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29 Av 5762 - August 7, 2002 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly









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Opinion & Comment
The Roar of the Lion: Understanding Elul

by Rabbi Daniel Yaakov Travis

Waking Up

The following story can only be understood in light of the fact that Rav Shach, zt"l, held that HaRav Chatzkel Levenstein, zt"l, was one of the most dedicated servants of Hashem in the past two hundred years.

HaRav Chatzkel Levenstein felt that Elul was a time to totally dedicate oneself to Divine service and as such was not a time to celebrate weddings. Once he was invited to a chasunah during Elul and because of the stature of the parties involved he was committed to attend. Although Divine furor burned inside of him, he was able to hide his anger from the other participants. However when he was called on to speak, he could no longer control his feelings and, at the top of his lungs, he screamed, "ELUL!" after which he left the hall.

Almost twenty years ago, I was sitting at a shmuess in yeshiva and heard the above story. There was a small attic above the beis medrash where the shmuess was being given. One of the talmidim made the unwise decision to skip this momentous shiur and instead to ascend up to that attic and catch up on his sleep. That bochur will never forget the day he woke up to the cry of "ELUL!" as the entire beis medrash reverberated at the awesome strength of the Mashgiach's powerful vocal chords.

"When the Aryeh roars who does not fear (Amos 3,8)." Our Sages tell us that the word Aryeh is an acronym for Elul, Rosh Hashanah , Yom Kippur and Hoshanah Rabba.

The months of Elul and Tishrei cry out to us like a lion to do teshuvoh. During these days each person must open his heart to let the message penetrate his soul. Perhaps he will be successful and wake himself up from the slumber to come back to his Father in Heaven (Eleph LeMogen 581:1).

The Sound of the Shofar

"Can a shofar be blown in a city and the people not tremble (Amos 6:3)?" The sound of the shofar beckons everyone to wake up. Its deep cry has the ability to enter our hearts and to arouse us to total repentance. Therefore our Sages instituted that the shofar be blown during Elul in the hope that this would jolt us from our deep sleep. In doing so we follow the precedent of Moshe Rabbenu who commanded that a shofar be sounded upon his return ascent to Har Sinai on Rosh Chodesh Elul, in order to stir the Jewish people to distance themselves from idol worship (Pirkei Derav Eliezer Ch. 46 as cited by Rosh, Rosh Hashanah 4:14).

All Elul we sound the shofar. Suddenly, right before Rosh Hashanah, we stop. The poskim explain that the reason for this is in order to confuse the Soton (Maharil). This can only be fully understood on the deepest metaphysical level, for surely the Soton is not dull-witted enough to be fooled every year by such a mechanism.

On a simpler level the poskim write that the reason for the pause is in order to differentiate between the shofar blowing in Elul which is only minhag, and that of Rosh Hashanah which is a Torah obligation (Levush). Some take this so far that they even forbid practicing to blow on erev Rosh Hashanah (Mogen Avrohom 581,7). However most poskim agree that one is allowed to do so in a closed room (Mishna Berurah 581:24).


Since Elul overflows with Heavenly compassion, our Sages saw this as an opportune time for an addition in tefilloh and decreed that Selichos be recited. Sephardim have the custom to say Selichos during the entire month of Elul. Ashkenazim have the minhag to start on a motzei Shabbos which is at least four days before Rosh Hashanah.

This practice can be understood in light of the halachah that a sacrifice needs at least four days of examination for blemishes, prior to offering it. On Rosh Hashanah we give ourselves over as a korbon to Hashem, and we require self-introspection beforehand (Elia Rabba 581:8).

When is the best time to say Selichos? Although the first half of the night is a time when strict Divine justice prevails, at chatzos (halachic midnight) this attribute begins to abate and it is considered to be a time of special auspiciousness to daven to Hashem (Zohar as cited by the Mogen Avrohom 1:4). So too during the last three hours of the night, Hashem's Presence roams through this world and prayer is readily accepted (Bach, Perisha, Levush ibid.).

Since all of Elul is a time of Divine mercy, if one is not able to say Selichos during these times, they may be said during any of the daylight hours (Eleph LeMogen 581:24). Although adjusting one's schedule is no easy task, the greatest effort should be made to say Selichos with a minyan, even if it means cutting back in other important areas. If one is unable to recite them with a minyan, the Selichos may be said by oneself, with the exception of the thirteen attributes of Hashem and the Aramaic phrases of the Selichos which may only be said together with a minyan.

The best candidate to lead Selichos is an older, G-d fearing talmid chochom, married with children (Shulchan Oruch 581:1). Although a baal teshuvoh is generally the first choice to lead prayers, when it comes to Selichos it is better to appoint someone whose parents are also righteous (Eleph LeMogen 581:52). The leader should be a man of stature and thus certain outer blemishes disqualify one. On the other hand, disabilities that are not noticeable actually make one a better choice, for in an figurative sense Hashem prefers to use "shattered vessels" than whole ones (ibid. 581:58). In any case it is better to select a younger talmid chochom than an older person who is not a ben Torah (Mishna Berurah 581:13).

A Time For Tehillim

Kabbalistic literature reveals that saying Tehillim protects a person, his household and the whole generation from all sorts of physical and spiritual maladies. Slow recitation of Dovid Hamelech's profound words can effect an outpouring of Hashem's blessing, and kindness. This recitation has a special protective power when it is done in a communal setting and Kaddish is recited after them (Eleph LeMogen 581:6).

Elul is a month of special Divine closeness, especially for those who take the first step to reestablishing their relationship. Our Sages found a hint to this in the very name of the month Elul, which also forms an acronym for: Ani leDodi veDodi li [I am to my Beloved (Hashem) and my Beloved is to me (Shir Hashirim 6:3 cited in Abudraham Tefillas Rosh Hashanah p. 280)]. Therefore the poskim advise that during the month of Elul one should add tefillos, and say ten chapters of Tehillim and Kaddish after Shacharis. This way one can complete Tehillim twice before Rosh Hashanah.

During Aseres Yemei Teshuvoh they recommend saying more than ten a day, in order to finish the book a third time by Yom Kippur (Mishna Berurah 581:3).

In conjunction with these additional Tehillim, from the second day of Rosh Chodesh Elul up until and including Shemini Atzeres, the minhag is to say the twenty- seventh chapter of Tehillim twice a day (Mishna Berurah 581:2). Although this chapter of Tehillim has special significance all year, its impact is especially powerful during these days of Divine mercy (Chida, Moreh Etzba 37). The opening verse of the tefilloh encapsulates the entirety of this period: Ori (My light), refers to Rosh Hashanah, and veyish'i (My salvation) refers to Yom Kippur (Medrash Shochar Tov 27).

Some say LeDovid after Shacharis and Ma'ariv, while others say it after Shacharis and Mincha. What if one finds himself in a minyan that contradicts his personal minhag?

HaRav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach zt"l ruled that for the sake of unity if one is in a minyan for Mincha that says LeDovid, he should also recite it, even though his minhag is to say it by Ma'ariv. The same applies if his minhag is to say LeDovid at Mincha, and he is at a Ma'ariv minyan that says it (Ishei Yisroel 55:6). Even those who are stringent not to learn Tanach at night, may nonetheless recite Tehillim with a minyan (Eshel Avrohom of Butchach 238:3).

A Month of Teshuvoh

When discussing the parsha of Ishoh yefas to'ar the Torah writes, "And she shall cry for her father and mother for thirty days (Devorim 21:13)." The baalei mussar relate these words to a verse in LeDovid Hashem Ori, "My father and mother abandoned me and Hashem gathered me up." In both instances the father and mother can be understood allegorically to refer to the artificial gratification that this world tempts us with. During this period we must try to dispose of these false "parents" that we adopted and return to our true Father in Heaven, Hashem yisborach (HaRav Chaim Zaitchyk zt"l).

Yet another hint to the month of Elul is found in the verse Umol Hashem Elokechoh es levovecho ve'es levav zar'echo [Hashem shall circumcise your heart and the heart of your children] (Devorim 30,6). Here the Torah offers us profound words of consolation. Even those who excel in their Divine service do not always have the ability to reach the hearts of their offspring. Elul carries with it the special siyata deShmaya to bring every one of the Jewish people back to their Creator, even if their parents were not able to do so.

In the merit of the avodoh of this unique month, may we and our children merit to have our hearts opened up so that we can serve Hashem with the untarnished soul that He breathed within us.

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