By Israel Drazin
Many rabbis teach mystical notions that are untrue. The rabbis are unable to differentiate facts from sometimes startling events in parables and sermons that were invented to teach proper behavior, and they repeat imaginative stories they heard from other rabbis and claim that the events in the parables actually happened. The classic example is the story that the patriarch Abraham destroyed his father’s idols. This tale is not in the Bible and was invented to inspire Jews to destroy all kinds of idols. The subject of the Hebrew month Elul is another example.
The Hebrew Bible states in Exodus 12 that the spring month in which the exodus from Egyptian bondage occurred is the first month. Starting the year in the spring when the earth appears to reawaken, when flowers, for example, begin to bloom, is a beautiful and optimistic way of starting the year. The Torah doesn’t name the months.
As scholars such as the twelfth century sage Rashbam pointed out, the biblical day also started in a bright and warm manner. Genesis 1 states repeatedly that God created certain things, and then there was evening and morning, and the day ended at daybreak when a new day began.
When the Judeans, as Jews were called in 586 BCE, were driven into exile in that year to Babylon, they accepted many Babylonian practices, including giving names to the months, some of which referred to Babylonian gods, and began, like the Babylonians, to consider the seventh month, which occurs in the fall, as the beginning of the year. Also like the Babylonians, they started the day at the onset of night. The priest in the restored second temple, rebuilt in 516, didn’t accept the change and continued to offer the first daily sacrifices in the morning.
Thus, for example, the sixth month, which occurs in August or September, was called Elul and became the twelfth month. Elul in Acadian means “harvest” because it is the end of the summer, the time of the fruit harvests.
Ignoring these facts, mystics saw the similarity of the Acadian word Elul to an Aramaic verb which means “search.” The Talmud also reads Elul as an acronym Ani L’dodi V’dodi Li, “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine.” (the A=E, the V=U, and the rabbis interpreted the “beloved” as God.) Thus they saw the name Elul teaching that this month is a time for searching one’s thoughts and behaviors and improving.
Needless to say, the Babylonians never saw this meaning in their word for “harvest”; in fact “harvest” suggests an ingathering and using what had been produced, not a renewal. But we shouldn’t believe that Elul literally means what the rabbis say it means. We should take their statements as sermons or parables, which is most likely what they intended. The rabbis were reflecting the idea of many people: year’s end is a good time to examine accomplishments and failures and make resolutions to improve.
Mystics also point to the tradition that Moses ascended Mount Sinai a second time after he shattered the stones containing the Ten Commandments when he saw people worshiping a golden calf. The Mystics say that this tradition reinforces the idea of repairing failures.
They also suggest that it is possible to view Elul as both the sixth and twelfth month, as a middle and end; suggesting that what appears to be the end, perhaps a destructive painful end, should be viewed as a middle, or end of a beginning, and see the situation optimistically, as an opportunity for improvement.
In short, as long as these sermonic ideas are not taken literally, they can be very helpful.