.
We see this word used in Genesis 3:19 when the Lord tells Adam “and to dust you will return (va-el afar tashuv).”
Teshuvah indicates both a turning away from evil as well as a turning toward what is good. In turning toward God, one dedicates his entire soul to serving Him.
“Return, faithless Israel, declares Adonai I will not look on you in anger, for I am merciful, declares Adonai. I will not be angry forever.” (Jeremiah 3:12)
Judgment and Mercy in Elul and the Days of Awe
Elul leads up to the Yamim Noraim (Days of Awe), a time of intensely focusing on repentance and forgiveness. The Days of Awe begin with Erev Rosh Hashanah on September 24 and end with the close of Yom Kippur on the night of October 4 (1–10 Tishrei).
As such, it is traditionally considered to be a time of introspection, taking stock of one’s life, evaluating one’s actions, and contemplating what one has accomplished during the previous year both materially and spiritually.
The very word Elul (which is an ancient Akkadian word meaning harvest) is similar to the Aramaic root verb meaning search.
Elul is followed by the month of Tishrei, which commences with Rosh Hashanah, a period of reconciliation.
According to rabbinic tradition, Moses returned to Mount Sinai during the month of Elul, remaining there for 40 days following the incident of the Golden Calf (Exodus 32; 34:27–28).
This would have been the time between the new moon or Rosh Chodesh of Elul and the holy day of Yom Kippur, which is the 10th of Tishrei, a period of 40 days in which he prayed to God to forgive the Hebrew people for the sin of the Golden Calf.
According to the book of rabbinic teachings, the Talmud (Bava Bathra 121a), his returning with a second set of tablets is considered as evidence of God’s mercy.
Elul: Wisdom and Understanding, Mercy and Forgiveness
Because Hebrew letters are also numbers, a mystical belief or tradition has arisen in Judaism regarding deciphering the meaning of words by evaluating their numeric value.
The letters that make up the word Elul have a number value of 67, so it is associated with another Hebrew word that shares the same numeric value: the word binah (בינה), which is Hebrew for wisdom or understanding.
From this, it is supposed that the month of Elul is the time given to us by God to grow in wisdom, a time for reflecting on where one stands within the overall framework of God’s mercy and justice.
While the preceding month, the Hebrew month of Av, with its many catastrophes, may suggest a moving away from God, Elul becomes the time to grow in binah (wisdom) and to begin to make things right with Him—the time for teshuvah or repentance.
It is also possible to read 67 as 6+7, resulting in the number 13.
For this reason, Elul is also associated with The Thirteen Attributes of Divine Mercy that are based on God’s words to Moses when He passed by him on Mount Sinai:
“Then the Lord passed by in front of him and proclaimed, ‘The Lord, the Lord God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth; who keeps lovingkindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin; yet He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished, visiting the iniquity of fathers on the children and on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations.’” (Exodus 34:6–7)
The Exodus passage above reveals God’s divine mercy toward the Israelites who sinned, and so it is read as part of the Selichot (forgiveness) prayers that are recited daily during this 40-day period of Elul plus the Ten Days of Awe.
These days are a time of spiritual cleansing culminating with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.
Thus, Elul is also referred to as the month of mercy and forgiveness (Hodesh haRahamin vehaSelichot).
It is the time to renew one’s efforts in prayer, Torah study and charity and to ask forgiveness from others that you may have harmed.
It is a Jewish tradition that God cannot forgive us for sins committed against another person until we first go to the person we have wronged and obtain forgiveness.
When we combine this tradition with Yeshua’s emphasis on forgiveness, we see in this process an opportunity for real reconciliation:
“For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.” (Matthew 6:14)
“And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive them, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.” (Mark 11:25)
“Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.” (Luke 6:37)
As Believers, the miracle of forgiveness should begin in our hearts long before the offender begs us for forgiveness. Nevertheless, may we also be quick to recognize when we have hurt or offended another and be swift to apologize and ask for forgiveness.
This season of Elul is the perfect time for us to take stock and actively seek forgiveness.
The Number 40 in the Bible
The start of the month of Elul begins a 40-day period in which every individual and the community as a whole takes time for introspection.
The number 40 is mentioned 146 times in the Bible and most often refers to a period of testing or trial.
Here are a few examples:
- Yeshua (Jesus) fasted for 40 days in the Judean wilderness following His mikvah (baptism) by John.
- The Hebrews wandered for 40 years in the wilderness (Numbers 14:33–34).
- Moses tended sheep for 40 years for his father-in-law, Jethro, before he was called to lead the Jewish nation from captivity in Egypt. He also fasted on two separate occasions on Mount Sinai for 40 days and nights while receiving the law from God (Exodus 24:18; 34:1–28).
- Jonah gave the people of Nineveh a 40-day warning: “Then Jonah began to go through the city one day’s walk; and he cried out and said, ‘Yet forty days and Nineveh will be overthrown.’ (Jonah 3:4)” In this case, the 40 days was a period of warning that allowed the people of Nineveh to repent and turn from their evil ways.
- In Noah’s day, during the Flood, the waters poured out for 40 days and 40 nights, judging the people of the earth.
Both Moses and Yeshua fasted for 40 days as they communed with God during times of testing. The 40 years spent by the Israelites in the wilderness was a judgment of God.
So, we see, therefore, that God uses the number 40 to represent a period of testing or of judgment, and for that reason this next 40-day period is taken very seriously.
Customs and Practices During Elul
There are several traditions and customs associated with the 40 days between the first day of Elul and Yom Kippur.
They include the following:
- The Selichot prayers are recited. These prayers are based on a tradition that says that while Moses returned to Mount Sinai for 40 days after the incident with the Golden Calf, the Israelites spent this time seeking reconciliation, culminating in the revelation of The Thirteen Attributes of Mercy given to Moses.
- On most day of the month of Elul (with the exception of Shabbat and the last day of Elul), the shofar (ram’s horn) is sounded in a call to repentance. This is meant to call attention to the significance of Elul as a time for reconciliation and introspection. The great Hebrew philosopher Maimonides described it as a “wake up call” (Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Teshuvah 3:4).
- It is a custom when greeting someone or writing a letter to include the Hebrew phrase Ketivah vachatimah tovah, which means May you be inscribed and sealed (in the Book of Life) for a good year.
- Psalm 27 is read during morning and afternoon prayers. The word lulai (לולאֵ) appears in verse 13—where David wrote, “Had I not trusted that I would see the goodness of God in the land of life…,” leading the rabbis to argue that David doubted that he would have his reward in the “land of the living.” This is used to encourage a person to repair their actions so that their sins do not cause them to lose out on the reward of the world to come.
- The Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hassidic Judaism, began the custom of adding three chapters of the Psalms each day, the remaining 36 chapters being recited on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.
Elul: I Am My Beloved’s
In Jewish tradition, the word Elul is also connected to acrostic verses of Scripture.
To arrive at this acrostic, the first letter of each word is taken separately so that it spells the Hebrew word Elul (אֱלוּל).
These verses give added meaning to the month of Elul in terms of repentance, prayer, and charity or righteous deeds.
Here are three key verses:
- Et Lebabcha V’et Lebab
“Moreover the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, to love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, so that you may live.” (Deuteronomy 30:6)
Here Your heart and the heart in Hebrew is את לבבל ואת לבב where the first letter of each word forms אלול Elul. The idea of a circumcised heart represents God’s covenant with Israel and acts as a reminder of the need for repentance and teshuvah or returning to God.
- Ani L’Dodi V’Dodi Li
“I am my Beloved’s and my Beloved is mine, He who pastures his flock among the lilies.” (Song of Songs 6:3)
In Hebrew this is אני לדודי ודודי לי and here, again, the initial letters form the Hebrew word אלול Elul. The Beloved is interpreted as being God and represents the close relationship and mutual love between Israel and God. This verse is suggestive, therefore, of prayer.
The Aruch HaShulhan (a rabbinic teaching of Rabbi Yechiel Michel Epstein [1829–1908]) suggests, “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.”
Elul is the period in which each person cleanses his relationship with his Beloved, with God.
- Ish L’re’ehu U’Matanot L’Evyonim
“… sending portions to one another and gifts to the poor.” (Esther 9:22)
Within this Hebrew verse ימִשְׁל֤חַ מָנוֹת֙ אִ֣ישׁ לרֵעֵ֔הוְּ וּמַתָּנ֖וֹת לָֽאֶבְיוֹנִֽים׃ is the word Elul. Although this verse is specifically related to Purim, it does embody the timeless necessity for kindness and taking care of the poor and needy.
In Judaism, deeds of kindness are traditionally considered the “pillars upon which the world stands.” (Avot 1:2)
Elul: the Month of Redemption
“They will continue to grow stronger, and each of them will appear before God in Jerusalem.” (Psalm 84:7)
During Elul, the study of Torah, combined with repentance, prayer, and righteous deeds are meant to connect the Jewish soul to God through divine service. Elul, therefore, is the month of redemption.
It isn’t just located in the here and now, however; it also points to the future, and to future redemption. There remains in the hearts of all observant Jews the hope of a future redemption to come in the form of the Messiah of Israel.
Many believe that ultimate redemption will be the result of a total commitment to the Torah and doing mitzvot (good deeds) today.
As the time draws near for the future coming of our Messiah—our Redeemer—we need to share with those whose hearts are open to the true Messiah and Redeemer of Israel, Yeshua the Mashiach (Jesus the Messiah), the only true hope of Israel.