Sho’alin v’ dorshin: Asking and Learning About the Holidays

Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Friday, September 2, 2016 – 29 Av, 5776

Friends, I can’t believe the High Holidays are almost here. With time rushing by, this week’s column will be dedicated to providing you with some basic Jewish knowledge about this special time and an exciting upcoming event. Next week, I’ll share something a bit more personal about my own preparations for Rosh Hashanah. And now that it is Elul, let me wish you all a Shanah tovah u’metukah. A Sweet New Year to you!

This Shabbat marks the start of Rosh Hodesh Elul, the beginning of the Hebrew month Elul. There are several ways that this is significant. First, the start of a new month in general is considered a small holiday; treating it as such really connects us to Jewish time and our national calendar.

Second, from the start of Elul, we have a number of customs that highlight the upcoming Yamim Noraim (The Days of Awe). First, we begin reciting psalm 27, which speaks of a steadfast faith in God regardless of what life throws at us. We recite this psalm on both Shabbat and weekdays.

Second, it is a long-standing practice to sound the shofar at morning services for the entire month, barring Shabbat and the morning of Erev Rosh Hashanah.  There are two main explanations for this. One is to distinguish between these customary blasts, and the required shofar blasts on Rosh Hashanah (Rema on SA OH 581:3). The other explanation is more fanciful. We don’t blow the shofar on the day before the new year in order to confuse the Satan (pronounced with a soft a, as in father). While Satan is a demonic entity in Christianity, in Judaism, satan simply means an accuser. We don’t want the main Accuser to argue a court case against us when we are pleading for our lives. By leaving off the shofar blasts, apparently the Satan will miss the court date we call Rosh Hashanah.

In the Sephardic tradition, special penitential prayers (selichot) are recited daily once Elul begins. In some communities, these are recited in the earliest morning hours. When Laura and I lived in Machine Yehudah in Jerusalem, we attended several of these middle of the night services in Nachlaot, the next neighborhood over.  I remember the Syrian synagogue in particular for its beauty and how intent everyone was in their preparatory prayers.

For Ashkenazic Jews, of course, selichot prayers are limited to a single night–the last Saturday before Rosh Hashanah. This year, in place of that preparatory service, we’ll be holding a community learning session. More on that and its connection to the Yamim Noraim (Days of Awe) in just a moment.

The final custom that begins with the month of Elul is not unique to this month; it is the practice to begin learning about a holiday thirty days beforehand. While this law originally applied only to Passover after Moses told the Israelites about the 2nd Passover thirty days in advance, it has become common for many people to build in this period of preparation for all of the Jewish holidays.


To that end, this year, in place of Saturday night selichot services, we will be learning together as a community on Sunday, September 25th from 1-4 pm at the MJCC. While it’s not quite thirty days before Rosh Hashanah, this combined effort of the Oregon Board of Rabbis and Portland Area Jewish Educators will bring together some top notch teachers. There will be many options and I feel certain that you will find something that appeals to you. In addition to the many other community rabbis and educators who will be giving classes, both Rabbi Posen and I will also be presenting. It would mean a lot to both of us if you would join us. Here is the link with details for registering.

Shabbat shalom and shanah tovah,

Rav D