Traditions for the Month of Elul

Prayer and Charity in Preparation for the High Holidays

Shofar blower
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The month of Elul, the last month in the Jewish calendar, leads up to the High Holidays of Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. As a result, it’s a month chock full of holiness and heightened activities that prepare for Jews for judgment.

Meaning

Elul, like the other names of the months in the Jewish calendar, was adopted from Akkadian and means “harvest.” The terminology of the months was adopted during the Babylonian Exile and stuck.

The word “elul” is also similar to the root of the verb “to search” in Aramaic, making it an appropriate term for the spiritual prepartions that take place during the month.

In Hebrew, elul often is featured as an acronym for the popular phrase in Song of Songs 6:3, Ani l’dodi v’dodi li (I am my beloved’s, and my beloved is mine).

The month falls around August or September, has 29 days, and is the twelfth month of the Jewish calendar and the sixth month of the ecclesiastical year.

Known as a month of accounting, Elul is the time of year that Jews take a look at the past year and review their actions. This allows for preparations to be made for the Day of Judgment, or Rosh HaShanah.

Customs

The Shofar: Starting on the first morning of the month of Elul until the morning before Rosh HaShanah, the shofar (ram’s horn) can be heard after morning prayers. However, the shofar is not blown on Shabbat.

The shofar is blown to serve as a powerful reminder of the commandments and the importance of observing them. 

Recite Psalms: Starting on the first day of Elul until, and including Hoshannah Rabbah (the seventh day of Sukkot), Psalm 27 is recited twice every day. The Lithuanian custom is to recite the Psalm during morning and evening prayers, while the custom of Chasidim and Sephardim is to say it in the morning and afternoon prayers.

The Ba'al Shem Tov instituted the reading of the entirety of Psalms from Elul until Yom Kippur by adding the recitation of three chapters of Psalms every day from the beginning of Elul until Yom Kippur with the final 36 read on Yom Kippur. 

Give Tzedakah: Charity, known as tzedakah, is increased during the month of Elul as it is viewed as a protection against evil over both the giver and the Jewish people as a whole.

Recite Selichot: Sephardim begin saying selichot (prayers of repentance) right when the month of Elul begins. Ashkenazim start the prayers the Saturday night of the week in which Rosh HaShanah begins, assuming that there are four days between Saturday night and Rosh HaShanah. For example, if Rosh HaShanah begins on a Monday or Tuesday, Ashkenazim begin saying selichot the Saturday night of the preceding week.

Tefillin and Mezuzot Checking: Some will have a reliable scribe (sofer) check their mezuzot and tefillin to make sure they're "kosher" and fit for use. 

Repentance: In Judaism, there are typically four steps toward teshuvah (repentance) leading up to Rosh HaShanah.

  1. Regret the sin and understand the damage of the sin.
  2. Abandon the sin in both practice and though with a resolution to not repeat the sin.
  1. Confess of the sin orally saying, “I have sinned, I have done ____________. I regret my actions and feel ashamed of them."
  2. Resolve to not repeat the sin in the future. 

Greetings: It is customary to say and write ketivah v'chatimah tovah, which translates from the Hebrew as "May you be inscribed and sealed for a good year. The greeting changes slighting for Rosh HaShanah itself. 

Additionally, there are specific customs that can be observed starting on the 25th of Elul through Rosh HaShanah. On the 25th itself, it is customary for some to immerse in the mikvah, avoid danger and abstain from idle chatter, and eat sweet treats to bring in a sweet new year. An auspicious time for repentance, each day through Rosh HaShanah is considered a divine gift where Jews try to uphold the ​mitzvot (commandments) and heighten holiness.