A New Hebrew Month is Upon Us
August 3, 2021
by Sondra Baras
The Hebrew calendar is a lunar one and it is based on the monthly cycle of the moon rather than on the annual cycle of the sun. A solar year is 365 days and the months are merely a convenience — dividing the year into 12 roughly equal periods of time. The lunar calendar, however, is based on the renewal of the moon which happens regularly every 29 or 30 days. The lunar year, therefore, is roughly 11 days shorter than the solar year.
The Biblical months are lunar months and all of the Jewish festivals are based on the lunar calendar. But in order to prevent the holidays from traveling around the calendar, the Jewish calendar includes a leap year approximately every three years, adding a full extra month. This ensures that the Jewish holidays will always fall within a span of one Gregorian month. The High Holidays are always in the fall and Passover is always in the Spring.
Today, August 3rd is the 25th day of the 5th Biblical month, referred to as Av. On the 9th of August, we will usher in a new month — the month of Elul. This is the 6th month of the year and the month that immediately precedes the month of Tishrei, the seventh month, when the Bible commands us to celebrate a variety of important holidays: Rosh HaShana, the Jewish New Year, Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement and Succot, the Feast of Tabernacles.
We have written and discussed a great deal about the High Holidays and their absolute sanctity in Jewish life and traditions. But it is rare that anyone discusses the preceding month — the month of Elul. And yet, in Jewish tradition, Elul is a very important month, important because it is the month leading up to the High Holy Days.
Beginning on the 1st of Elul, we blow the shofar in the synagogue each morning. A short series of three different sounds, that serve to remind us that the Festival of Trumpets, another name for Rosh HaShana (Numbers 29:1) is approaching. The actual name Elul, is Persian in origin but our sages found Hebrew significance in the name. Comprised of exactly 4 Hebrew letters, it is seen as an acronym for a short verse from the Song of Songs: I am for my Beloved and my Beloved is for me. Or in Hebrew: Ani LeDodi VeDodi Li. The first four letters spell out Elul.
In Jewish tradition, the Song of Songs is an allegory for G-d’s love for His people. And when we think of that beautiful verse tying ourselves to a Beloved, we are tying ourselves to G-d. And in so many ways, this represents the essence of what the month of Elul is all about. On Rosh Hashana we come before G-d and crown Him as King of the Universe. Tradition tells us that the world was created on Rosh Hashana so it is a day that all of mankind should be celebrating G-d’s creation. But it is also a day that we can glory in our presence before G-d and our relationship with G-d. It is a day of celebration. A day of uplifting prayers and festive meals. In a sense, then, it is like a marriage ceremony, where we, the People of Israel, are wed to G-d.
Elul, then is the betrothal period, that period of expectation and excitement, getting ready for the big day when we will, indeed, join with G-d.
But Rosh Hashana is also a day of reckoning — Judgment Day. It is a day when all mankind is judged and G-d decides whether we will be inscribed in the Book of Life or the Book of Death for the coming year. But the decision is not final and it is only on the Day of Atonement, on the 10th Day of Tishrei, that the final judgement is made.
Elul, then, is a time when we prepare for judgement day, when we review our actions and misdeeds over the past year and prepare to repent or, more importantly, correct our ways before Rosh HaShana is upon us. The young men and women who study Bible intensively in a “Yeshiva” are usually on break between the 9th of Av and the beginning of Elul. But when Elul begins, they come back to Yeshiva and apply themselves more seriously than at any time during the year, seeking greater understanding of G-d and greater closeness to G-d by studying His word.
Elul is also a time when families visit the gravesites of loved ones because it is a time of reckoning. And there is nothing more conducive to a reckoning of our own lives than to contemplate the death of those we love and miss, to remind ourselves that life and death is in the hands of our Creator and it is to Him that we must direct our prayers.
This year, we have an additional element in our Elul month — preparing ourselves and our land for the Shemittah year. With the advent of Rosh HaShanah, all agricultural work must cease. And even in our own gardens, we will stop pruning, planting, fertilizing and weeding. So during Elul, we make sure we get in all of that work. Farmers plant their final plantings and we make sure we have our gardens weeded and fertilized, our fruit trees pruned and whatever flowers we want for the coming year already planted.
When the festivals arrive, we are excited. We have prepared lavish meals, bought new clothes and look forward to our time in the synagogue. But there is something very special about the month before. Jewish tradition has sanctified the betrothal period, the time when we prepare to meet
G-d, not only because of the month that follows but because of the experience of the month itself. It is a time to relish in the preparation, to not only look ahead towards the end goal but to enjoy the process itself.
As Jews across the world prepare to meet God on the holiest day of their calendar, you can help families in Samaria prepare to welcome the holiday season with the food they need to feed their families.
Click here to support a needy family in Samaria.