This year, the Jewish month of Elul falls on August 18 through September 15. (Technically, Elul is the sixth month of the Hebrew calendar, with Nisan (Passover), being the first, even though Rosh Hashanah is considered the Jewish New Year.) Elul precedes the month of Tishrei, which contains the High Holy Days: The Feast of Trumpets and The Day of Atonement (Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur)—as well as the Feast of Tabernacles (Sukkot) shortly afterward.
Because the Hebrew calendar is lunar, the Jewish holidays fluctuate in relationship to the common calendar. Some years, the above mentioned holidays take place early to mid-September, but other years, they fall in early October, or some time in between.
It is customary (at least among Orthodox Jews) to blow the shofar (ram's horn) every morning during the month of Elul, at the conclusion of the morning prayer service.
With the beginning of Elul, one awakens to teshuva—repentance—turning back to the path. Hearing the shofar helps to make for such an awakening. Elul is a period of preparation. It involves introspection, review of the year, and preparation for repentance." Selichot, or penitential prayers, are said the Saturday before Rosh Hashanah, for a minimum of 4 days beforehand. On the first night of Selichot, prayers are said at midnight. This intensifies the approach to the "Days of Awe," the ten days encompassing Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.1
So perhaps Elul can be seen as kind of a Jewish Lent. It is a time of anticipation, meditation and penitence, leading up to the greatest days of the Jewish year, especially the Sabbath of Sabbaths—Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. This is similar to Christians anticipating Resurrection Sunday, whether in a formal sense (Lent), or a less formal reflection on the season. As a Jewish believer in Jesus, I feel the parallel keenly.
As a Conservative (fairly religious) Jewish kid, I experienced intimately the rhythms of the Jewish calendar year. So it wasn't surprising that Elul was a time of anticipation, with summer break winding down, classes filing back into order, and the Indian summer of the San Francisco Bay Area sizzling hotter than any time of the year. (It always seemed to be hottest on Yom Kippur, when we were fasting and wearing heavy clothes!)
Elul was definitely a time of renewal, at least for those of us who took the Jewish religion seriously. I anticipated "meeting" God in the sanctuary and being cleansed of sin on Yom Kippur. (I always had a powerful sense of God's majesty, even in my pre-messianic days.)
Elul was also the time of my Bar Mitzvah, which occurred after a two-week family trip to Israel in the summer of 1982. I remember chanting all seven Torah portions and my haftarah portion, as well as leading the congregation in much of the liturgy.
I looked forward to dressing up and dining at festive holiday meals, and going to shul (synagogue) with my Mom's parents. They moved out to California back in 1979—from Freeport, Long Island—to be close to us. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur were always the greatest times of the year, in no small part because my grandparents were with us to celebrate.
My Grandpa Leon was the Jew par excellence in my family. He had moved to New York from Poland at age seven. His parents placed him in a Jewish orphanage in Yonkers, where he remained through high school. He always gravitated toward Orthodoxy, eventually choosing to worship with a Persian Sephardic congregation in the Bay Area rather than an English-speaking Ashkenazic (Eastern European) congregation that he considered too liberal. In his very last years he transferred his allegiance to the ultra-Orthodox Lubavitcher Chabad community, which he embraced until he died.
During Elul, Grandpa took me to synagogue to observe a minor holiday which anticipated the Days of Awe (ten days of serious spiritual reflection which encompassed Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur). That holiday, Selichot (or Slichos in Yiddish), was a somber holiday which was geared toward helping the congregants to a position of repentance. It started at night, and I recall that staying up really late was part of it—though I never really made it very far. Each year a different local rabbi was asked to lead the service.
As a religious Jew, I looked up to my grandfather. He and I used to stay in shul on Yom Kippur after the morning musaf service, when the majority of the families headed for home. We remained for the afternoon service, which included the reading of the haftarah Jonah, my favorite haftarah of the year. Then there was the Avodah service, which referred to Yom Kippur in the days when there were still Temple sacrifices. Then there was the martyrdom service, upholding the great martyrs of Jewish history. I usually stayed out during the Yizkor service, which commemorated loved ones who had died. Finally, the rest of our family would rejoin us for the late afternoon neilah service, in which we prayed that God would keep open the gates of salvation for us to enter. After neilah, most of us would stagger over to a table of light dairy food to break the fast.
Yom Kippur was a totally purgative holiday. I recall feeling that prayer, repentance and good deeds had indeed cleansed me from my sins. But it was like a trip to the spiritual dentist—when it was over, little by little I felt my soul develop "plaque" again. Before long I sensed that I was dirty and required cleansing once again. There was no once-and-forever break or covering for sin available for us as Jews.
When I met Jesus as Messiah during my junior year of college, I came to know for the first time that God had made the perfect sacrifice for sins on my behalf and on behalf of all His people. Since then, my entire view of Yom Kippur has changed. I now see it as a Day of Commemoration and joyful confession. I know I have been forgiven once and for all, but I appreciate the time to reflect and repent as a way to maintain a clear fellowship with the God who has saved me to the uttermost.
Elul still remains for me a month of preparation. But now it is a time to prepare for God's unmitigated blessing, with alertness and confession of sin, in order to maximize the experience of that blessing. Just as Lent is helpful to some Christians in reflecting on the death and Resurrection of Y'shua, Elul is a time for us Jewish believers to simplify our lives and listen to God more carefully so that we can enter the Days of Awe with greater momentum.
- The Jewish Catalog, Vol. 1, compiled and edited by Richard Siegel, Michael Strassfeld, and Sharon Strassfeld (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1973), p. 120.