I can hear Efraim lamenting: You have chastised me, and I am chastised Like a calf that has not been broken. Receive me back, let me return, For You, Hashem, are my God. Jeremiah 31:17 (The Israel Bible™)
During Elul, the 12th month of the Jewish calendar that leads to the High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, prayer becomes evermore important to the Jewish people. During this time, Jewish academics and Rabbis say that prayer has a special ability to effect change in one’s life – especially in the land of Israel.
“Elul is a month of reflection and prayer specifically geared toward repentance and heading toward Yom Kippur,” said Rabbi Dov Lipman, former Knesset member and Judaic studies teacher.
The traditions of Elul date back to Moses’ time. After destroying the first set of tablets that contained the 10 Commandments, when Moses saw the scene of the golden calf, he went back onto Mount Sinai. This was on the first day of Elul when he pleaded to God for forgiveness for himself and his people.
“He was there for 40 days begging for forgiveness and those 40 days lead us to Yom Kippur, on which forgiveness was granted,” Lipman told Breaking Israel News. “These 40 days from that moment are entrenched and cemented as days of prayer but specifically prayer for forgiveness, because that’s what Moses was doing.”
As such, there are numerous customs and ritual laws that have developed over time, including waking up early in Sephardi (Jews of both Spanish and Eastern origin) communities in Israel and chanting selichot, special prayers asking for forgiveness. In all synagogues, there are extra prayers during this time. Also, Jews blow the shoar during the month of Elul, a visceral call to repentance.
According to Rabbi Daniel Sperber, spiritual leader and teacher of Talmud and Jewish custom, blowing the shofar acts as a non verbal prayer, expressing the innermost the needs of one’s soul.
“Sometimes, we don’t really know what we want and it is difficult to verbalize requests,”
Sperber told Breaking Israel News. The Rambam (Rabbi Moshe Ben Maimon/Maimonides), he said, interprets the blowing of the shofar differently, as a call-to-action for each person to “wake up” and examine his or her own behaviors, through introspection of one’s actions and thoughts and “leaving your evil ways and inclinations so as to come closer to the Creator.”
During the month of Elul, one can walk the streets of Israel and hear Sephardic Jews chanting out loud the prayers for forgiveness and blowing the shofar.
Lipman said that the High Holidays in Israel are especially holy because the entire nation – no matter their level of faith and observance – seems to repent and come closer to God, elevating the entire society during the months of Elul and Tishrei, the first month of the Jewish year.
“It envelops me and enhances my high holiday experience,” he said.
Similarly, Sperber referred to the Jewish concept of kedushat hamakom (sanctity of space) and kedushat hazman (sanctity of time) to explain the importance of prayer during this time in Israel.
“There is in Jewish thought a hierarchy, a spectrum of sanctity, based in the Mishnah (oral Torah) that says there are 10 degrees of sanctity, beginning with the land of Israel,” he said. “It says there is a greater closeness between man and his Creator in the land of Israel, and even more so in Jerusalem.”
Prayer, said Sperber, is one of the means by which people attempt to connect with the Creator and that connection is made easier to facilitate in a more sanctified places.
Likewise, Judaism has notions that different times have different statuses, such as Yom Kippur – the most sanctified time – in addition to Shabbat and then festivals. “We have special prayers that express that degree of sanctity and different sacrifices for different days that expressed in sacrificial terms the special status of the days.”
While this month and the following holidays take on a special significance in the land of Israel, prayer is also highly personal and can affect change in one’s life.
“Prayer enables a person not to feel alone,” explained Lipman. Rather, there is a force one can turn to even if they do not understand that force. “It’s a feeling of knowing there is a higher being that cares and has an interest and ability to intervene and help. And that gives a person an ability to live with hope, never to reach a point of despondency and helplessness, and also a feeling of happiness.”
The message of Elul is perfectly characterized by an acronym from Song of Songs ‘Ani L’dodi v’dodi li,’ (I am for my beloved and my beloved is for me). “We use this verse for couples and love, referring to a feeling of happiness and joy that there’s a being that I can turn to and can be of help in my repentance process,” said Lipman.
Similarly, Sperber maintained that the acronym is trying to explain that in this particular period of time, one should be an attempt at a closer relationship between oneself and God.
“I am striving to create some relationship or connection with my creator and we are assured that if we do so, there will be a reciprocal relationship,” he said. “So if we pray to God, praise Him, thank Him and also make requests, we assume we will be answered.”