Engaging with Elul as a Family

Special activities in preparation for the High Holy Days.

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The Jewish month of Elul precedes Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. In order to observe these High Holidays in the most meaningful way, we must adequately prepare ourselves during Elul. This article gives a brief background on some of the traditional customs and legends connected to the month of Elul, as well as suggestions for how to engage these rituals as a family. Doing these simple family activities during the month of Elul is a great way to spend time together and teaches our children that as Jews, we live our lives in sync with our own special calendar.

The Sound of the Shofar: Wake up and Listen!

Background 

man blowing shofar

Gather your family around

to blow the shofar

On weekday mornings during the month of Elul, the daily prayer service ends with a single blast of the shofar. The extreme volume of the blast peaks our senses, serving as a daily reminder that Rosh Hashanah, the Day of Judgment, is on its way. We must focus our souls, take stock of the year, and reach deep down into our hearts to ask for forgiveness. The call of this horn also reminds us that our words--our sounds-- have extreme power. Listening to the voice of the shofar, we are reminded that we too must listen to pleas of forgiveness. With simple phrases--"I'm sorry" or "I forgive you"--we can repair broken relationships, or deepen our most meaningful human connections.

As a Family

Blowing a shofar or even a symbolic toy horn each morning as you count the days of Elul is a great way to gather the family together before a busy day. Whether everyone is going their separate ways to school and work, or the family is setting off together for a day at the beach, setting aside a few moments for this ritual can engage your children's interest in this important season.

Talk to your children about the concept of "forgiveness." As the month progresses, leave a few minutes after the shofar blowing to talk about forgiveness among enemies, friends, family, and even between God and the individual. Take time for personal reflection, including writing or meditation. Encourage your kids to share their goals for asking and receiving forgiveness, and share your own as well. Check in as the month goes on, offering praise for diligence and progress.

When your family arrives in the synagogue on Rosh Hashanah and finally hears the first of the traditional 100 blasts, your children will connect this now-familiar sound to their hard work of the past month.

Psalm 27 as a Meditation

Background

Starting on the first of Elul and continuing until the last day of Sukkot, it is customary to read Psalm 27 daily, often at the conclusion of morning and evening services. Its themes encompass many of the main themes of this season. In this Psalm, we admit our smallness and our fears, yet call out for God to answer and protect us.

As a Family

Verse four reads:  

"One thing have I asked of the LORD, that I will seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to behold the graciousness of the LORD, and to visit early in His temple//Ahat sha-alti mei-eit Hashem ota avakeish, Shivti b'veit Hashem kol y'mei  hayai, Lachazot b'noam Hashem ul-vaker b'heikhalo."

1. Read these words out loud. Discuss: Is this a sad poem or a happy poem? Do you think the person who wrote it was surrounded by friends or feeling lonely? Why?

2. Listen to this verse sung in a major and upbeat pace. (Click here)

3. Then, listen to this verse sung in a minor key and slower pace. (Click here)

4. Re-read the words. Which tune fits better with the words?

Rosh Hodesh Elul: A New Year for the Animals

Girl at Aquarium

Take your family to

an aquarium or zoo

Background

According to the Mishna, the first of Elul, was to be considered a Rosh Hashanah (beginning of a new year) in respect to the tithing of animals (Rosh Hashanah 1:1). In ancient times, this designation gave a clear date from which to determine your yearly donation of animals for the priestly class. However, in post-Temple times this custom fell out of practice, and no symbolic replacement was made.

As a Family

How can we, as modern Jews, find a way to commemorate this ancient ritual? We can choose to celebrate the day, or a free day that week, as a special day for all animals. Visit a farm, aquarium, or a zoo, volunteer at an animal shelter, or even just rent an interesting movie about animals. If your children are old enough, you may want to talk to them about kosher slaughtering and even visit a place where you can witness it firsthand.

Another suggestion: read the quotation below from Job 12:7-8: "But ask the beasts, and they will teach you; The birds of the sky, they will tell you, Or speak to the earth, it will teach you; The fish of the sea, they will inform you." Then, go on a nature walk with your kids, making a list together of all the things they would like to learn from animals.

Moses in the Cleft of the Rock

Background

Starting on the first Saturday night before Rosh Hashanah, we begin to recite the daily selichot service, a series of penitential prayers that overlap in form, theme and content with sections of the High Holiday liturgy. One of the sections that is repeated many times both in this service and then later in the high holiday liturgy is  the passage enumerating the thirteen attributes of mercy. In the original text from Exodus, Moses asks God for permission to "see" God face to face:

Ex. 33:18-23:  He [Moses] said [to God], "Oh, let me behold Your Presence!" And He answered, "I will make all My goodness pass before you, and I will proclaim before you the name LORD, and the grace that I grant and the compassion that I show. But," He said, "you cannot see My face, for man may not see Me and live." And the LORD said, "See, there is a place near Me. Station yourself on the rock and, as My Presence passes by, I will put you in a cleft of the rock and shield you with My hand until I have passed by. Then I will take My hand away and you will see My back; but My face must not be seen."

Soon afterward, God proclaims the thirteen attributes of God:

"Ex. 34:6-7:  The LORD passed before him and proclaimed:  ‘The LORD! the LORD! a God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin; yet He does not remit all punishment…'" 

The mystery in this story lies in what Moses actually sees. The Torah likely did not mean to imply that God takes a literal human form. Rather, God gives Moses a glimpse of the world by looking over God's shoulder; in other words, Moses sees the world from God's perspective. Elul is about trying to understand the impact that our actions have on other people. Perhaps when Moses says “Let me behold Your Presence,” God’s response isn't about literally seeing God from Moses’ perspective, but affording Moses the opportunity to see the world from God's perspective.

As a Family

Take turns looking over each other's shoulders. If your family members have significant height differences, pick each other up or stand on chairs to get higher, or bend down to get lower. Lie down on the grass and see the world perspective of the ants; follow around your pet dog or baby sister by crawling. What do you see now that you couldn't before?

Now think back to someone you are asking forgiveness from, or someone you need to forgive. Is there something you are not seeing because you are too stubborn to look at the situation from their perspective?

Recalling our Ancestors: A Visit to the Cemetery

Background

We chant in the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur service: "On Rosh Hashanah it is written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed. Who shall live, and who shall die…" For some, the image of God inscribing every name in either the book of life or death is compelling enough to provoke quick repentance.

As we count down to Yom Kippur, on which we will act "dead" by fasting and otherwise subjugating our physical needs, we prepare ourselves for the clean slate we will receive. By reviewing our lives and making amends, we afford ourselves the opportunity for a fresh start in the New Year.

As a Family

How can we use this season to teach our children the value of righteous living? It is traditional to visit cemeteries in the month of Elul. A brief visit to the graves of relatives is a tremendous opportunity for parents and other family members to share fond memories of their departed loved ones. Children love hearing family narratives, and will listen more closely to a story a righteous person than a lecture on how and why to do the right thing. If a cemetery visit is not an option, bring out photographs and other remembrances of your departed loved ones.

Elul is a gift, allowing us take time for self reflection in the weeks before the holidays begin. By integrating even a few of these renewed versions of ancient self-examination rituals, you and your family can find relevance and meaning as you approach the High Holidays.  

Please note that not all activities are suitable for young children; parents should use their discretion in how to incorporate them for their respective families.

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Sarah Chandler

Sarah Chandler is the Director of Jewish Family Learning & Life at West End Synagogue, A Reconstructionist Congregation in Manhattan. She has her M.A. in Jewish Education and Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary. She is also a senior editor of Jewschool.com and Director of Programming for Zeek: A Jewish Journal of Thought and Culture.