The Uniqueness of Elul in Prayer and Custom

  • Rav David Brofsky


In memory of Batya Furst z"l
Niftera 28 Elul 5765. 
Dedicated by her family.


the laws of THE FESTIVALS




In memory of Yissachar Dov Shmuel bar Yakov Yehuda Illoway

and Leah Ruth Illoway bat Natan Naso Jacobs




Shiur 1: The Uniqueness of Elul in Prayer and Custom

Rav David Brofsky





This week we are launching a new series of Halakha shiurim: "The Laws of the Festivals."  Over the next two years, I hope to study, in the following order, the laws of Rosh Ha-shana, Chanukka, Purim, the Fast Days, Yom Kippur, Pesach, Sefirat Ha-omer and Sukkot.  Similar to my previous series on kashrut and prayer (,,, I hope to offer both a broad overview and an in-depth analysis of many of the issues relevant to the above topics. 


This week we will discuss the Hebrew month of Elul — which precedes the month of Tishrei, in which Rosh Ha-shana, Yom Kippur and Sukkot occur — and study its halakhic aspects and philosophical uniqueness.



Elul - The Name Says It All


Rav Shlomo Ganzfried (Hungary, 1804-1886), in his well-known halakhic compendium, Kitzur Shulchan Arukh (Chapter 128), cites numerous explanations for the name of the sixth month of the Hebrew calendar, Elul.  For example, he cites Rabbi Yitzchak Luria (1534-1572), known as the Arizal, who explains that the four letters of the word "Elul" correspond to the initial letters of the words (Shemot 21:13), "inna le-yado, ve-samti lekha."  This is a part of a verse that refers to one who kills another person unintentionally and must seek shelter and protection in one of the cities of refuge (arei miklat): "And if a man does not lie in wait, but God causes it to come to hand; then I will appoint you a place where he may flee."


The Arizal explains that Elul is a propitious month to repent for sins committed throughout the year.  He adds that this remez (allusion) also indicates that one should repent especially for unintentional sins, as described by the verse.  He also cites the dorshei reshumot (see Sanhedrin 104b), those who interpret the law symbolically for the sake of edification and instruction, as asserting that the letters of "Elul" correspond to the  initial letters of "et levavekha ve-et levav," from the verse, "And God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your seed" (Devarim 30:6).  He adds that the letters of "Elul" may also match the initial letters of the phrase "Ani le-dodi, ve-dodi li," "I am my beloved's, and my beloved is mine" (Shir Ha-shirim 6:3).  Finally, he also suggests that the initial letters of the phrase "ish le-re'ehu u-mattanot la-evyonim," "each to his fellow and gifts to the poor" (Ester 9:22) may also allude to Elul.


Rav Ganzfried concludes that these last three interpretations highlight the three central themes of the High Holy Days, "repentance, prayer, and charity" (Yerushalmi, Ta'anit 2:1), which should be assiduously practiced during the month of Elul.  He apparently views the month of Elul as a period of preparation for the repentance of Rosh Ha-shana and Yom Kippur, and therefore we are to begin the arduous process of repentance a full month before these days. 


While this is certainly true, I would like to suggest a more precise description of the spiritual experience of Elul.  As we mentioned above, the Arizal draws a connection between the unintentional killer, who must flee to a city of refuge, and the month of Elul.  What is the experience of such a person, and how does it relate to Elul?


I would like to suggest that while the month of Elul certainly prepares us for the holidays of Tishrei, during which repentance and absolution are major — if not the primary — themes, the ESSENCE of Elul is "spiritual crisis," as reflected by the prayers and the shofar.  One who flees his victim's relatives, fearing retribution, to the exile of a city of refuge seeks protection, shelter and safety because of his transgression.  Similarly, one who sins seeks refuge with God, hoping and praying that his remorse and repentance will be accepted. 


As Rav Ganzfried notes, the last three verses point to one's behavior during Elul.  However, the Arizal captures the true experience of Elul: fleeing one's sins in fear and desperation, in search of Divine protection. 


Tekiat Shofar during Elul


One of the most well-known customs of the month of Elul is the blowing of the shofar.  Each morning, from the first day of Elul until the day before Rosh Ha-shana, congregations customarily blow the shofar, sounding the straight tekia, medium shevarim, and staccato terua, upon concluding the morning prayers.  What is the origin and meaning of this custom?


The ninth-century aggadic collection, Pirkei de-Rabbi Eli'ezer, connects this practice to the giving of the second set of Tablets (Luchot).  It relates that after destroying the first set of Tablets in response to the Sin of the Golden Calf, Moshe is summoned (see Devarim 10:1) to ascend Mount Sinai, for the third time, on Rosh Chodesh Elul, to receive the second Luchot, returning to the people forty days later, on Yom Kippur.     


Pirkei de-Rabbi Eli'ezer (Chapter 45) relates:


On Rosh Chodesh [Elul] the Holy One, Blessed be He, said to Moshe: "Ascend the mount to Me."  And they sounded the shofar in all the camp [to notify the people] that Moshe had ascended the mount, so that they should not stray again after idols.  And the Holy One, Blessed be He, ascended in that shofar, as it is written, (Tehillim 47:6) "God ascends in a terua."  Thus, the Sages established that the shofar should be sounded every Rosh Chodesh [Elul].


Indeed, based upon this midrash, Rav Avraham ben Natan Ha-yarchi (12th-13th century, Provence), in his Sefer Ha-manhig (Hilkhot Rosh Ha-shana 24), records that while the original enactment entails blowing the shofar yearly on Rosh Chodesh Elul, in France, they blow the shofar throughout the entire month.


The Tur (OC 581) cites this passage in Pirkei de-Rabbi Eli'ezer, and explains that we sound the shofar in order to urge the Jewish people to repent, and to "confuse the Adversary."  He even records that Ashkenazic communities blow the shofar each morning AND evening after their prayers.  The Rema (581) cites the practice of blowing the shofar each morning during Elul, and the Acharonim record different customs regarding whether one should begin from the first day of Rosh Chodesh Elul (the 30th of Av) or the second day (the 1st of Elul).  Our custom is to begin on the second day of Rosh Chodesh. 


Interestingly, the midrash never explains how the shofar prevents the nation from returning to their idolatrous ways.  Furthermore, the midrash also does not explain why the Sages enact that the shofar should be blown each Rosh Chodesh Elul.  Is it merely a "reminder" of the actions of Moshe?


We will, God willing, dedicate a future shiur to the nature of Rosh Ha-shana in general, and the shofar in particular; however, it is sufficient to note that blowing the shofar certainly signals crisis and engenders fear, as the prophet Amos (3:6) describes, "Shall a shofar be blown in the city, and the people not tremble?"  Moshe Rabbeinu apparently hoped that this sense of crisis and alarm would prevent the people from returning to idolatry, and in future situations it might lead the nation (Bamidbar 10:9) and individuals (Rambam, Hilkhot Teshuva 3:4) to repent.  It is this sense of crisis and distress which characterizes the month of Elul, as described by the prophet Tzefanya (1:15-16):


That day is a day of wrath, a day of trouble and distress, a day of waste and desolation, a day of darkness and gloominess, a day of clouds and thick darkness, a day of shofar and terua.


Regarding the specific sounds blown during Elul, Rav Yo'el Sirkis (1561-1640), also known as the Bach (an abbreviation of his commentary on the Tur, Bayit Chadash), discusses which notes to sound.  Is it sufficient to sound only the "tashrat" (tekia, shevarim-terua, tekia) series, or must one sound the two other types —  "tashat" (tekia, shevarim, tekia) and "tarat" (tekia, terua, tekia), so as not to create the misimpression that on Rosh Ha-shana one need not blow all three sets?  It is customary in most congregations to sound a simple tashrat after morning prayers. 




Another well-known custom of the month of Elul is to arise early in the morning to recite Selichot.  The Tur (OC 581) cites three customs regarding Selichot.  Rav Amram Gaon endorses the custom of the great Babylonian yeshivot to recite Selichot between Rosh Ha-shana and Yom Kippur.  Rav Hai Gaon records a custom to recite Selichot during the entire month of Elul.  Finally, the Tur concludes by noting the Ashkenazic custom to recite Selichot from the Saturday night before Rosh Ha-shana.


Today, Sephardic Jews recite Selichot each morning of the entire month of Elul (OC 581:1), continuing until Yom Kippur, while Ashkenazic Jews begin reciting Selichot on the Saturday night before Rosh Ha-shana, unless Rosh Ha-shana falls on a Monday or Tuesday, in which case they begin the previous Saturday night, in order to recite Selichot for at least four days before Rosh Ha-shana (see Mishna Berura, 581:6). 


The Selichot begin with Ashrei and end with Tachanun.  The middle is comprised of supplications, Viddui (Confession), and the recitation of the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy.  Before we discuss the specifics of this prayer, including its specific components and proper time, we should ask the following question: what is the nature of this unique prayer, and why is it so fitting for the month of Elul?


Generally, one may speak of two types of prayer.  The Rishonim debate whether there exists a daily obligation to commune with God.  The Rambam (Hilkhot Tefilla 1:1) rules that one is commanded to pray each and every day.  The Ramban (Sefer Ha-mitzvot, Positive #5) and Rashi (Berakhot 20b, s.v. Ve-chayyavin) disagree.  I discussed this debate in a previous shiur (  The Ramban, however, adds that while daily prayer may be of rabbinic origin, another type of prayer may be biblically mandated. 


[This derivation] may be… instructing us that included in the service [of God] is that we must… pray to Him in times of crisis.  Our eyes and hearts should turn towards Him alone, like the eyes of slaves to their masters.  This is similar to what the Torah writes (Bamidbar 10:9), "And when you go to war in your land against the adversary that oppresses you, then you shall sound a terua with the trumpets; and you shall be remembered before Lord your God, and you shall be saved from your enemies…"  It is a mitzva to respond to every crisis which the community faces by crying out to Him in prayer.


According to the Ramban, there is a biblical obligation to respond to crisis with prayer.  In fact, the Rambam (Hilkhot Ta'aniyyot 1:1-3) seems to concur, as he writes:


There is a positive commandment to cry and call out with the trumpets upon every crisis which confronts the community…  This is the way of repentance, that during a crisis they should cry and call out; they should know that their condition is a function of their bad behavior…  This is what will allow them to avert the crisis.  This is the way of repentance, that when a crisis comes, [the nation] should cry and call out, and all should realize that because of their deeds, their situation has worsened.


What type of prayer is the Selichot service?  On the one hand, it begins with Ashrei and concludes with the Tachanun, giving the appearance of a standard, normal service.  However, the content, as Rav Soloveitchik ("Redemption, Prayer and Talmud Torah," Tradition 17:2, pp. 67-68) notes, differs.  He contrasts tefilla (prayer) with tze'aka (crying out) and explains:


In halakhic liturgy, prayer at the stage of "tze'aka" is called "Selichot."  There are four distinctive characteristics of "Selichot":


1.    recital of the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy;

2.    confession;

3.    repetition of short sentences, distinguished by simplicity of form;

4.    reading of prophetic verses of petition or praise.


The main distinction between "tefilla" (represented by the Shemoneh Esreh) and "tze'aka" (as represented by "Selichot") consists in the absence of strict formulation in the case of "Selichot"…  While "tefilla" is a meditative-reflective act, "tze'aka" is immediate and compulsive.


Rav Soloveitchik points to the lack of order or articulation in the Selichot.  The Selichot can be summed up by one of the concluding supplications, "Anenu Hashem anenu!" ("Answer us, God, answer us!"). 


Selichot, Rav Soloveitchik explains, are almost hysterical prayers in crisis, in response to the spiritual uncertainty and fear brought about by the approaching High Holy Days.  Again, Selichot capture and characterize the essence of the month of Elul, and how fortunate are the Sephardic Jews who recite Selichot each morning of the month!


The Thirteen Attributes of Mercy


The Torah, in two places, refers to God's attributes of mercy, which are employed as supplications to assuage God's anger.  In Shemot (34:6-10), after the Sin of the Golden Calf, God Himself reveals these attributes, as He forges a 'new' covenant with the Jewish people.


Then God passed by in front of him and proclaimed, "Lord, Lord, God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth; Who keeps lovingkindness for thousands, Who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin; yet He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished, visiting the iniquity of fathers on the children and on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations."  Moshe made haste to bow low toward the earth and prostrate.  He said, "If now I have found favor in Your sight, God, I pray, let God go along in our midst, even though the people are so obstinate, and pardon our iniquity and our sin, and take us as Your own possession." Then God said, "Behold, I am making a covenant. Before all your people I will perform miracles which have not been produced in all the earth, nor among any of the nations; and all the people among whom you live will see the working of God, for it is an awesome thing that I am going to perform with you."


In addition, in the wake of the Sin of the Spies, after God threatens to destroy the Jewish people and to make a nation from Moshe (Bamidbar 14:12), he pleads and concludes (vv. 17-19):


"But now, I pray, let God's power be great, just as You have declared, 'Lord is slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, forgiving iniquity and transgression; but He will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generations.' Pardon, I pray, the iniquity of this people according to the greatness of Your lovingkindness, just as You have forgiven this people, from Egypt even until now."


Indeed, the Talmud (Rosh Ha-shana 17a) elaborates upon the events described above.


"Then God passed by in front of him and proclaimed" – Rabbi Yochanan said: "Were it not written in the text, it would be impossible for us to say such a thing: this verse teaches us that God enwrapped Himself like the prayer-leader and showed Moshe the order of prayer. He said to him: 'Whenever Israel sin, let them perform this service before Me, and I will forgive them…'"


Rav Yehuda said: "There is a covenant made concerning the Thirteen Attributes, that they never return empty-handed, as it is written, 'Behold, I am making a covenant.'"


This passage implies that whenever the Jewish people sin — or, according to other sources (see Eliyyahu Zuta 23), whenever the Jewish people are in crisis — they are instructed to recite the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy, and they will be redeemed.


Interestingly, the Ein Yosef (Rosh Ha-shana 17a; see also Alshikh al Ha-Torah, Parashat Shelach Lekha) cites Rabbi Moshe Alshikh (1508-1593, Tzefat), who questions: how many have recited the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy without witnessing results!  He explains, in the name of the author of Livnat Ha-sappir:


For this very reason, it does not say: RECITE this service, but rather: "PERFORM this service" – implying that [forgiveness] is not dependent upon speech alone, but rather upon performance…  If you emulate these attributes, they will not return empty-handed.


Indeed, Rabbi Moshe Cordovero (16th-century Tzefat) bases his entire work, Tomer Devora, a book of ethical teaching, on the Thirteen Attributes and how to emulate them. 


In other words, the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy, according to the Alshikh, are not a magical formula for attaining forgiveness, but rather a spiritual and ethical program which should make a person worthy of forgiveness.


Selichot without a Minyan


Rav Amram Gaon (Seder Rav Amram 2:59) cites Rav Natan, who records that it is customary for an individual praying without a minyan to omit the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy.  The Rashba (Responsa 1:211) concurs, explaining that the Thirteen Attributes are considered a davar she-bi-kedusha (matter of holiness), similar to Kaddish and Kedusha, which are only recited with a minyan.


In Beit Yosef (OC 565), the author of the Shulchan Arukh cites Rabbeinu Yona, who disagrees.  Indeed, the Tur also questions why reciting the Thirteen Attributes should be any different than "studying the Torah;" one should be permitted to recite them even when praying alone.  The Shulchan Arukh (565) rules that one praying alone should NOT recite the Thirteen Attributes, yet adds that one may recite them "as if he were merely reading" (derekh keria be-alma).  Indeed, Rav Moshe Feinstein (Iggerot Moshe, YD 3:21) notes that one praying alone should recite the entire verse (until "ve-al ribbe'im") and avoid chanting the verse to the tune of supplicatory prayers, but rather to a tune of reading.  Some (Kaf Ha-chayyim, 131:23) cite the Arizal's opinion, that one should totally omit the passage of the Thirteen Attributes when praying alone.


The Rema adds that "an individual should not recite Selichot or 'Va-ya'avor' (the verse preceding the Thirteen Attributes)."  The Taz (565:5) questions why the Rema would prohibit reciting Selichot: "Is it prohibited for an individual to say the supplications he wishes?"  He concludes that one should rather refrain from reciting prayers which even mention the Thirteen Attributes; however, prayers which do not mention the Attributes may be said even privately.  The Matteh Efrayim (581:21) and Rav Ganzfried (Kitzur Shulchan Arukh 128:9) concur.


However, the Bach and the Mishna Berura (13) disagree and insist that all of the supplications may be recited.  However, one should omit the Thirteen Attributes themselves, beginning from "Va-ya'avor," as mentioned above. 


Regarding the Aramaic supplications which appear towards the end of the Selichot service, such as "Machei U-massei" and "Maran De-vishmayya," the Mishna Berura (581:4) writes that one should refrain from reciting them without a minyan.  This is based upon the Gemara (Sota 33a), which notes that while we have learnt that one may recite prayers (such as Shemoneh Esreh) in the vernacular,


Rav Yehuda has said: "A man should never pray for his needs in Aramaic."  For Rabbi Yochanan declared: "If anyone prays for his needs in Aramaic, the ministering angels do not pay attention to him, because they do not understand that language!"  There is no contradiction, one referring to [the prayer] of an individual and the other to that of a congregation.


The Rishonim offer different interpretations of this gemara, as we discussed in a previous shiur (  The Shulchan Arukh (101:4) actually cites all three opinions.  He quotes the Rif, who prohibits using the vernacular in private prayer.  He then cites "the French rabbis," who distinguish between formal prayers said by the community and personal supplications.  Finally, he brings the Rosh, who allows prayers in any language other than Aramaic to be recited privately.  The Mishna Berura (101:19) rules that one should not recite Aramaic texts, such as "Yekum Purkan," when praying privately.  Similarly, here, the Mishna Berura rules that one should not recite the Aramaic passages of Selichot when praying alone. 


There is one more passage from Selichot which has caused great controversy of the centuries.  Rav Yehuda ben Betzalel Loew (1525–1609), the Maharal, in his Netivot Olam (Netiv Avoda 12), writes that one should not recite the passage "Makhnisei Rachamim," in which we beseech the angels to carry our prayers to God.  The Maharal insists that one must not employ intermediaries when praying to God, and therefore this prayer is inappropriate. 


The Chatam Sofer (Responsa, OC 166) writes that according to the Maharal, one should refrain from reciting that the liturgical poems "Malakhei Rachamim" and "Shelosh Esreh Middot" as well, as they also address the angels.  He concludes that while his congregation includes them, he says a lengthy Tachanun in order to avoid reciting "Makhnisei Rachamim." 


Interestingly, Rav Tzidkiyya ben Avraham Ha-rofeh (1210-1275, Italy), known by his work Shibbolei Ha-leket, raises this question centuries before the Maharal.  He cites Rav Avigdor Kohen-Tzedek, who brings Talmudic passages which support his assertion that one may directly address angels and request that they pray or argue on one’s behalf. 


The Proper Time for Selichot


Another question which raises great controversy is the proper time for Selichot.  The Shulchan Arukh (581:1) writes that "it is customary to rise early in the last three hours of the night (see Avoda Zara 3b) to recite Selichot." 


Ashkenazic Jews, who begin reciting Selichot the week of Rosh Ha-shana, usually recite the first Selichot on Saturday night after midnight.  This custom appears in Leket Yosher, a 15th-century work authored by Rav Yosef ben Moshe, student of the Terumat Ha-deshen, and the Acharonim have offered different explanations for this practice. 


In recent generations, it has become popular to recite Selichot nightly after midnight.  Some suggest that the only inappropriate time to recite Selichot is before midnight (see Magen Avraham, 565:6).  Rav Moshe Feinstein (OC 2:105) discusses and sanctions this practice. 


The Sha'arei Teshuva (581:1), citing the Birkei Yosef, records that there are those who recite Selichot before midnight.  He writes that one who finds himself in such a congregation should "not recite the Thirteen Attributes… [but rather] sit silently or say Psalms; but one may recite Viddui."


Similarly, the Magen Avraham (565:6) cites the Arizal, who strongly censures those who recite Selichot before midnight.  Rav Ovadya Yosef (Yechavveh Da'at 1:46) also strongly criticizes reciting Selichot before midnight, based upon kabbalistic sources. 


Rav Moshe Feinstein (OC 2:105) discusses this question.  He notes that the primary objection raised by the Posekim seems to be kabbalistic, not halakhic.  He suggests that while the recitation of the Thirteen Attributes might be "less effective" before midnight, it certainly should not be worse than any other prayer.  Incidentally, kabbalistic sources seem to view reciting the Thirteen Attributes before midnight as a particularly negative, if not damaging, act. 


He concludes that a congregation which might not otherwise recite Selichot or participate in activities aimed at inspiring repentance may, as a hora'at sha'a (temporary measure), recite Selichot before midnight.  He adds that it may be preferable to recite Selichot between the second and third evening watch, around 10:15–10:20 PM.  Rav Ovadya Yosef (above) disagrees, and suggests that it might even be preferable to recite them before Mincha the next day!


It is noteworthy, however, that the Gerrer and Talner Chasidim recite Selichot after Ma'ariv, BEFORE midnight.  Similarly, Rav Soloveitchik reportedly participated regularly in the early Selichot minyan of his son-in-law (Rav Dr. Yitzchak Twersky, the Talner Rebbe) in Boston, as well as the early Selichot minyan in Yeshiva University.  (See Rav Hershel Shachter's position in Nefesh Ha-Rav.)



Le-David Hashem Ori


The Kitzur Shulchan Arukh (128) records:


It is also customary in these lands to recite each morning and evening, from the second day of Rosh Chodesh Elul until Shemini Atzeret, the Psalm (27) "Le-David Hashem ori ve-yishi," in accordance with the midrash which derives, "'God is my light (Hashem ori)' - on Rosh Ha-shana; 'And my salvation (ve-yishi)' - on Yom Kippur;" "and He hides me in His shelter (be-sukko)" (v. 5) – which is a hint to Sukkot.


Incidentally, the original midrash (Midrash Tehillim 27:4) does not include the reference to Sukkot. 


While the midrash clearly finds reference to the High Holy Days in this psalm, is the relationship between this psalm and the High Holy Days merely incidental?  We might suggest a deeper interpretation of the Midrash and of the custom to recite "Le-David" during Elul. 


The first verse, expounded upon by the midrash, is followed by this passage (vv. 2-4):


When evil-doers came upon me to eat up my flesh, my adversaries and my foes, they stumbled and fell.  Though a host may encamp against me, my heart shall not fear; though war may rise up against me, even then will I be confident.  One thing have I asked of God, this will I seek: that I may dwell in the house of God all the days of my life, to behold the graciousness of God, and to come early to His temple.


The entire psalm describes King David's response to crisis, and his attempt to deepen his connection with God and seek His shelter and protection.  As we described above, this is certainly the theme of Elul, as reflected by its name, the blowing of the shofar, the Selichot, and finally, the custom to recite this beautiful psalm each day. 


In conclusion, while we have focused upon the sense of crisis and despair, there is another aspect of Elul which deserves mention. 


Rav Schneur Zalman of Liadi (1745-1812), the founder and first rebbe of the Chabad branch of Chasidim, known also as the "Alter Rebbe" and the "Baal Ha-Tanya", in his Likkutei Torah (Parashat Re'eh, pg. 32), discusses the uniqueness of the month of Elul.  He explains that unlike Shabbat and the Festivals, Elul is a month when "ha-Melekh ba-sadeh,"  "the King is in the field," and even the simplest person, in the simplest clothing, can approach and become close to the King.   


Despite, or parallel to, our spiritual fears and anxieties, the days of Elul, similar to the days between Rosh Ha-shana and Yom Kippur, are days of Divine immanence and proximity, and it behooves us to take advantage of this opportunity. 


Next week, we will dedicate our shiur towards attaining a deeper understanding of the enigmatic nature and experience of Rosh Ha-shana.