Rosh Hodesh Elul Torah Essay

It’s time to face the music, specifically the Shofar, says Aviva Dworkin, who wrote this month's essay and teaches Torah courses at various seminaries in Jerusalem. Aviva received a BA from Queens College and MA in Jewish Education from Hebrew U.

Matan Women's Institute for Torah Studies, | updated: 18:08

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The Edythe Benjamin חיה בת שלמה, beloved mother of Barbara Hanus, Rosh Hodesh ElulTorah Essay

The Jewish month of Elul, starts with the minhag, primarily amongst Ashkenazim, to blow the Shofar. I would like to examine this minhag and provide some insights to uplift our experience.

Let us start by reviewing the other times we are commanded to blow the Shofar. These include: Rosh HaShana, Yovel, preparation for war, fast days, and Matan Torah. A few focused questions will help lead us to a common motif of the Shofar. 

What do all these events have in common? What does blowing the Shofar contribute to these events? And what is the connection between these events and the month of Elul?

Looking more deeply, one notices that all these events are times that the Jewish nation unites and comes together.

Rosh HaShana, as we know, is the beginning of the new year. It is a time to reflect and repent. As the Rambam writes, “Even though blowing the shofar on Rosh HaShanah is a written obligation [without a reason being given], there is a hint of a reason. It is as though [the shofar] says ‘Wake up sleepers from your slumber, look at your ways and repent and remember your Creator’” (Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Teshuvah 3:4).

However, Rosh HaShana is also a collective holiday during which we stand together and anoint G-d as King over us and the world. As the Mishna describes, “On Rosh HaShanah the entire world comes before Him like a herd” (Rosh HaShanah 1:2). The tefillot said during Rosh HaShanah support this idea. The language of the tefillot is in plural, because we are a flock being counted by our Shepherd; we are one nation under G-d.

Similarly, at the start of the Yovel, the Jubilee year, in which the Jewish people would celebrate a yearlong “Sabbath,” after 7 Shemitah cycles, we blow the Shofar.

:ויקרא כ״ה

ח) וְסָפַרְתָּ לְךָ שֶׁבַע שַׁבְּתֹת שָׁנִים שֶׁבַע שָׁנִים שֶׁבַע פְּעָמִים וְהָיוּ לְךָ יְמֵי שֶׁבַע שַׁבְּתֹת הַשָּׁנִים תֵּשַׁע וְאַרְבָּעִים שָׁנָה.

ט) וְהַעֲבַרְתָּ שׁוֹפַר תְּרוּעָה בַּחֹדֶשׁ הַשְּׁבִעִי בֶּעָשׂוֹר לַחֹדֶשׁ בְּיוֹם הַכִּפֻּרִים תַּעֲבִירוּ שׁוֹפָר בְּכׇל אַרְצְכֶם.

י) וְקִדַּשְׁתֶּם אֵת שְׁנַת הַחֲמִשִּׁים שָׁנָה וּקְרָאתֶם דְּרוֹר בָּאָרֶץ לְכׇל יֹשְׁבֶיהָ יוֹבֵל הִוא תִּהְיֶה לָכֶם וְשַׁבְתֶּם אִישׁ אֶל אֲחֻזָּתוֹ וְאִישׁ אֶל מִשְׁפַּחְתּוֹ תָּשֻׁבוּ.

8) “‘You shall count off seven Sabbaths of years, seven times seven years; and there shall be to you the days of seven Sabbaths of years, even forty-nine years.

(9) Then you shall sound the loud trumpet on the tenth day of the seventh month. On the Day of Atonement you shall sound the trumpet throughout all your land.

(10) You shall make the fiftieth year holy, and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee to you; and each of you shall return to his own property, and each of you shall return to his family.”

Once again, the Shofar is blown and there is a connection to atonement and repentance. However, there is also a commandment to let all slaves and servants go free during this time. They must “return” to their families and homes. “Shuv” in Hebrew is both the root of the word for “return” as well as of the word for “repentance”. We are returning to G-d, our original Master during this holiday. Also, land is returned to its original owner, which restores equality to the people and, thereby, unites them (economically and socially) once again. Slaves are now on par with the rest of the Jewish people and, therefore, equally part of the Jewish nation.

Furthermore, throughout the whole of Tanakh, one can see that the blowing of the Shofar was an integral part of preparation for war.[1] It was a siren that would call all able-bodied men to war. War is a crucial time when the nation needs to stand together to overcome their enemy. Unity is an integral part of fighting any battle.

The Mishnah of Rosh HaShanah also describes the Shofars that were used during public fast days (ראש השנה ג:ד׳). Generally speaking, fast days were allotted during times of trouble, such as droughts. They were instituted in order to encourage us to reflect on our behavior and repent.[2] The blowing of the Shofar, here, is similar to an alarm, waking us to do Teshuva. Thus, once again, it is the blowing of the Shofar that arouses fear of G-d, and leads one to repentance (Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 128:2).

However, just like we stand in front of G-d during Rosh HaShanah as a collective tzibur, so too, during fast-days, we stand collectively asking G-d for forgiveness and to look upon His nation as a whole with favor. We combine our good deeds with those of our fellow Jews and stand before G-d proclaiming His greatness and kindness to His people, as a whole. We are one unit, and, therefore, we beseech G-d all together. As Rav Kook beautifully wrote, “The preparation for collective repentance is the voice of the shofar, that gathers together the entire camp.”

Another time in our history where we stood together and a Shofar was blown was at Matan Torah (Exodus 19:19). As Rashi explains on the Pasuk

שמות י״ט:ב:

וַיִּסְעוּ מֵרְפִידִים וַיָּבֹאוּ מִדְבַּר סִינַי וַיַּחֲנוּ בַּמִּדְבָּר וַיִּחַן שָׁם יִשְׂרָאֵל נֶגֶד הָהָר

When they had departed from Rephidim, and had come to the wilderness of Sinai, they encamped in the wilderness; and there Israel encamped before the mountain.

They encamped as one man with one heart. Rashi picks up on the singular form used to describe all of Klal Yisrael and notes that they were united in their acceptance of the Torah.  It was at this point that Bnei Yisrael joined together collectively, even before the Shofar was sounded. Bnei Yisrael had already united themselves; the Shofar blowing reinforced the unity and added to the experience.

This event actually has a strong connection to the minhag we practice today of blowing the Shofar for the whole of Chodesh Elul. The Midrash explains that the shofar was blown when Moshe ascended the mountain to receive the second set of Tablets in order to let all the people know the day Moshe ascended, and, thereby, prevent any misunderstandings and cause for sins such as the Golden Calf. In order to commemorate this event, according to Rav Nechmeia Dubravna, the Sages instituted the blowing every year during Rosh Chodesh Elul. [3]

The Tur writes that we blow the Shofar during the month of Elul in order to start doing Teshuva, repentance. This explanation follows accordingly with the other contexts we have examined in which Shofar is blown. During Rosh HaShanah and public fast-days, we take the time to introspect and right the wrongs we have committed thus far. Therefore, we blow the Shofar now, in Chodesh Elul, to get a head start. We start to “wake-up” now, to prepare ourselves for Rosh HaShanah, before it is too late.

Another idea as to why we blow the Shofar at this time is that it is a call for unity. Coming together is an integral element before Rosh HaShanah and any other major occasion, as we have seen with preparation for war and Matan Torah.

We are told that the idea to use a Shofar, a ram’s horn specifically, is from the event of Akeidat Yitzchak, the Binding of Issac. It was at this time that Abraham noticed a ram in the bushes and sacrificed it to G-d, in place of Isaac. By blowing a ram’s horn we call G-d to remember Abraham’s tremendous selflessness and passionate service of G-d. It was also during this event that the Torah describes both Isaac and Abraham as equally willing to participate in this daunting task. Isaac and his father, Abraham are described as walking together,

“בראשית כ״ב: ו: “וַיֵּלְכוּ שְׁנֵיהֶם יַחְדָּו. It is this unity in serving G-d that we need to remember and to implement as well.

The Shofar is significant in that it both calls us to introspect and repent individually, and also gathers us together collectively in the service of Hashem. This may be why it is the instrument used for the in-gathering of the exiles, as described in Isaiah 27:13, in order to unite the Jewish people once more for the coming of the Mashiach.[4] And this may be the deeper message of the minhag to blow Shofar throughout the month of Elul. When we hear the Shofar, we should wake-up, as the Rambam writes, and repent, but we should also bind ourselves together and unite with our fellow Jews. Unifying ourselves is the perfect preparation for the High Holidays.

Sources:

[1] Judges 3:27, 6:34, II Samuel 20:1, Jer. 4:19, 51:27, Neh. 4:20, Amos 3:6

[2] See Isaiah 58:1-7 where G-d describes what the people are doing wrong in terms of their fast days. Here, He describes what a true fast day should look like: “(6) No, this is the fast I desire: To unlock fetters of wickedness, And untie the cords of the yoke To let the oppressed go free; To break off every yoke. (7) It is to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home; When you see the naked, to clothe him, And not to ignore your own kin.”

Many of what is described is commanded of the people during the Jubilee year. There is an emphasis both on fast days and during the Jubilee year to take care of our fellow Jewish brethren.

[3] The earliest source for this is Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer (46), where the custom is mentioned only regarding the first of Elul.

The Levush, Shalah, Mateh Moshe, Maharil and other Poskim rule that one is to begin blowing from the first day of Rosh Chodesh Elul, as that day is when Moshe ascended the mountain and begins the count of 40 days before Yom Kippur. Therefore, they hold the reason for blowing Shofar is in preparation for Yom Kippur.

Others, however, begin blowing from the 2nd day of Rosh Chodesh, as they hold that the entire concern of blowing Shofar in Elul is that there be exactly 30 days of blowing Shofar, in living with the verse “Blow Shofar [for a] month”- Levushei Serud

[4]  The Shofar will also be blown in the time of Mashiach, in order to alert everyone to Mashiach’s arrival (Zechariah 9:14, 16)





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