Elul: Now is the time to prepare for the High Holidays

Plus, a month’s worth of journaling prompts to inspire reflection
(Photo: Canva)

Summer is coming to an end and the High Holidays are soon approaching! Rosh Hashanah begins on Sunday, September 25, Which means the time to start getting into the mindset is now.

Thankfully, the Jewish tradition has a special way of easing into the High Holiday spirit: Elul.

What is Elul?

Simply put, Elul is the last month of the Jewish calendar year. This year, it begins on Friday, August 26, and culminates in Rosh Hashanah. 

Traditionally, Elul is meant to be used as a time for introspection and reflection. The point of Elul is to set the tone for the High Holiday period, so it’s all about taking personal stock of the past year and thinking about the year ahead.

Leading up to Rosh Hashanah, Jews engage in cheshbon hanefesh (“an accounting of the soul”). The entire month is a ‘preparatory period’ to make repentance more meaningful, genuine and intentional. 

What sort of customs are practiced?

There are a number of special observances in the month of Elul

The shofar (a ram’s horn) is sounded every day of the month immediately following morning services as a call to repentance, and Psalm 27 and selichot (prayers of repentance) are recited. Sephardic Jews begin reciting selichot on the second day of the Hebrew month of Elul, while Ashkenazi Jews start reciting them on the Saturday night before Rosh Hashanah.

Hidden meaning

There’s often a hidden meaning or significance that can be found behind Hebrew behind letters, words and sayings.

The four letters that make up the Hebrew word “Elul” are believed to be an acronym for the famous phrase from Song of Songs: ‘Ani L’dodi V’dodi Li‘ – I am my beloved and my beloved in mine.

Many have interpreted the “Beloved” in this phrase as God, and therefore, Elul is understood as a time to discover, restore, and recommit to a relationship with God.  

“Like two lovers who may have become distanced, we yearn to be in stronger relationship with each other,” Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz wrote about her interpretation of this concept. This is also the time to think about all the relationships in your life, she explained. Relationships with the divine, with loved ones, and with community. In Elul, “relationship is the key.”

“Connection is why we’re here. It is what gives purpose and meaning to our lives,” Gurevitz quoted of researcher Brené Brown.

Why do people say “the king is in the field”?

It is because of the unique relationship that is believed to exist with the Divine during the month of Elul that you may hear the phrase “the king is in the field.”

What king? What field? 

Let me explain.

“The king is in the field” is a popular rabbinic teaching that describes the relationship between humans and God.

The teaching is an analogy to a great king who pays a visit to his ‘subjects’ while they are at work in their fields, explained Rabbi Chaim Richman.

“For the average man (or woman), the king is inaccessible, away in his palace, distant and removed,” he said.

“He never dreams he will actually see the king, let alone speak with him. Then suddenly, one day, while this man is bent over his menial labor in the field, he feels a gentle tap on his shoulder, he turns around and to his shock, it is the great king himself who is standing over him.”

In Elul, the “king” can be understood to mean God, so the idea is that during the special month of Elul, the Divine comes down from a far-away place to join humans on earth in the ‘field.’

For that reason, many believe Elul presents a unique opportunity to connect with God and deepen their relationship with the divine.

How to make Elul meaningful

Other than hearing the shofar sound, reading Psalm 27 and selichot (prayers of repentance), there are many other ways to find meaning in Elul. 

For starters: meditating, taking time to pause and reflect on the past year, remembering the different moments, events and experiences you may have already forgotten, and beginning to picture yourself in the year ahead.

It might also be meaningful to put these thoughts onto paper by taking up a journaling practice during the month of Elul. Journaling, in general, can be a helpful tool for personal expression, honoring your emotions, and sorting through your thoughts. 

Some things to journal about during this time:

  • Things you would have done differently over the past year
  • Challenges you overcame
  • People from whom you may seek forgiveness
  • Goals and intentions for the coming year

In fact, Jewish blogger, Rebekah Lowin created an entire Elul journaling challenge. 

“Much like the secular New Year, Rosh Hashanah offers us a chance at a fresh start or reset. But it’s pretty much impossible to reap the benefits of a day like that without at least a little bit of forethought. If you were interested in making New Year’s resolutions, for instance, you likely wouldn’t whip out a pad of paper at 11:59 P.M. on December 31st. You’d give yourself some lead time—at least an hour, if not a full day or week,” Lowin explained in a blog post about why journaling has been meaningful for her during Elul.

Each day of Elul, she shares one journal prompt to inspire thoughtful reflections, culminating in an entire month’s worth of Elul-themed journal prompts! They can all be found here on her blog. 

Whether you follow each prompt, take inspiration to create your own, or simply use them as inspiration for reflection, this might be a way to start your own Elul mindfulness practice.

How will you be finding meaning in Elul? Tell us on Instagram, Twitter and TikTok @JewishUnpacked