Since there is so much at stake spiritually during Rosh Hashanah, we make preparations starting a full month in advance. At Rosh Chodesh Elul, or at the beginning of the new month of Elul, we begin to move with anticipation for this day of spiritual renewal. We establish our spiritual arrangements by preparing our minds for prayer and our hearts for forgiveness and doing all we can to gain God’s compassion and mercy when the Day of Judgment comes.
Blow the Shofar before Rosh Hashanah
The most prominent feature of the month of Elul is the sound of the shofar every morning, except on Shabbat. Three main reasons are given for this practice. The first is to confuse Satan about the date of Rosh Hashanah, so that he cannot influence God’s judgment of people with his accusations against them.
The second relates to a rabbinic legend, according to which the ascent of Moses to receive the second tablets on the first of Elul was accompanied by explosions of the shofar. Therefore, the shofar reminds us of the story of the golden calf and that we must always be aware of our potential to sin.
The third has as its source the famous phrase heard in many marriages from the Song of Songs (6: 3) “Ani l’dodi v’dodi li”, which means “I am my beloved and my beloved is mine”. The first letters (aleph, lamed, vav, lamed) of each Hebrew word form an acrostic for the word Elul. From this suggestion, we deduce that the period from the beginning of Elul to Yom Kippur (for a total of 40 days) is a ripe time to become loved by God. The shofar warns us of that love affair.
Recite Selichot, or penitential prayers
Another important practice during Elul is the recitation of Selichot, which are penitential prayers and poems added to the daily morning prayers. This custom is based on a legend that portrays King David concerned about how the Israelites will be able to truly atone for their transgressions. God responds by advising him that people should confess their sins by saying poems and prayers of penance.
Sephardi Jews (Jews from Spain, Portugal, the Mediterranean basin, North Africa, the Middle East and their descendants) recite Selichot for the entire month of Elul until Yom Kippur (except Shabbat), every morning soon. That 40-day period parallels the period that Moses spent on Mount Sinai.
However, Ashkenazi Jews (Central European Jews and their descendants) follow a different tradition. They begin to say Selichot closer to the start of the holiday. Depending on the calendar scheme, the Selichot recitation begins immediately after the Shabbat preceding Rosh Hashanah or exactly one week before. (Since a minimum of four days is required to say Selichot, if Rosh Hashanah begins on a Tuesday or Wednesday, Selichot’s saying must be anticipated.)
The part of the Ashkenazi tradition that requires a minimum of four days of Selichot is based on the laws of sacrifices during biblical times. The laws required isolating the perfect sacrificial animal from contact with other animals for four days to preserve it from imperfections. Consequently, we say Selichot for at least four days to symbolically offer ourselves as a sacrifice. We meticulously engage in prayer and self-examination to get rid of any spiritual contamination that could impede our pure engagement with God on the Day of Judgment.
However, the preferred time for the first performance in Ashkenazi tradition is Saturday night, Motzei Shabbat (the “going out” of the Sabbath), rather than Sunday morning. Evening is the actual start of the Jewish day and we honor a tradition by starting as early as possible. In this case, however, the Ashkenazis wait until midnight to say the first Selihot out of the desire to prolong the beauty of Shabbat until the last minute.
A 19th-century Russian rabbi, Yechiel Michel Ha-Levi Epstein, compiler of the Arukh Ha-Shulhan, offers a beautiful reason for the Ashkenazi tradition of Motzei Shabbat, a reason why it is based on the order of Creation. Human beings were created on the sixth day, or erev Shabbat (the day before Shabbat). The first full day of life for humans was Shabbat, a time when things stand still. It is therefore fitting that when Shabbat goes away on Saturday night, human beings express one of their main purposes in life, which is to offer Selichot, passionate pleas of devotion to the Master of the Universe.
Customs for the first night of Rosh Hashanah
The day before Rosh Hashanah also has a special meaning and has its own special customs. In preparation for this sacred festival, the Selichots are more extended and the shofar is not played.
In addition, the cover of the reading table, the parochet (curtain that covers the scrolls of the Torah) and the cover of the Torah itself are often changed to white, to represent the reasons for purity and atonement. Other customs include visiting the graves of relatives and loved ones, contributing something meaningful to charitable causes, and sending greeting cards.
Hatarat Nedarim, The annulment of personal vows
In erev Rosh Hashanah, some people choose to perform a ritual of spiritual introspection and mediation called hatarat nedarim, the annulment of vows. The ritual only covers vows made to oneself or to God, not vows made to another person.
In hatarat nedarim an individual asks to be released from vows that may have been made in a hot time, but were not truly of the heart, and from random statements that may have been worded as vows, but were not intended as such. This ritual is part of Judaism’s system of giving people a second chance; but of course not all votes can or will be annulled.
In this case, one person who wishes to be freed from vows finds three other people who also wish to be freed from vows. One of these people makes a statement in the presence of the other three, who act as beit din (literally, “house of judgment”) – a legal court under Jewish law. After the first person has been acquitted of these vows by the others, another takes turns asking for absolution while the remaining three serve as beit din, and so on with the group.
Regardless of whether or not you use the traditional formula found in some prayer books, it is important to practice hatarat nedarim with people who can be open and honest, as well as caring, in their answers.
Reprinted with permission from Celebrating the Jewish Year (Jewish Publication Society).