By Rabbi Victor Appell
Congregational Marketing Director for the Union for Reform Judaism (USA).
During the year I spent studying in Jerusalem as a rabbinic student, it was impossible to escape the upcoming High Holy Days. Even if one were not at all observant, each day of Elul, the month preceding the Days of Awe, brought an auditory reminder. During Elul, at daily morning services the shofar is blown. While this tradition reminds us that the shofar will be blown on Rosh Hashanah, it also is a wakeup call of sorts. We are reminded of the upcoming Days of Awe and urged to begin preparing for them.
Our liturgy, too, offers us reminders and opportunities for reflection. Beginning on the Shabbat following Tishah B’Av, we read the first of the seven Haftarot of Consolation. These sections, taken from Isaiah, announce Israel’s redemption and take us from the low point of the destruction of the Temple and exile, to the high points of redemption and the hope inherent in a new year.
In our daily liturgy, during Elul, which this year begins on August 19, Psalm 27 is added to the morning and evening liturgy. Beginning with the words, “Adonai is my light and my help; whom should I fear?” this psalm beseeches God to protect us from our enemies and urges us to put our faith in God.
The month of Elul offers a variety of ways to prepare for the High Holy Days. During the month, we might take some time for study. Beginning in the 16th century, Jews began to prepare for the High Holy Days by studying a midrashic text, Maaseh Avraham Avinu. Exploring the early life of Abraham, this midrash reflects on the themes of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. A Faithful Heart by Rabbi Benjamin Levy offers a translation and commentary on this text that takes the reader on a journey of spiritual preparation.
The Days of Awe can be made more meaningful for our children if we take time during Elul to have them help us prepare the house. Children love to help, and polishing silver or setting the table are great ways to involve them in the holiday preparations. For the budding chef, assisting with the cooking of holiday foods is a great family activity. Reading stories with younger children is a wonderful way to help them get excited about the holy days. Many Jewish authors of children’s books have written stories for the High Holy Days. Sophie and the Shofar, for example,is a delightful tale about a dog named Farfel and a shofar that has gone missing.
For those who love to cook, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur offer a time to make family favorites and try new recipes. Spending Elul thinking about holiday recipes is a wonderful way to prepare for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, when we will often be hosting friends and family. Time and again, our fondest memories of Jewish holidays center on family gatherings and delicious meals. In her book, Entrée to Judaism, Tina Wasserman offers not only an international array of recipes for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, but also a fascinating look at the traditions behind many of the foods we eat.
It has become customary for many Jews to visit the graves of dear friends and relatives in the days prior to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. We recall our loved ones in the Yizkor liturgy on Yom Kippur and visiting their graves often provides us with the opportunity to reflect on their lives and to feel a sense of closeness.
The month of Elul culminates with Selichot, when we gather in our congregations to recite prayers of penitence. This moving service, often held in the hours before midnight, urges us to reflect on the year that is ending. With strains of the High Holy Day melodies as a backdrop, we utter our first confession of the season, as well as Sh’ma Koleynu, asking God to hear our voices.