Rabbi Michael Rosensweig
Rabbi Michael Rosensweig

The Significance of Rosh Chodesh and the Month of Elul

"Dirshu Hashem be-himazo kerauhu bihiyato karov". This pasuk, which plays such a central role in times of crisis and contemplation as the introduction to the haftorah on fast days, implores us to seek out Hashem and cultivate a more profound relationship with Him precisely when His Presence is near. While the gemara in Rosh Hashanah 18b interprets this as a reference to asseret yemei teshuvah, the midrash in Vayikra, as understood by Meiri (Hibbur ha-Teshuvah, p. 250), seems to characterize the entire month of Elul as "bihiyoto karov", an opportune time and propitious opportunity in which Hashem's presence is particularly accessible. It is on this basis that he reports the geonic view that one should say selihot every Monday and Thursday throughout the month. However, it is apparent from his formulation- "kedai she-yikanes le-Rosh Hashanah be-taharat ha-lev" - that Meiri apparently perceives the primary significance of Elul as a means of preparing for Rosh Hashanah in such a way as to ensure that one enters into Rosh Hashanah already in a state of purity with a clean slate so that he can better capitalize on the opportunities presented by that unique day. Thus, the exigency of teshuvah and tefilah during Elul constitutes nothing more than a lengthier preperation for the Yomim Noraim. From this perspective, there is no fundamental difference between the thirty-day period that precedes R. H. and those that introduce other chagim.

It is, however, conceivable that Elul represents "bihiyoto karov" in its own right, distinguishing it from other thirty-day preludes. Undoubtedly this would qualify it still further as the most effective vehicle through which to prepare for the Yomim Noraim. It would also accent that the din and kapparah generated by these transcendent days cannot take place in a vacuum, but constitute the culmination of a rigorous process of introspection and spiritual re-invention.

The Tur (no. 581) introduces the laws of R. H. by citing the Pirkei de- R. Eliezer's explanation of the origin of shofar on Rosh Hodesh and the month of Elul. It is reported that Moshe's ascension to the mountain to receive the second Luchot was marked by the blowing of the shofar, signifying the abandonment of idolatry which had doomed the first Luchot. We are informed that Hashem, Himself, was elevated by this shofar blast (based on Tehilim 47- "alah Elokim be-teruah, Hashem be-kol shofar"). The Tur proceeds to explain that the minhag to blow the shofar during the entire Elul in order to inspire teshuvah was based upon the verse in Amos (3:6), which establishes that the sound of the shofar has the capacity to inspire fear and awe. The Beit Yosef speculates why two distinct sources (the anniversary of Moshe's ascension and the verse in Amos) are required to ground the pracitice of shofar in Elul. A close reading of the text, however, may indicate that the Tur distinguishes between the shofar on Rosh Hashanah that commemorates Moshe's renewed mission and the verse in Amos that conveys the role of the shofar in inspiring teshuvah, serving as the foundation for the minhag during the entire month. [The Bach and Perishah seem to allude to this distinction, as well.] In light of this analysis, it is noteworthy that Hashem's remarkable reaction coincides with Moshe's ascension on Rosh Chodesh Elul. Indeed, the Bah argues that Hashem was twice elevated by means of Kelal Yisrael's initiative of tekiat shofar. He projects that while "alah Elokim be-teruah" refers to Hashem's response to the shofar of R. H., "Hashem be-kol shofar" occured on Rosh Chodesh Elul!

What emerges from these sources is that the events of Rosh Chodesh Elul are marked independently both with respect to Moshe's and Kelal Yisrael's initiative, as well as Hashem's reciprocal response! Moshe's Rosh Chodesh mission actually signified a renewed and changed relationship between Hashem and Kelal Yisrael. According to Chazal, the sin of the egel forever changed Jewish history and the nature of the relationship between Hashem and His people. Much evidence, including the pesukim that characterize the two sets of luchot, points to the fact that the renewed relationship would be one in which the nation would be required to invest more obvious effort and initiative and responsibility, and which would accent a more evidently reciprocal relationship, one in which man would also have greater input within prescribed limits. The explicit renunciation of idolatry and, symbolically, significant dimensions of their spiritual profile that characterized the pre-egel period, and Hashem's elevation by virtue of Kelal Yisrael's shofar initiative perhaps reflected the imminent change, capturing the essence of Moshe's renewed mission to reconstitute Yahadut. The momentous events of Rosh Chodesh Elul, then, constituting as they did a watershed in the reciprocal relationship between Hashem and Kelal Yisael, surely demand commemoration and generate anew yearly the obligation of contemplation and introspection.

Of course, Moshe's dramatic and ambitious mission, initiated on Rosh Chodesh Elul, encompassed that whole month and did not conclude until Yom Kippur. Notwithstanding the independent significance and theme of Rosh Chodesh Elul, the link to the yomim noraim is undeniable. Indeed, as alluded to previously, the themes represented by Rosh Chodesh Elul and by the yomim noraim are interconnected and mutually enhancing.

Consequently, one can and should relate to the entire month of Elul both as the aftermath and continuation of the Rosh Chodesh Elul initiative of old that produced the second and normative luchot, and as the necessary and conducive vehicle of preparation for the upcoming yomim noraim. Indeed, the reassessment of personal religious status generated by the anniversary of Moshe's mission to reinvent the relationship between Kelal Yisrael and Hashem establishes Elul as the ideal precursor to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

The Perishah speculates why shofar and not divrei hitorerut emerged as the visible symbol of Elul if preparation for the yomim noraim is the primary goal of this period. Perhaps, however, the motif of Rosh Chodesh Elul and the renewed reciprocal relationship that developed through the second luchot accounts for this phenomenon. It was precisely the dual impact and implication of that kol shofar on Rosh Hodesh that dramatically encapsulated this new spiritual foundation.

This idea can be highlighted by the fact that the Abudraham and others invoke "Ani Le-dodi Ve-dodi Li," the pasuk that particularly underscores the close and reciprocal relationship with Hashem, as an acronym that conveys the special role of Elul. It is precisely a reassessment of that intimate relationship in its broadest strokes, (alongside an evaluation of individual actions and transgressions,) which characterizes the unique agenda of this month. Elul, in all of its dimensions- independent, preparatory and integrated- truly affords the opportunity of "kerauhu bihiyoto karov".

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