by Alan Lucas
Excerpted from The Observant Life
Every great experience requires preparation, and the High Holy Days are no exception. Indeed, the preparations for the yamim nora’im begin a full month in advance with the onset of the month of Elul. In a certain sense, the High Holy Day period could be said to begin as early as the first day of Elul and only to end with Yom Kippur. This creates a period of approximately forty days during which the dominant theme is repentance (Some, however, understand the High Holy Day period to extend until Hoshana Rabbah, the seventh day of Sukkot and the final one of its intermediate days).
The number forty resonates in Jewish tradition on many levels; it is the number of years the Israelites wandered in the wilderness before reaching the Promised Land and the number of days that Moses dwelt in the presence of God while receiving the Torah on Mount Sinai. Similarly, Elul initiates a very special period of introspection and self-analysis when every Jew is challenged to reenact the journey from exile to redemption on a personal level and to strive to experience the presence of God in a way that echoes Moses’ communion with God during his time atop the mountain.
The shofar is sounded at the end of every weekday morning service beginning with the first day of Elul and ending the morning before Erev Rosh Hashanah (glosses of the Rema to SA Orah Hayyim 581:1 and 581:3). The shofar is not sounded on the day before Rosh Hashanah, in order to differentiate between the blasts heard during Elul, which are merely a custom, and the blasts of the shofar sounded on Rosh Hashanah itself, which are ordained by Scripture (gloss of the Rema to SA Orah Hayyim 581:3). Hearing the shofar alerts attentive worshipers to the approach of the Days of Awe and challenges even the hesitant among them to get busy with the work of teshuvah, repentance. The concept of teshuvah is discussed in more detail by Rabbi David Lincoln.
It is also the custom to recite Psalm 27 at the conclusion of the Morning Service, just after the shofar is sounded, and also at the end of the Evening Service, throughout the entire Holy Day period from the first of Elul to Hoshana Rabbah (Some end the recitation of this psalm at Yom Kippur). Psalm 27 promulgates the themes of the season, as evidenced by an ancient midrash on its opening line preserved at Midrash Tehilim 27:4: “God is my light—on Rosh Hashanah—and my salvation—on Yom Kippur. Whom then shall I fear—on Hoshana Rabbah?”
We also prepare for the coming of the High Holy Days at home. Just as with Shabbat, there is an increase in the tempo of the household routine as everything is cleaned, polished, and made ready for the holidays. Friends and relations begin to arrive, sometimes from great distances. Indeed, no matter how far a sibling, child, or cousin may have wandered during the course of the year, Rosh Hashanah is a time for all Jewish people to come home to their families, their people, and their God.
There is also the touching custom of visiting the graves of loved ones in anticipation of the New Year. Some do this the day before Rosh Hashanah (cf. the gloss of the Rema to the SA Orah Hayyim 581:4), but many go at any convenient time throughout this period from Elul through Yom Kippur. Many synagogues hold communal memorial services at their congregational cemetery during this time of the year. At these services, there is usually an opportunity for shared communal prayers as well as private time for individuals to visit their family members’ graves. Visiting the graves of one’s parents and grandparents helps establish a sense of continuity between the sacred past and the unborn future and fosters a sense of oneself as the vital link between the two. Tradition also imagines our late relations, and especially our parents, as intercessors capable of pleading our case and cause before God. It is therefore appropriate that we not take them for granted, and this custom of visiting their graves reflects that hope.
Many have adopted the custom of sending New Year’s cards to family and friends wishing them good things for the new year that is about to begin. While it is tempting to dismiss this as an example of crass commercial opportunism on the part of the greeting card industry, the truth is that this practice is well grounded in Jewish custom (see, e.g., the gloss of the Rema to the SA Orah Hayyim 582:9). Originally, the concept was simply to wish others that they be inscribed in the Book of Life for the year to come, but sending out cards has become less theologically charged over the years and is now hardly more than an effort to reconnect with loved ones near and far. Even so, sending out Rosh Hashanah cards as a way to strengthen the bonds we share with our friends and family is a commendable endeavor.
Another commendable and widespread custom is the practice of making charitable contributions in anticipation of the High Holy Days (gloss of the Rema to SA Orah Hayyim 581:4). Giving charity is a mitzvah all year round, but there is something especially beautiful about making a special effort around the High Holy Days to help others. As we strive to be our best selves, the giving of charity emphasizes that self-inspection must lead to outward improvement. A person wrapped up in him or herself makes for a small package. Participation in synagogue charity appeals, on the other hand, constitutes a tangible expression of one’s determination to translate good intentions into the kind of good deeds that can transform and improve the world.