Arguably, no one loves acronyms more than the Jews. The further you get into traditional Jewish texts (especially rabbinic ones) the more that the words dissolve into endless (and often, senseless) acronyms. I would imagine that I’m not alone among people who have spent time in a Beit Midrash in having devoted a majority of those hours to guessing at and looking up abbreviations and acronyms. For example, in the Talmud, the frequent acronym ע”כ can stand for: 1) up until now, 2) based on this, 3) therefore, or 4) perforce. In a text focussed on narrow technical and legal arguments, which one of those four is being used matters! As annoying as this can be, acronyms also allow us to play with language in ways that can be beautiful and helpful to the aim of good interpretation.
This Sunday is not only the first of September in the Gregorian calendar, but also the first of Elul in the Hebrew calendar (Rosh Ḥodesh). Elul is a special time of our spiritual year not due to its own merit, but due to the fact that it precedes Tishré (the first month of the year). Since Rosh Ḥodesh Tishré is also what we call Rosh haShanah, Elul becomes a preparatory time, one of increased devotion to reflection. We are meant to find in Elul an opportunity to look at the year that’s gone by and evaluate– so that when Tishré arrives, and ten days later, Yom Kippur, we are able to articulate what went well and what didn’t.
That process of being able to identify our successes and failures can’t simply be done on the spot. If we don’t think at all to contemplate our lives before Yom Kippur arrives, the heaviness of the day will be lost on us. Like anything of value, the process of self-examination requires some preparation. Thus, this period of Elul which we’re about to begin is that time– to go slow, reflect, consider, contemplate– and to begin to formulate a plan for what we want the next year to be. If we have done this intellectual work before we ever recite the words of the Maḥzor, then the High Holy Days will be considerably more meaningful to us.
So– what acronym is Elul (אלול)? The Sages were quick to connect it to a famous verse from Song of Songs: אני לדודי ודודי לי – which may look familiar from your ketubah or wedding ring. It means, ‘I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine,’ and if you look carefully you’ll notice that the first letters of each word spell א-ל-ו-ל, Elul.
To see this critical month we are about to begin as an acronym for a poetic statement of love and companionship is important. To the Sages, the High Holy Days were not a time of dread or misery. It was not meant to be about obligatory attendance at shul, exaggerated prayer services, or even, necessarily, about Teshuvah. This season was meant to be– and still can be– about intimacy– intimacy with ourselves, and with God (often not so different).
Being open with ourselves, honest about our failings, and using that to develop an intimacy with divinity– is a tall order. That’s precisely why we need to begin now, as Elul begins– so that in five weeks when the High Holy Days are in full swing, we can take full advantage of the acronymic association of this month of reflection with a statement of love and connection.
Shabbat Shalom (and Ḥodesh Tov),
*PS. Naturally there’s a lot going on at SAMS during Elul– special classes for the HHD, the resumption of Hebrew classes and Adult Ed, social events, and everything in-between. If you’re looking to re-commit and want to know what might suit you, check the weekly emails– or get in touch*