Teaching Elul

Posted by PCJE Staff on May 30, 2018
Topics: Holidays, Pardes Center for Jewish Educators

It is the rare school year, indeed, when we get a full month to explore the unique customs and spiritual significance of Elul with our students before chaggei tishrei are upon us. Below are a few activity suggestions, questions, prompts and resources to inspire you to make the most of this time of year. We encourage you to pick and choose from the list below and tailor these suggestions to best meet the needs of your students.

The ritual of blowing the shofar daily throughout the month of Elul is laden with various interpretations and can be profoundly meaningful.

  • Have your students explore the various associations of shofar presented by this variety of sources.
  • Have students set an intention each morning before blowing the shofar in class (or minyan).
  • Run a ‘learn to blow shofar’ session.

The custom of reciting slichot in the lead up to Rosh haShana is 1000 years old. This unique liturgical experience is missed by many (students and teachers alike) due to the hour when they are recited.

  • Explore with your students the four elements which comprise the slichot service: tochecha (self rebuke), akeida (the narrative of the Binding of Isaac), techina (appealing to God) and bakasha (petition) and have students compose their own personal slichot prayers for each of these four components.
  • Discuss: Why do we customarily say slichot at such a strange time of day (or night)? What is unique about dawn? What advantages are there to conducting the slichot service at such an unusual and often difficult time?

Commencement/Cheshbon hanefesh
Elul can be thought of as a month-long commencement of sorts. It can be framed as both the ceremonial conclusion of one year, and as marking the beginning of another.

  • Students can create their own annotated diplomas from the previous year (5776 – not just the school year). What did they achieve in school and out? How did they grow? What are they most proud of that they are carrying into the upcoming year?
  • Have students keep a cheshbon hanefesh journal, with a focus on reflecting on the previous year and trying to grow in the upcoming one.
  • Every student can write a commencement speech, which reflects on past growth and inspiration for the upcoming year. What do they want to achieve?

ELUL – Ani L’dodi V’dodi Li
The traditional claim that ELUL is an acronym for the phrase from Shir haShirim (6:3), “Ani l’dodi, v’dodi li,” which tries to emphasize the role that love should play in our relationship with God, and perhaps with our fellow (hu)man. This is a month where we can focus on strengthening those relationships.

  • Have a class debate examining the question whether there are parallels between the love between humans (between parents and children, friends, partners) and the love we can expect to feel towards God.
  • Have students commit, for the duration of Elul (or through Yom Kippur), to one concrete thing they can do to improve their relationship with God. Or, expand this and have them make a ben adam lechavero commitment as well.

לדוד ה’ אורי
The custom of reciting this psalm (27) during Elul (through Shmini Atzeret) is attributed to an interpretation in Vayikra Rabbah (21:4) of the first four words, which states that ‘God is my light‘ – on Rosh haShana and ‘my salvation’ – on Yom Kippur. (And a reference to God’s ohel a few lines down is understood to be an allusion to a sukkah).

  • Have a class discussion exploring the deeper teaching of that midrash: Why might we associate light with Rosh haShana (what might light symbolize here)? Salvation on Yom Kippur? In havruta, have students do their own close reading of the text and decide for themselves whether the language, imagery and message of the psalm are meaningful to them as a preparation for the yamim noraim.
  • After reading/learning the psalm closely, have students try this Color, Symbol, Image (CSI) thinking routine to help them identify the main idea or core theme of the passage. They can add their CSI to their siddurim for the month of Elul.

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