Reprinted with permission from Celebrating the Jewish Year (Jewish Publication Society).
Because there is so much at stake spiritually during Rosh Hashanah, we make preparations beginning a full month earlier. At Rosh Hodesh Elul, or the start of the new month of Elul, we begin to stir with anticipation for this day of spiritual renewal. We set out our spiritual provisions by readying our minds for prayer and our hearts for forgiveness and by doing whatever we can to attain God’s compassion and mercy when the Day of Judgment arrives.
Shofar and Tallit
Sounding the Shofar
The most prominent feature of the month of Elul is the sounding of the shofar each morning, except on Shabbat. Three primary reasons are given for this practice. The first one is to confuse Satan about the date for Rosh Hashanah, so that he will not be able to affect God’s judgment of people with his accusations against them.
The second one pertains to a rabbinic legend, which says that Moses’ ascent to receive the second tablets on the first of Elul was accompanied by blasts of the shofar. Therefore, the shofar reminds us of the story of the Golden Calf and that we must always be aware of our potential for sinning.
Another important practice during Elul is the recitation of selihot (literally, “forgivenesses”), which are penitential prayers and poems added to the daily morning prayers. This custom is based on a legend portraying King David as troubled over how the Israelites will be able to truly atone for their transgressions. God responds by advising him that the people should confess their sins by saying poems and prayers of penitence.
Sephardim (the Jews of Spain, Portugal, the Mediterranean basin, North Africa, the Middle East, and their descendants) recite selihot for the entire month of Elul until Yom Kippur (except on Shabbat), early every morning. That 40-day span of time parallels the period that Moses spent on Mount Sinai.