Is Ellul about renewal or repentance?

This Motzei Shabbat is the first of Ellul, and from Sunday morning onwards until Yom Kippur, with the exception of Shabbatot and Erev Rosh Hashanah, a Shofar will be blown in Jewish schools and shuls each morning across the world and sefardim will start reciting selichot.

For many people, the sound of the Shofar at the start of Ellul is like a spiritual alarm clock which is meant to wake them up and stir them to do teshuva, and some may even cite the Rambam as a source for this idea. However, a brief look at the Rambam (Teshuva 3:4) will show that he is speaking about the mitzvah of blowing of the Shofar on Rosh Hashanah and not the custom of blowing the shofar throughout Ellul. In fact, Rambam himself makes no mention of any of the customs that we do in the month of Ellul such as blowing the shofar or reciting selichot.

Instead, the whole concept of Ellul having significance in terms of our preparation for Rosh Hashanah is rooted in a Midrash (nb. Rambam rarely deduced laws and customs from Midrashim), and as I shall explain, a closer look at this Midrash and the pesukim that it quotes can provide us with a radically different understanding of our avodah for the month of Ellul.

To begin, let us turn to the Arba Turim (Orach Chaim 581), which is often referred to simply as the ‘Tur’, who begins his Hilchot Rosh Hashanah by stating:

תניא בפרקי ר”א בר”ח אלול אמר הקב”ה למשה ”עלה אלי ההרה” (דברים י:א) שאז עלה לקבל לוחות אחרונות והעבירו שופר במחנה משה עלה להר שלא יטעו עוד אחר עבודה זרה והקב”ה נתעלה באותו שופר שנאמר ”עלה אלהים בתרועה וגו”’ (תהילים מז:ו) לכן התקינו חז”ל שיהו תוקעין בר”ח אלול בכל שנה ושנה וכל החדש כדי להזהיר ישראל שיעשו תשובה שנאמר ”אם יתקע שופר בעיר וגו”’ (עמוס ג:ו) וכדי לערבב השטן

It is taught in the Pirkei Rabbi Eliezer: On Rosh Chodesh Ellul, the Holy One, Blessed Be He, said to Moshe “Come up the mountain to Me” (Devarim 10:1), for it was then that [Moshe] went up to receive the last set of luchot. And they blew the shofar throughout the camp to announce that Moshe was going up the mountain so that they not stray again after idolatry (ie. the Egel). And the Holy One, Blessed Be He, went up with that shofar blast, as it is written “God has ascended with a blast” (Tehillim 47:6), and therefore, our Sages instituted that they would blow [the shofar] on Rosh Chodesh Ellul each year. And throughout the month [as well] in order to warn the Jewish people to repent, as it is written, “Shall a shofar be blown in a city and the people not tremble?” (Amos 3:6) and in order to confuse the Satan.

Clearly this is a fascinating piece. However, a closer look will show that it is made up of two different sources which I have highlighted below.

It begins by referencing a Midrash from a work called Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer which is a collection of Midrashic interpretations on the Torah taught by the Tanna Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus which tells us how the custom of blowing the shofar on the first day of Ellul (only!) originates from the Torah story when Moshe goes up Mount Sinai to receive the second set of luchot.

The second section states that that it is customary for it to be blown throughout the month in order to stimulate teshuva and to confuse the Satan. Interestingly, this second section also quotes a biblical verse from the book of Amos (3:6) which talks about the use of the shofar to stir people and make them tremble (see Beit Yosef on OC 581 DH Lachen).

While some may claim that this second section is also from Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer, as Rabbi Daniel Sperber has demonstrated this is not the case (see Minhagei Yisrael Vol. 2 pp. 204-208). Instead, it seems to be a blend of ideas relating to teshuva, the confusing of the Satan and shofar blowing for the full month of Ellul as found in the Rosh (Rosh Hashanah 3:14), the Ra’aviah, (Ra’aviah 542, Vol. 2 p. 239) and the Sefer HaManhig (Hilchot Rosh Hashanah Ch. 22).

However, by separating and examining these two elements – which, it should be noted, is what the Beit Yosef attempts to do (DH V’Od), I think we can gain a far better understanding of what we should be focusing on in the month of Ellul. But before we look a little more closely at Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer, a little revision is necessary about the timeline of events.

According to Rashi’s explanation of the timeline of Matan Torah (see commentary to Shemot 32:1, 33:11), the Ten commandments were given to the Jewish people on the 6th of Sivan in the year 2448. Then, on the 7th of Sivan, Moshe went up to Har Sinai to receive the rest of the Torah. In theory, 40 days after that point would have been the 16th of Tammuz, but Moshe had told the people that he would be on the mountain for 40 full days, meaning that the first half day did not count and he’d return on the 17th. By that point, the people had perceived, or as some explain the Satan had shown them that Moshe had died, and they then built the Egel. When Moshe descended, he smashed the luchot and on the following day he destroyed the Egel and punished those most involved in its worship.

Then on the 19th Tammuz Moshe again went up to Har Sinai for a further 40 days when he begged Hashem for mercy so that He not destroy the entire Jewish people, descending back to the Israelite camp on the 28th of Av or thereabouts with the knowledge that G-d would forgive the people (nb. this is itself subject to some debate amongst the commentaries. For a summary of opinion, see Sefer Shnot Yehoshua p. 54).

Finally, at least according to the Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer, Moshe went up Mount Sinai on the first of Ellul for a further 40 days, returning with the new luchot on Yom Kippur.

Having understood this timeline, let us turn to the original text of the Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer (Ch. 46), from which I believe we can learn many important lessons about Ellul:

ובראש חדש אלול אמר הקדוש ברוך הוא למשה ”עלה אלי ההרה” (דברים י:א). והעבירו שופר בכל המחנה, שהרי משה עולה להר, שלא יטעו עוד אחר העבודה זרה. והקדוש ברוך הוא נתעלה אותו היום באותו שופר, שנאמר  ”עלה אלהים בתרועה ה’ בקול שופר” (תהלים מז:ו). ועל כן התקינו חכמים שיהיו תוקעין בשופר בראש חדש אלול בכל שנה ושנה:

And on Rosh Chodesh Ellul the Holy One, Blessed Be He, said to Moshe “Come up the mountain to Me” (Devarim 10:1). And they blew the shofar throughout the camp, because Moshe was going up the mountain, so that they not stray again after idolatry. And the Holy One, Blessed Be He, went up on that same day with that same shofar blast, as it is written “God has ascended with a blast, Hashem with the sound of the shofar” (Tehillim 47:6). And therefore, our Sages instituted that they would blow [the shofar] on Rosh Chodesh Ellul each year.

As previously noted, this invitation to Moshe to ascent Har Sinai on the first of Ellul was already after Moshe had begged forgiveness for the Jewish people and already after Hashem had accepted Moshe’s pleas. Instead, it signified a new chapter in the Jewish people and the opportunity to forge a new covenant with God, with the shofar being blasted in order to prevent the same mistakes of the past (see Beit Yosef OC 581 DH V’Od. See also Rabbi Immanuel Bernstein’s ‘Teshuvah’ pp. 27-29), while also signifying the ‘ascent’ of Hashem to join Moshe on the mountain.

What this means is that the shofar that we blow on Rosh Chodesh Ellul is a call that signifies that we are actively in the process of righting the wrongs of the past while creating a new commitment for the future. Rather than painting Ellul as a month of regret and remorse, we learn from here that Ellul is about prevention of past misdeeds and actively working to build a better future (on this point, see comments by R’ Moshe Shapiro in Afikei Mayim p. 25 who notes that the Vilna Gaon considered the month of Ellul as a time of ‘revealing the power of action’), and by heeding the call to go ‘up the Mountain’, Hashem כביכול does the same. In fact, a close reading of Devarim 10:1 provides us with some very powerful lessons about what we should be doing in preparation for Ellul:

בעת ההוא אמר ה’ אלי פסל לך שני לוחת אבנים כראשנים ועלה אלי ההרה ועשית לך ארון עץ:

“At that time, God said to me, ‘Carve out two stone tablets like the first ones, and come up to Me on the mountain. Make yourself a wooden ark.’”

From here we see that the journey that Moshe took on the first of Ellul involved three elements:

  1. Moshe had to carve out two stones – like the first ones and bring them up the mountain,
  2. He had to make a wooden ark which he was to use to store the new luchot, and
  3. He had to go up the mountain and forge this new covenant with God.

In terms of applying this verse to Ellul, what this means is that:

  1. Our task just before Ellul is to identify what aspects of our religious life are broken, and try and source new materials or new opportunities to enable us to rewrite our religious life anew.
  2. Our task just before Ellul is to create the right type of structure that prevents us from breaking aspects of our religious life. This may be a physical structure, but is more likely to be a social or lifestyle structure.
  3. In order for us to start this new chapter in our lives, we need to hear the call, make a journey, spiritually ascend, and commit ourselves anew to Hashem, and once we do this, and once we make sure that we’ve put in place the right reminders so we don’t fall into the same traps of the past, Hashem will be with us for the next 40 days and will help us learn and grow.

Having analysed the section from the Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer as quoted in the first section of the Tur, we can now understand the different tone of the second half of the Tur where he writes:

וכל החדש כדי להזהיר ישראל שיעשו תשובה שנאמר ”אם יתקע שופר בעיר וגו”’ (עמוס ג:ו) וכדי לערבב השטן

And throughout the month [as well] in order to warn the Jewish people to repent, as it is written, “Shall a shofar be blown in a city and the people not tremble?” (Amos 3:6) and in order to confuse the Satan.

By introducing the theme of teshuva, and using terms such as ‘trembling’, this second section has a very different tone, and rather than being rooted in the Moshe story, it seems to reflect the ideas of judgement that are associated with Rosh Hashanah. In fact, this is how the Rema (Darchei Moshe OC 581:1) – basing himself on the insights of Rabbi Isaac Tirna – understands the blowing of the shofar from the 2nd of Ellul onwards for the rest of the month as a month-long precursor to Rosh Hashanah.

Altogether, we have two different ideas about Ellul. One is about renewal in a post-forgiveness era, and the other is about repentance in a pre-forgiveness period; one is rooted in prevention and present action, the other in reflection and commitment for the future.

As previously mentioned, Rambam says little about our avoda for the month of Ellul, but it is clear that his explanation of the shofar and his presentation about teshuva conveys a message of remorse, regret and repentance. However, the original Ellul as discussed by the Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer has a somewhat different tone (nb. some of this idea is inspired by Rav Moshe Walkin – Shiurei Orach Chaim Beit Aharon Siman 602). For Rambam, our task during the Asseret Yemei Teshuva is to “Seek God when He is to be found” (Yeshayahu 55:6, see Hilchot Teshuva 2:6), whereas the message conveyed to Moshe by God was “Come up the mountain to Me” (Devarim 10:1).

By including both, it would seem that the Tur acknowledged that Ellul has two prongs to it. We start Ellul with the shofar and with the memory of a forgiven Moshe who – along with the Jewish people – is given the opportunity to make a fresh start. In this story, Moshe is called by God and told about what he needs to do in order to make this a success. However, we continue Ellul by recognizing that we aren’t Moshe, and that unlike our great leader who heeded the call, all too often we do not. Over the years God has called out to us, and we’ve not heeded His call. Instead, today we live in a time when we need to seek God out, and to remind us to do so, we need a shofar that instils a sense of fear and trembling. However, by including both, the Tur provides us with a powerful image which is that if we do seek God out, we too can follow in the footsteps of Moshe and forge a new covenant with God. And that if we do so, we can be confident that God will be right by our side.


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