In the study house of an August Elul
by Yedidya Meir
August 22, 2002
For most of us, it's vacation time, but in the yeshivas this is a fateful period of the year - the time of Elul - the 40 days preceding Yom Kippur that some ultra-Orthodox cynics call `Black September'
It's the end of the morning shaharit prayers in the main beit midrash (study hall) of the Hebron yeshiva in Givat Mordechai, Jerusalem. About 700 young yeshiva boys, wrapped in tefillin (phylacteries), are concluding the prayer with Psalm 27, said every morning during the month of Elul. "One thing I ask from the Lord, one thing I desire - that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the pleasantness of the Lord and to meditate in His sanctuary." From the center of the beit midrash, next to the bima (platform), the sound of the shofar is heard - teki'a, shevarim, teru'a, teki'a.
In the outside world it is Thursday, August 22, 2002. In Hebron yeshiva and others time is reckoned differently - this is the second week of zman Elul. Almost two weeks have passed since the start of the month of Elul, and there are a little over two weeks remaining until Rosh Hashana, the Day of Judgment. Zman Elul is running out. The semester of zman Elul lasts for one month and one week - unlike the "winter period" of three months - and nevertheless, everyone agrees it is the most demanding and difficult time of all. Many students choose to remain in the yeshiva without going home during the entire period from Rosh Hodesh, the first day of the month, until the day after Yom Kippur - a full 40 days in the yeshiva. Just say Elul
"There are words whose very mention is enough to create an atmosphere and one of them is the small word `Elul,'" writes author Rabbi Tzvi Kaplan, himself a graduate of the Hebron yeshiva. "It is enough to say this word, Elul, and you are already raised above the everyday world, feeling that you are in an atmosphere filled with a longing to be uplifted. Enter the yeshiva on one of the days of Elul, and you will immediately sense `Elul' in the air. The students don't raise their voices as they do all year long, the learning is quieter. You don't see groups in the corners of the building heatedly debating issues relating to their Gemara studies. Everything is quiet, everything is serious."
This literary description was published in "Shitin," in 1953. Anyone entering the beit midrash of the Hebron yeshiva now can see that although 40 Eluls have passed since then, not much has changed - the atmosphere remains the same.
The climax of the day comes toward evening, during the "mussar session." The study of Gemara during the day is conducted by the system of hevrutot (study pairs), with a great deal of sophistry and noisy argument, but the way of study during a mussar session is personal, more like prayer. Each students sits in his place alone, bent over prayer stands, dressed in the yeshiva uniform of suit and hat, and reads aloud, slowly and tunefully, from the mussar book.
The most commonly used book for study and thought during zman Elul is Sha'arei Teshuva (The Gates of Repentance) by Yonah Girondi, published in 1505 in Italy. A typical sample of the text reads: "One of the good things that God does for his creatures is that he prepared a way for them to rise from the depths of their deeds and to flee from the depths of their sins, to save themselves from destruction, and to turn his anger away from them. And he taught them and warned them to return to him if they sin, out of his great goodness and uprightness, because he understands their urges. As it is written: `God is good and upright, and therefore he teaches sinners the way.' And if they have have sinned and rebelled a great deal and have betrayed him, he hasn't closed the door of teshuva to them - the repentance of the month of Elul is of course not only for the wicked and the secular, but even for those who are totally righteous since, as it has been said, there is no righteous person in the land who will do good and will not sin."
Yeshivas did not invent the month of Elul. From time immemorial the last month of the Jewish year has been one of repentance and soul-searching, in anticipation of Rosh Hashana when, according to tradition, God judges all the people in the world. Special qualities are attributed to this month - the second ascent of Moses to Mt. Sinai, after the sin of the Golden Calf and the breaking of the two tablets, happened on Rosh Hodesh Elul.
Moses stood before the Lord in prayer for 40 days, and at the end of this time, on the 10th of Tishrei, Yom Kippur, God forgave him and gave him the tablets again. Since that time, these days have been set aside for future generations as a time when God will accept teshuva and repentance for sins.
During this month the shofar is blown in the synagogues, and one says extra prayers, gives more charity, and does more good deeds. The Sepharadi Jews of Middle Eastern and North African origin even get up while it is still dark to say the slihot prayers. Ashkenazi European Jews will join them during the last week of the month, before Rosh Hashana).
But the place where zman Elul is felt with the greatest intensity is in the yeshivas. There, far from the tumult of practical life, the yeshiva students whose Torah is their profession can spend the entire day devoting themselves completely to their spiritual labor. "There's a kind of real tension," according to 26-year-old Moti Rotenberg, a student at the Hebron yeshiva, with an impressive record of no fewer than 13 Eluls in yeshivas. "Everyone thinks thoughts, searches his soul. Soon it will be Rosh Hashana, and afterward Yom Kippur as well. You have to improve, to examine what you didn't do well during the year, where you sinned."
What sins can you commit, when you spend all your time studying in the yeshiva, as far as we know?
"Well, we're not talking about crimes like murder or bank robbery. A yeshiva boy has a lot more sins because he has more mitzvot (commandments) to fulfill. I didn't study enough, I could have treated my roommate better, my prayers were so-so, I didn't say the grace after meals with enough attention. So now, on the eve of the judgment, there's a tense atmosphere - people walk around with serious faces. If someone says something at table in the dining room that sounds like the start of gossip, everyone will immediately remind him, `Elul, Elul.' In general, we try to spend less time at meals and to talk about Torah as much as possible during them."
"You know, unlike this year, Elul usually falls in September, and the cynics in the yeshiva call it `Black September' because of that traumatic tension you mention. But the feeling is not of paralyzing anxiety, but rather a kind of constructive tension. The atmosphere in the yeshiva is very special. There are also the special mussar lectures of Elul, and the special songs at the Shabbat meals during the month of Elul. People who leave the yeshiva longingly recall for years to come the exalted feeling of Elul in the yeshiva. The simple proof is that many of the graduates come here for the High Holy Day prayers, despite the cramped conditions. They want to return to the real Elul."
Is there an Elul experience outside the walls of the beit midrash?
Attorney Hanoch Winderboim, 45, a graduate of the Itri yeshiva, thinks not. "The atmosphere of Elul is the atmosphere of an impending trial," he says, " and only someone sitting in the courtroom, who lives the trial, can sense an impending trial. A person from outside reads about the trial in the newspaper, and the feeling is entirely different. When you leave the yeshiva you have a serious problem acting out the internal things that happen to you in life. There is a verse that says `and you will know today, and bring it back to your heart.' Sometimes the distance between knowledge and returning to the heart - in other words, internalizing - is very great. We who are outside the yeshiva, those who are called ba'alei batim (heads of families), our knowledge of Elul and of the judgment that takes place on Rosh Hashana is general. In the yeshivas it touches the flesh."
To such an extent? Physically?
"Yes, it is, in the sessions with the mashgihim (moral supervisors), the `righteous' yeshiva students who lead the herd with a sense that we have to change, to do teshuva. Even now, 20 years later, I remember the small personal decisions, the kabalot. Repentance in Elul is not created from atomic explosions that change the world, but from one conquest after another, and one decision after another - to refrain from gossip, to count to 10 before speaking, to pray better, to help a friend a little more - from such petty things legends are created. The expansion of the boundaries of routine has always symbolized Elul for me."
And is that so hard to create outside the yeshiva?
"There's a different rhythm to life when you are a family man, your order of priorities changes, your world outlook changes. In the yeshiva you can study for six consecutive hours in the afternoon, and then if you haven't studied properly in the evening, you go to sleep with a feeling of guilt and emptiness. When you're outside the yeshiva, if you manage to study for two hours you're in the clouds. Maybe during the 10 Days of Repentance, during the week between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, then perhaps you can touch the feelings of the yeshiva with your fingertips, even in the outside world. A little."
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