The month of Elul is a time of repentance in preparation for the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. In Aramaic (the language spoken by Jews living at the time that the months were given names), the word “Elul” means “search.” The Talmud writes that the Hebrew word "Elul" can be expanded as an acronym for "Ani L'dodi V'dodi Li" - "I am to my Beloved and my Beloved is to me." Elul is seen as a time to search one's heart and draw close to God in preparation for the coming Day of Judgement, Rosh Hashanah, and Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur.
During the month of Elul, there are a number of special rituals leading up to the High Holy Days. It is customary to blow the shofar every morning (except on Shabbat) from Rosh Hodesh Elul (the first day of the month) until the day before Rosh Hashanah. The blasts are meant to awaken one's spirits and inspire him to begin the soul searching which will prepare him for the High Holy Days. As part of this preparation, Elul is the time to begin the sometimes-difficult process of granting and asking for forgiveness. It is also customary to recite Psalm 27 every day from Rosh Hodesh Elul through Hoshanah Rabbah on Sukkot (in Tishrei).
Aside from the blowing of the shofar, the other major ritual practice during Elul is to recite selichot (special penitential prayers) either every morning before sunrise during the week before the last Wednesday before Rosh Hashanah (Ashkenazi tradition) or every morning during the entire month of Elul (Sephardi tradition).
Many Jews also visit the graves of loved ones throughout the month in order to remember and honor those people in our past who inspire us to live more fully in the future.
Another social custom is to begin or end all letters written during the month of Elul with wishes that the recipient have a good year. The standard blessing is "K'tiva V'Hatima Tova" ("a good writing and sealing [of judgement]"), meaning that the person should be written and sealed in the Book of Life for a good year. Tradition teaches that on Rosh Hashanah, each person is written down for a good or a poor year, based on their actions in the previous one, and their sincere efforts at atoning for mistakes or harm. On Yom Kippur, that fate is "sealed."
The Jewish month of Elul is traditionally a time for personal reflection and spiritual preparation for the New Year. It offers a structured opportunity to examine what is holding us back from being who we really want to be. If we use the period of Elul to take concrete steps towards becoming advocates for change, together we can make a difference!
Here are a few ways to begin changing the things you want for this upcoming year:
Relationship With God
Tradition: The word Elul can be understood as an acronym for the Hebrew verse Ani L'dodi V'dodi Li--"I am for my beloved and my beloved is for me."
Suggestion: Think about your relationship with whatever you conceive of as the Divine Presence. Try to imagine a more intimate relationship, as if God were your beloved. You might want to write a letter addressed to this Beloved in which you speak as you would to a close friend. You may want to honor yourself as "created in God's image" by treating yourself as you would treat a beloved.
Tradition: The teshuvah [repentance] process operates on two levels, one involving human relationships and the other involving our relationship with God. According to tradition, one resolves human relationships during Elul by asking forgiveness for wrong doings. If one earnestly asks three times, the obligation is fulfilled.
Suggestion: As part of your teshuvah process try to sort out difficult relationships (with people, organizations) that drain you of your creative energy. Think about what kind of closure you need in order to move forward into the next year.
Tradition: The shofar (ram's horn) is blown at the conclusion of every weekday morning prayer service during Elul.
Suggestion: Use this month to listen for the shofar's rousing call. Carve out some time to think through the kinds of changes you want to make in the coming year. What's holding you back?
Tradition: Psalm 27--which begins with the words "God is my light and my helper, whom shall I fear?"--is recited every day from Rosh Hodesh Elul (the beginning of the month) through the middle of Sukkot (the Festival of Booths).
Suggestion: Honor the fact that change can involve fear. Think about keeping an Elul journal to help revive your internal dialogue. You may want to use some or all of Psalm 27 as a departure point for meditation and/or writing. Books like The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron may also be useful tools.
Tradition: Kol Nidre (the first prayer recited on the eve of Yom Kippur) serves to annul all existing vows and prepare us to begin the New Year with a clean slate. The Al Chet prayer enumerates the specific ways we have missed the mark.
Suggestion: Take some time to re-evaluate your participation in the community. Try to be more conscious of how you spend your time and money. Do your calendar and checkbook reflect your values and priorities?