The Meaning of "Elul"

by Rabbi Debra Orenstein

Over the years, rabbis have played with the letters of the word “Elul,” to infer messages about the purpose and essence of this holy time. Below are some popular “derivations” of the name for this month, with commentary about the messages behind the acronyms.

ELUL is an acronym for Ani Ledodi Vedodi Li, I am for My beloved and My beloved is for me (Song of Songs 6:3). At other times, God, the divine Beloved, reaches out to us (see, for example, Song of Songs 2:16). During Elul, however, we must initiate the relationship. It all starts with the ani, the I. We must see ourselves for who we are, for who we have and haven’t yet been, and for who we might become.

Thus, introspection is something we do for God, as well as for ourselves. Elul is a time for developing intimacy with God.

ELUL is an acronym for Ish Lereyehu Umatanot La’evyonim, Each one to his neighbor, and gifts to the poor (Esther 9:22). This verse describes the celebration at the time of Queen Esther, when the Jews were spared. Foodstuffs were sent to neighbors and friends, and gifts, to the poor. Those exchanges remain Purim practices to this day. Nehemiah 8:10 speaks of Jews sending gifts of food (the same phrase “shilchu manot” is used) to one another at the time of the New Year, as well. Some Hasidic groups maintain the custom of sending gifts of food during Elul.

Elul is a time for improving our relationships. We reach out to those we know – and to those we don’t know. We acknowledge that we share community with and responsibility for the poor. As we repent, we develop compassion for the sins of others. This is borne out in the numerical equivalents of the words “Ish” (one) and “Lereyehu” (to his neighbor). A person and his or her neighbor both amount to the same thing: a human in need of – and able to offer –lovingkindness.

ELUL is an acronym for Inah Leyado Vesamti Lach. Deliver into his hand, I shall establish for you (Exodus 21:13). The context of this phrase is a description of the cities of refuge. If someone commits manslaughter, s/he is protected from revenge by the victim’s family. Even the worst act – the taking of a life – deserves a fair trial. In Torah, someone who has killed another human being unintentionally must be helped to obtain shelter and, eventually, pardon.

Thus, Rabbi Simon Jacobson calls Elul “a refuge in time.” Elul provides a haven for all sins and sinners.

ELUL is an acronym for Et Levavecha Ve’et Levav. Your heart and the heart of your [children] (Deuteronomy 30:6). Moses describes how God will bring the people back into the Promised Land, following their exile, and he adds that God will circumcise their hearts and the hearts of their children. This implies vulnerability, of course, but also a return to softness and kindness.

Elul is a time of opening our hearts – to God, to our neighbors, and to ourselves. It is certainly vulnerable, sometimes even painful, to remove barriers through forgiveness and repentance. But what we want even more than protection for ourselves and our children is to let lovingkindness flow in and out, unobstructed.

ELUL spelled backwards is lulei, meaning “if not.” Psalm 27, which is traditionally recited daily during Elul, includes the phrase, “Lulei he’emanti”—had I not believed. Lulei refers to looking back -- in this case, with fear. “Had I not believed that I would look upon the goodness of Adonai in the land of the living…” The possibilities of what might have happened are so terrible that the Psalmist doesn’t even complete the thought. However, he goes on to plead, “Wait on God. Be strong and of good courage. Wait and hope in God.”

Elul is a paradoxical time. Like the author of Psalm 27, we look backward that we might again and more purposefully look forward. We catch all our mistakes, all our near misses. We cringe at what might have happened. We mourn our losses, and we become grateful for what we have.

ELUL can also be read read backwards in the first letters of the phrase Ladonai Vayomro Leymor Ashirah. To God, and they said, saying, “I will sing” (Exodus 15:1). This phrase is part of a verse which introduces the Song of the Sea. Moses and the people of Israel sing praises to God following the parting of the Sea of Reeds and their escape from Pharaoh’s army. Just when their situation seemed absolutely hopeless, they were saved.

Elul, too, is a time of redemption. Everything might look bleak, but your fate can be reversed in a second, just as easily as you or I might flip some letters, or God might split a sea. Repentance is prepared for over the course of the month of Elul – indeed, over a lifetime. But it happens in flash. Transformation takes place in a moment. May you be privileged to achieve that moment during the Holidays, and may the preparations for it be as rewarding as the transformation itself.