Valuable Meditations For The Month of Elul – Preparation For The High Holidays

We are now into one of the most critical times of the year: The month of Elul

As we transition from Tisha B’Av to Tu B’Av, our focus shifts toward the upcoming high holidays. However, in order to fully maximize the significance of this period, it is essential to undertake thorough preparations. Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot collectively form an integrated spiritual framework, a cohesive Partzuf, wherein the transformation of our lives hinges upon the harmonious interplay of its constituent elements.

Prior to embarking on these profoundly auspicious occasions, we traverse the sacred month of Elul—an interval brimming with favor and potential for profound metamorphosis in both our spiritual and physical dimensions. During this period, Hashem, in His profound benevolence, illuminates his 13 Attributes of Mercy upon all of Creation, thereby facilitating our pursuit of spiritual elevation and growth, akin to attaining a commendable score.

The tradition of sounding the Shofar and reciting Psalm 27 serves as a supplication to Hashem, beseeching His assistance in the process of Teshuva. Remarkably, the Psalm’s repetition of the name YHVH, occurring 13 times, corresponds harmoniously to the 13 Attributes of Mercy. Moreover, the potent act of the “divine unification of the beard” can be practiced during daylight hours, transcending beyond specific moments of divine grace such as Shabbat and post-midnight on weekdays.

Divergent customs exist between Sephardim and Ashkenazim with regards to Selichot, the penitential prayers. Sephardim engage in daily recitations from Rosh Chodesh Elul until Yom Kippur, while Ashkenazim observe these prayers solely during the week preceding Rosh Hashanah until Yom Kippur. Noteworthy is the fact that the Arizal, guided by his profound understanding, embraced both customs in various aspects, yet when it comes to Selichot, he defers to the Sephardic tradition, as articulated by Rabbi Chaim Vital in Sha’ar HaKavanot (Gates of Mystical Intentions).

For those aspiring to enact substantive positive change in their lives, the upcoming span of 40 days—commencing from Rosh Chodesh Elul and culminating in Yom Kippur—presents an unparalleled opportunity. This period’s potency stems from the timeless wisdom imparted by our sages: “everything follows the beginning.” As such, it stands as a uniquely influential phase, rife with transformative potential.

Elul leading to the beginning of everything

While the potential for change remains open throughout the period following Rosh Hashana, it is important to acknowledge that the task becomes progressively more challenging, yet certainly attainable. Rosh Hashana marks a pivotal juncture, as it is the day when the initial judgments are inscribed. Subsequently, Yom Kippur introduces a heightened level of effort, given that it signifies the final sealing of these judgments.

Following the culmination of Hoshanah Rabbah, the final day of Sukkot, the opportunity for alteration becomes exceedingly limited, as the celestial records of judgment are entrusted to the angelic hosts, who, in accordance with the insight of the Ramchal, are resolute in their mission until its fulfillment.

Aligned with the verse from Tehilim (Psalms) that urges us to “Seek Hashem when he is to be found,” our prophetic tradition divulges that this opportune period corresponds to the month of Elul. The Zohar further expounds that this temporal span is akin to a scenario wherein the King ventures into the fields.

Ordinarily ensconced within the confines of His royal palace, presiding over His dominion, during Elul, Hashem steps forth to engage with all individuals and attentively heed their supplications. The acronym of Elul is also derived from the phrase found in the Song of Songs, “I am to my beloved and my beloved is to me” (אני לדודי ודודי לי), encapsulating the essence of this interwoven relationship.

Rebbe Nachman of Breslov and Tehilim

The month of Elul is intrinsically focused on the profound concept of Teshuva, or repentance.

Rebbe Nachman, as imparted through Likutey Moharan (II: Torah 73), imparts an illuminating insight: The path to merit divine return is paved by the consistent recitation of Tehillim, the Book of Psalms. Just as we endeavor to draw closer to Hashem, He reciprocates and draws near to us through the 50th Gate of Repentance.

To elucidate this, the 50 Gates of Repentance find correspondence with the 50 Gates of Understanding stemming from the realm of Olam HaBa, the World to Come. Notably, the culmination, the 50th level, eludes solitary human achievement. Though an individual diligently undertakes the process of self-refinement, the ultimate elevation rests upon Hashem’s gracious intervention—an embodiment of the scriptural directive, “Return to Me and I will return to you” (Malachi 3:7).

Rebbe Nachman expounds further, unveiling a connection between the forty-nine gates of repentance and the names of the Twelve Tribes of God, as well as the 49 Days of the Omer, a period of purification. Instances may arise wherein individuals struggle to identify their designated “letter and gate,” impeding their entry into the realm of Teshuva. However, the efficacious potency of Tehillim lies in its ability to rouse the individual towards this transformative state, even when their path seems elusive.

Segulah for Success and Health in Elul

The practice of reciting “LeDavid” during the months of Elul and Tishrei carries a rich history, interwoven with tradition and textual sources. While the mention of this custom is notably absent in the Shulchan Aruch and Rama, it is the Mishnah Berurah that provides insights into its origins, attributing it to the Acharonim. This relatively recent addition to the Siddur holds significance beyond its recitation, as its introduction has implications that stretch back centuries, potentially influencing long-standing debates.

An authoritative source for this custom is the sefer “Mateh Ephraim” (chapter 581), composed by Rav Ephraim Zalman Margolios (1762-1828), a staunch opponent of the Haskala movement who collaborated with the Chasam Sofer. In this comprehensive compilation of halachos and minhagim pertaining to Elul and Tishrei, the Mateh Ephraim elucidates that the earliest trace of the LeDavid custom can be traced to the “Medrash Shochar Tov” (27). This medrash establishes a profound link between LeDavid and the Asseres Yemei Teshuvah (Ten Days of Repentance).

“The rabbis explain that the verse is speaking of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur,” states the medrash. “‘He is My light’ refers to Rosh Hashanah, a day of judgment, as evidenced by the verse in Tehillim 37:6, ‘And He will make your righteousness go forth as light, and your judgment like noonday.’ On Yom Kippur, ‘He is my salvation,’ for He will save and forgive us for all our sins.”

The Mateh Ephraim extends this interpretation, suggesting that the words “When He shelters me in his sukkah” allude to the refuge of Sukkos, which follows the intense days of judgment.

Of course, the custom of reciting LeDavid during Elul and Tishrei predates the Mateh Ephraim’s time. It finds its earliest textual appearance in the sefer “Shem Tov Katan,” authored by Rav Binyomin Beinush HaKohein from Kortshin. This sefer, published in 1706, holds a special significance in the chronology of this custom. Notably, this publication date aligns with crucial events and developments that unfolded during that era, adding depth to the historical context of this tradition.

It’s worth noting that the publishers of Sultzbach, Germany, known for producing numerous seforim, including siddurim, machzorim, and the renowned Sultzbach Shas, have left an indelible mark on the dissemination of Jewish texts. While these volumes are now treasured and sought after, they hold a captivating historical essence that continues to resonate in our understanding of Jewish practices.

In the earliest recorded documentation of this custom, Rav Binyomin Beinush presents LeDavid not as a firmly established component of the Siddur’s liturgy, but rather as a segulah—a spiritually effective practice—aimed at attaining favorable outcomes in the judgments of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

With an air of secrecy and significance, Rav Binyomin Beinush imparts, “I would like to tell you a great secret (sod).” He proceeds to share that the recitation of this psalm, LeDavid, during the span from Rosh Chodesh Elul until after Simchas Torah holds a remarkable potential. Even if an unfavorable heavenly decree has been recorded against an individual, its influence can be nullified through this practice. By diligently engaging in this recitation both morning and evening, day after day, one is poised to nullify harsh judgments and emerge with a favorable verdict.

Rav Binyomin Beinush stresses the necessity of this practice, emphasizing that it holds the power to ensure a life filled with goodness and pleasant experiences, thereby silencing adversarial forces.

It’s notable that Rav Binyomin Beinush does not anchor the recitation of LeDavid on the previously mentioned Medrash Shochar Tov. Instead, he establishes its significance on a different premise. By highlighting the presence of the “Shem Havaya,” the sacred Tetragrammaton (YHVH), appearing thirteen times within this chapter, he underscores its correspondence to the thirteen midot (attributes) of mercy. This direct alignment with the attributes of divine compassion adds another layer of profundity to the recitation’s spiritual potential.

Thus, the custom of reciting LeDavid during the months of Elul and Tishrei emerges not only as a historical practice but also as a deeply meaningful endeavor, closely linked with seeking divine favor, obtaining mercy, and invoking divine attributes of compassion.

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The book “Shem Tov Koton” achieved remarkable popularity during its time, evidenced by its eight reprints, which likely contributed to the widespread adoption of the LeDavid custom.

In the wake of the book’s influence, subsequent seforim began to emphasize the significance of reciting LeDavid, perhaps inspired by its presence in the earlier “Shem Tov Katan.” Notable among these works were the “Sefer Hazechirah” authored by Rav Zechariah ben Yaakov Simnar (Hamburg, 1709), and the “Sefer Hayirah” (Berlin, 1724).

Over the course of a few decades, the LeDavid custom gained such prevalence that Rav Mordechai of Vilekatch, in his “Shaar Hamelech” (1762), remarked on the widespread and commendable practice of reciting psalm 27, LeDavid, Hashem ori, immediately following the tefillah.

How did Rav Binyomin Beinush HaKohein garner acceptance from a broad swath of Klal Yisroel? His stature is underscored by the endorsement of Rav Yehonasan Eibshitz, who proclaimed Rav Binyomin Beinush as his greatest teacher.

Additionally, Rav Pinchas Katzenelenbogen described him in his “Yesh Manchilin,” stating, “You should know that the author of ‘Amtachas Binyomin’ was the great mekubal, Rav Binyomin Beinush HaKohen, who visited my home in 1720 when I was living in the Valerstein kehillah. I heard wonderful things from him, he was a great baal shem, and his deeds were wondrous. One can see from his above-mentioned sefer, ‘Amtachas Binyomin,’ that he was involved in all wisdoms (yodov bakol).”

The term “baal shem” mentioned here conveys the notion of an individual possessing the ability to effect healings and salvations through their sanctity and practical kabbalistic knowledge. Interestingly, it is likely that this concept is why the renowned figure known as the Baal Shem Tov first gained recognition with the appellation “Baal Shem Tov.”

This underscores the esteemed reputation and multifaceted expertise of Rav Binyomin Beinush HaKohein.

Three Baal Shem’s

Despite the eminence of Rav Binyomin Beinush HaKohein, his LeDavid custom did not gain universal acceptance. Among the Sephardim, it found favor primarily among certain North African communities. Even within the Ashkenazi realm, there were differing perspectives. The Siddur Maaseh Rav, influenced by the customs of the Vilna Gaon (Gra), stressed the omission of Psalm 27 between Rosh Chodesh Elul and Yom Kippur.

The Vilna Gaon’s rationale for excluding LeDavid was twofold: to prevent any inconvenience to the congregation (torach) and to prevent the negation of productive work (bitul melacha).

Rav Chaim of Sanz also abstained from reciting LeDavid, explaining that he was cautious about introducing practices not found in the Shulchan Aruch and the writings of the Arizal (Rabbi Isaac Luria).

An intriguing Chassidic anecdote sheds light on yet another perspective as to why some communities refrained from saying LeDavid:

Rav Moshe David Shtrum of Tarnow recounted an encounter where Rav Shimon of Zhelichov inquired why Rav Aryeh Leibush of Sanz refrained from saying LeDavid, while in Shiniveh, a different location, they did say it. Offering his own explanation, Rav Shimon of Zhelichov recounted a story from the days of Rav Eliyahu Baal Shem Tov.

In this story, the local lord demanded prayers for a son; otherwise, he threatened to expel the Jewish community.

Rav Eliyahu Baal Shem Tov intervened, promising the lord a son within a year. The Baal Shem Tov’s actions, however, came at a cost. Heaven decreed that he would be subject to sixty lashes of fire, but because he displayed great dedication to his people, this punishment was mitigated.

In exchange for sparing his life, two takanos (decrees) he had established were to be annulled: the recitation of Kegavna before Borchu on Shabbos night and the saying of LeDavid, Hashem ori.

This story not only offers an explanation for certain communities’ non-observance of LeDavid but also potentially pushes the origins of this custom back to the times of Rav Eliyahu Baal Shem Tov. The story does raise the question of which Rav Eliyahu Baal Shem Tov the account refers to, as there were two figures with that name.

One was Rav Eliyahu Baal Shem of Chelm, a disciple of the Maharshal, known for creating a golem and passing away around 1483. The second was a disciple of the Maharal of Prague, who served as a rabbi in Worms and passed away in 1536.

According to this Chassidic account, the custom of saying LeDavid might have originated not in 1706, as previously suggested, but rather in the 15th or 16th century.

The Chemdat Hayamim

Despite the historical complexities, another perspective emerges regarding why certain communities did not adopt the LeDavid custom, even though this viewpoint appears paradoxical in terms of historical timeline.

One of the early printed sources for the recitation of LeDavid is the sefer “Chemdat Hayamim,” printed in 1737. However, this work was regarded with suspicion by some due to suspected Sabbatean affiliations. While many esteemed figures, including the notable mekubal Rav Shlomo Elyashiv, respected the sefer, attributing alternate practices to it, there were reservations about its authenticity due to potential influence from Sabbateans or their associates.

The identity of the author of “Chemdat Hayamim” remains elusive due to the loss of the first volume that may have contained such information.

Rav Pinchas Chaim Toib of Razla, as documented in the newly reprinted sefer “Lev Same’ach Hachodosh,” conveyed that he held a tradition that some rebbes refrained from saying LeDavid due to its purported origins in “Chemdas Hayomim.”

He recounted a meeting with the tzaddik of Parisov from Poland, who shared a tradition passed down from his grandfather, the Yehudi Hakodosh. According to this account, the Yehudi Hakodosh refrained from saying LeDavid based on guidance from his teacher in Lublin, who claimed that the practice had its roots in “Chemdat Hayamim.”

However, this perspective overlooks the fact that LeDavid was mentioned in the “Shem Tov Katan” thirty-one years prior to the publication of “Chemdas Hayomim.” This serves to underscore the earlier origins of the custom and its presence in Jewish practice.

Ultimately, the differing perspectives and historical intricacies notwithstanding, the LeDavid custom continues to hold its place as a segulah, believed to bestow blessings of happiness, health, and longevity upon those who engage in its recitation.

Concluding Remarks

Our ancient sages impart to us a profound truth: Teshuva, the act of returning and repentance, predates the very establishment of the physical world. This concept is grounded in the understanding that the fabric of Creation itself could not have endured without the presence of Teshuva.

This notion transcends our conventional understanding, for if we were to logically consider the implications of human transgressions, one might question the allowance for a person to resume a normal life after having erred. Hashem, in His boundless wisdom, anticipated this intricate interplay and laid the groundwork for us to access the ultimate good, both in this world and in the realms beyond, through the avenue of Teshuva.

Consequently, the responsibility falls upon us to seize the opportunity presented by these 40 exceptional days—stretching from Rosh Chodesh Elul until Yom Kippur—to rectify our past actions and seek forgiveness.

A longstanding tradition exists wherein individuals engage in Cheshbon Nefesh (also known as Hitbodedut), a rigorous self-accounting, reviewing their actions over the past year. As we prepare to stand before Hashem, our confessions and admissions have a transformative effect, leading to the dismissal of all accusations.

May we all be blessed to embark upon this journey of spiritual preparation for the upcoming high holidays. May these days of introspection and renewal propel us towards a state of personal rectification and growth, as we seek the divine forgiveness that enables us to approach the forthcoming holidays with a heart full of sincerity and devotion.

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Chaim Apsan

Chaim is a teacher and Kabbalah enthusiast. He loves helping Jews connect with true Torah teaching and enhancing their spiritual growth. With a focus on meditation, he guides individuals on transformative journeys of prayer, contemplation, and connection with Hashem. He lives in Jerusalem with his wife and kids, and is committed to sharing the wisdom and power of Kabbalah in a genuine way.

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