As the shofar is heard across the land
Sichat Yosef

As the shofar is heard across the land

This Rosh Hashanah we will hear it without a need for special permission – but the shofar season is already upon us.

Sounding a Yemenite shofar
Sounding a Yemenite shofar

While in common parlance one tends to refer specifically to the Ten Days of Penitence incorporating the High Holy Days as a period of introspection leading to resolutions for the future, tradition has it that with the month of Elul that begins this week, we commence the High Holy Day season.

Nevertheless, some will have already wished “Ketivah vachatimah tovah” from chamisha asar b’Av as the two phrases have the same gematria (number value of their Hebrew letters). But for many this period will begin in earnest on the very day this edition of The AJN goes on sale.

The kabbalists added to our list of sacred dates the concept of Yom Kippur Katan, a minor “day of atonement” on the eve of Rosh Chodesh at the beginning of many of the months of the year. Nominally a fast observed only by a few, it is best known in the contemporary era as an occasion when Selichot are recited at Mincha. And even in communities where it is not regularly observed, many do observe it prior to the commencement of the month of Elul when introspection is particularly on our minds.

However given its declared nature as a fast day, in the event that Rosh Chodesh is on Shabbat as is the case this year it is observed earlier so as not to intrude onto Shabbat – hence its observance this week on Thursday Av 28, August 25. And for many of us in Melbourne this Yom Kippur Katan will have a particularly poignant flavour. For last year that Mincha service and the Maariv that followed were the last public minyanim prior to the lockdown that commenced the following day and (though unknown at the time) would extend over Yom Kippur.

In Europe by the beginning of Elul the hottest days are over and some mornings a chill wind is felt. During his sermons at this time of the year the late Rabbi Shlomo Rudzki often said that in the “alte heim” (back in the old country) they said that when the shofar was first heard in Elul, even the birds in the trees trembled – not because of cold but at the thought of the approaching days of judgement.

“Ashrei adam mefached tamid – Happy is the man that feareth always,” said King Solomon, the wisest of all men (Proverbs 28:14). In the pre-war Eastern Europe world of mussar (those who emphasised ethics but also spiritual cleansing and advancement) for those who fulfilled that adage Elul had an especial meaning, even if not all took it to the extent of that great Baal Mussar Reb Elya Lapian who I had the privilege to hear in Yerushalayim in my yeshivah days.

I personally learnt how seriously he took every opportunity for spiritual advancement one year the morning after Tisha b’Av. Most boys had gone home for the summer break leaving only a few of us “foreigners” in the dormitories. At 5am I was in bed but heard an insistent knocking at the front door. In pyjamas I ran downstairs only to find it was Reb Elya trying to get in. Why was the door locked, he asked, just because it was bein hazemanim (holiday time) the Beit Hamedrash was inaccessible for learning? It was only a few hours after a long hot fast but there was no time to waste. The Yamim Noraim were at hand.

I subsequently heard another story indicative of his attitudes and those imbued with the ways of the mussar world. At a wedding on Rosh Chodesh Cheshvan, just three weeks after Yom Kippur he was reputed to have said when asked to speak “Es is bald Elul – it is almost (next) Elul – so how can I speak about mundane matters.” Elul, repentance and spiritual cleansing were always on the minds of many of those generations.

Nevertheless even if our standards are not at that level, all our synagogues the coming week will see commencement of additions to the daily prayer services; Sephardi communities will even commence recitation of Selichot.

The great kabbalist Rabbi Isaac Luria (the Arizal) compared the month of Elul that leads up to the High Holy Days, to one of the cities of refuge in which even one who had caused a death – the worst sin, albeit accidentally – could find respite. In Shemot (21:13) we read that “v’haElokim inah leyado – if the Almighty made it happen to him” that he accidentally sinned by causing death, “v’samti lecha makom – I will make for you a place” to which to flee. The initial letters of the words “inah leyado v’samti lecha” make up the word Elul – a place in time for retrospection.

Three other cited verses similarly begin with the letters of Elul. Devarim 30:6 tells us that Hashem will open up “et levavecha ve’et levav – your heart and the heart of (your descendants)”. This refers to teshuvah – repentance. More broadly, however, teshuvah symbolises the commandments dealing with a person’s duty to refine him- or herself.

In Song of Songs the oft-repeated “ani l’dodi v’dodi li – I am to my beloved and my beloved is for me” refers to the relationship between a person and God. Tefillah (prayer) symbolises a strengthening of this relationship.

And in Megillat Esther we find among Purim mitzvot the giving of portions of food “ish lere’ehu umatanot la’evyonim – each person to their neighbour and gifts to the poor”, encapsulating tzedakah (charity). And tzedakah is the archetypical command regarding duties between people.

Thus Elul is the time to strengthen the totality of our religious involvement in all three areas that effectively cover all religious duties.

The Code of Jewish Law prescribes that when writing to a friend during Elul one should wish the recipient a ketivah vechatimah tovah – to be inscribed and sealed for good. (Incidentally, in these days of electronic communication it is worth remembering such a prescription, and also other traditions such as opening a letter with a “Bet He” implying “with God’s help” and addressing an individual after their name with letters traditionally standing for “to 120” or “for long days of life”.)

May we indeed all merit a ketivah vechatimah tovah.

Shabbat shalom,

Yossi Aron OAM is The AJN’s religious affairs editor.

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