The rhythm of the Jewish calendar allows us to sense a deeper level of experience beyond the seasonal changes. As we leave the month of Av, which required us to face our national tragedies and mourn for what we lost, we can get ready to embrace a more uplifting period. In Elul, we turn from a period of mourning to a personal accounting for change. We are given the opportunity to remake ourselves.
Elul is a time expressly for soulful thinking about our true selves and who we want to be. Our tradition says that God is closest to us in this month. After the void of despair from the prior month and wondering where God was in all of our horrible losses, we find that we are in a different space entirely. God is with us, and we are hopeful. The mystical meaning of the spelling of Elul note that Elul can be an acronym for "Ani L'Dodi v'Dodi Li" ("I am my beloved and my beloved is mine", found in the Song of Songs). We can be renewed in our relationship.
"Coincidentally", Chadesh yameinu keKedem, a phrase taken from Jeremiah, read on the 9th of Av - Tisha B'Av, means "Renew our days as before", so we are already primed to see light amidst the darkness. But interestingly enough, the word Kedem means before but also can mean progress and advancement! So we can renew ourselves in order to move forward and make progress.
This period of time is an amazing gift…we get to straddle time by looking back to the past 11 months while preparing ourselves to greet the New Year on Rosh Hashanah. We can pause for serious introspection before we experience the judgement of Rosh Hashanah and the finality of Yom Kippur.
We then come into Sukkot, the Festival of Booths, fully realizing the name for the holiday, Z'man simchateynu, the time of our joy. We culminate this feeling with Simchat Torah, accepting the Torah anew and as new individuals, refreshed and cleansed and ready to start the Torah cycle again.
The Jewish calendar is an incredible phenomenon. A calendar can be based on the movement of the earth relative to the sun, moon or both. The Christian [Gregorian] calendar is based on the sun, while the Islamic is based on the moon. The time it takes for the moon to encircle the earth is approximately 29.5 days per month (meaning that a year is 354 days). The Hebrew calendar is based primarily on the moon, and adds leap years to make up for the gap between the lunar and solar (365 day) year. The studies of the exact mathematics behind these adjustments are fascinating and can be explored further here. There is a special blessing said prior to the new month called Birkat HaChodesh, which you can learn about here.
On a very basic level, the very word Shanah, year, means repetition! The root word (שנה) S-N-H is the same root for the number two, shnayim. The numerical values of the letters for Shanah in Hebrew adds up to the averaged number of days in a lunar year, 355. And although we count the greater passage of time by the cycling repetition of years, the word for month, Chodesh, [ חדש] literally means new, as we experience a natural reminder of a monthly renewal as the moon changes with every passing evening.
This flow of time is an organic experience, the self in relation to the universe. This tells the story of our very nature, our souls yearning to connect with our spiritual Source. As we become aware of the Jewish calendar, its rising and falling times, we might feel that this all has a connected meaning.
As we begin to pay attention to the changing shape of the moon, we also get a sense of where we are in time. Every full moon acts as a trigger that we've reached the middle of the Hebrew month. This connects us to our surroundings, and adds to our feeling that we are part of a greater whole.