Hashanah, the Jewish New Year's Day, is "Judgment Day." On Rosh Hashanah, God judges how we behaved.
Yom Kippur is the Jewish Day of Atonement. On Yom Kippur, we repent for our sins, and God determines our reward or punishment.
Accordingly, Elul is a time of introspection, repentance, reconciliation, and heightened spirituality as Jews prepare to be judged and sentenced by God.
In preparation for Judgment Day, we think critically about how we have behaved during the year and how we can improve our behavior in the upcoming year.
Elul is a time for personal growth. During Elul, we should ask ourselves if we made the most of our life and reached our potential this past year and how we can improve ourselves in the upcoming year.
Once we have identified our sins through introspection, we need to repent for them.
During Elul, special prayers called Selichot are recited. Selichot are prayers of repentance in which we ask God for forgiveness. Sephardic Jews begin reciting Slichot on Rosh Chodesh Elul and Ashkenazi Jews begin reciting these prayers on the Saturday night before Rosh HaShana.
Shlichot prayers describe the 13 merciful attributes of God. It was during the month of Elul that the Jews sinned by building the Golden Calf, Moses pleaded for God to forgive them, and God explained the 13 Attributes of Mercy.
Repentance alone is not enough. Given that our sins separated us from God during the year, our repentance during the month of Elul is meant to reconcile us with God.
Teshuva refers to the souls return to its source as we reconcile with God through repenting for our sins.
During Elul, we should move closer to God. In Hebrew, Elul is spelled aleph-lamed-vuv-lamed. These letters are the first letters of "Ani L'Dodi V'Dodi Li" (Song of Songs 6:3). The translation is "I am to my Beloved and My Beloved is to me."
Psalm 27 is added to morning and evening prayer services during the month of Elul. In this Pslam, King David asks to "dwell in the house of God all the days of my life."
In Elul, the shofar is blown during morning prayers.
The shofar is blown to remind us:
- We should accept and honor God as our King
- We should be dedicated to God as Abraham was in the Akeidah (where a ram was offered instead of Isaac)
- We should follow the Torah, God's commandments, which we accepted at Mount Sinai
- We should listen to the words of the Prophets
- We should remember the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem
- We should be fearful of God and repent for our sins
There are some ways to observe Elul that maximize this opportunity to honestly critique our past behavior and then actively work to better ourselves, improve our relationships with others, and move closer to God.