Tichleh Shanah VeQileloteihah, Tachel Shanah VeBirkhoteihah (May this year and its curses end, may the new year with its blessings begin)
The circular nature of the year ties Elul, the last month of the year, with Tishrei, the first month. The last day of Elul is Erev Rosh HaShanah, the day of judgement when all the people of the world pass before God, as the Mishnah says, as if God is conducting a census. Thus Elul becomes the period of preparations for the High Holidays, the Days of Awe, the days of Repentance – a period of Selichot prayers for forgiveness and of soul-accounting. The heat of the summer hints at the approaching autumn, the consideration of what has past is mixed with contemplation – infused with hope and dread – of the coming year; acceptance of responsibility for what has passed demands more serious responsibility for what will come.
What is the meaning of this circularity? What is the explanation for the fact that in a month’s time we will declare the New Year and ask to sanctify it? What does all this mean to us, in a smaller dimension, this rhythm of the Jewish year?
As we know, the ancient world knew two kinds of time: the solar year and the lunar year. The solar calendar defines a year as the time it takes for the Earth to make one full revolution around the Sun. The followers of the solar calendar stick to the changes that come with the seasons of the year. A holiday that is determined by this calendar will always fall in the same season and can carry the same agricultural meaning and express the connection of humanity to nature. The second method is the Lunar calendar. Here, the month is defined as the time it takes the moon to make one revolution around the Earth, a revolution that is easier to follow. Twelve months define a year. This is a simple and natural method of measurement that doesn’t require astronomical knowledge and allows everyone to experience the rhythm of time. But twelve lunar months are considerably shorter than a solar year, and one who follows such a calendar loses the connection between his or her holidays and the seasons. This is the method of the Muslim calendar.
The calendar that the Sages required us to use asks us to hold both these methods together. The month is a lunar month of twenty nine or thirty days, and while the year is made up of lunar months, every few years we add the month of Adar Aleph, in order to reconcile the missing days and to ensure the connection between the holidays and the seasons.
This complication adds a deeper meaning to the Jewish conception of time. We give time and its changes extra meaning: the day passes as the sun sets and the stars come out, the month begins when the New Moon is visible in the sky, the year begins again each time in the midst of autumn. Nevertheless, time is a gift. We determine the timing of the new month and thus the timing of the holidays that fall in that month, we determine when the year will end and the new year begin.
All this is symbolized in the tight connection between the month of Elul and the High Holidays that are approaching in the month of Tishrei. It is a fantastic opportunity to recall that time doesn’t only happen to us, it is a gift. We aren’t only determined by time, we are partners in its determination. “A time for planting and a time for uprooting the planted. A time for slaying and a time for healing… A time for war and a time for peace.” Says Ecclesiastes. The month of Elul also reminds us that we have a hand in what kind of time this will be, that we are also commanded to change the times and the seasons, that after Elul comes the Renewal of the year and with it Hope and the demand for renewal and repentance.