A Jewish Lent? The Month of Elul
Elul is the twelfth month of the modern Jewish year and the sixth month in the biblical counting. It falls during August and/or September.
How the Month of Elul Is Observed
Elul is the month preceding Tishri. In preparation for the High Holy Days that fall in Tishri (Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur), the theme of Elul is repentance. Or more exactly, it is the beginning of the repentance that will take place communally in Tishri.
Elul is given no special significance in the Bible, but later tradition imbued the month with meaning. In one tradition, the Hebrew for Elul (אלול) is an acronym for Ani le?dodi ve?dodi li (אני לדודי ודודי לי), Hebrew for “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine” (Song of Solomon 6:3). The beloved is understood to be God, and “I” represents the Jewish people. The month is then understood to be a time to deepen our relationship of love with God, for even repentance for sin should be born out of a relationship of love with God rather than fear.1
For most of the month (Elul 2 to 28), following Shacharit (the morning synagogue service), the shofar is blown except on the Sabbath. The sound of the shofar is meant to be a spiritual alarm clock, waking us up to repentance.
It is also said that Elul is the time to start asking forgiveness of those we have wronged – for God cannot forgive us for wronging others until we have first been granted their forgiveness.
Special Readings for the Month of Elul
Toward the end of the month, starting from the Sunday preceding Rosh Hashanah and until Yom Kippur, special prayers for forgiveness called Selihot are recited before the daily Shacharit (morning) synagogue services. The prayers include a recitation of the traditional “Thirteen Attributes of God” found in Exodus 34:6-7.2
It is also a custom to read Psalm 27 twice daily – morning and evening – during Elul and on through Hoshana Rabbah, the final day of Sukkot. This custom apparently began as recently as the eighteenth century.3 The psalm offers spiritual encouragement. It begins, “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?” and ends with, “Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!” At a season of introspection and repentance, the promises of the psalm are like balm to the soul of the repentant. One can even imagine that the “evildoers” of verse 2 and the “adversaries” of verse 12 are sins that we implore God not to have a hold on us. We are reminded that forgiveness comes to those who can say, in the words of verse 11, “Teach me your way, O Lord, and lead me on a level path because of my enemies.”
Traditional Customs and Folklore of the Month of Elul
Some people use Elul as a time to visit cemeteries, in order to help us to contemplate life, death, and the serious nature of this season.4 In keeping with the nature of this and the following month, making graveside visits also helps to remind us of our past (those who came before us) as well as our future (what kind of life and legacy do we want to leave behind?).
One tradition has it that Moses spent the month of Elul on Mt. Sinai, preparing the second set of the tablets of the Ten Commandments – for he had previously broken them when he saw the sin of the Golden Calf (Exodus 32). According to another tradition, Elul began a forty-day period during which Moses beseeched God to forgive Israel after the Golden Calf incident.
The Month of Elul in the New Testament
While Elul is not mentioned in the New Testament, repentance is a theme that is found there in abundance. Recall the Jewish tradition that we need to seek the forgiveness of others before we can seek God’s forgiveness. Similar thinking is reflected in the New Testament:
So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. (Matthew 5:23-24)
In a related vein, the New Testament advises that we must forgive others before we can expect God to forgive us:
For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. (Matthew 6:14-15)
Spiritual Application of the Month of Elul
For those familiar with the Christian church calendar, Jewish believer in Jesus Eric Verby reflects that: “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.”
For Jewish believers in Jesus, “Elul… 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… 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.”5
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5. Reflections from Eric Verby, a Jewish believer in Jesus.