Haggai: Prophet of Elul

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Tzvi Sinensky

This is the second in an occasional series arguing that there are unexpected biblical roots for many Jewish holidays and practices. By exploring these foundations, we gain fresh insight into many well-trodden aspects of the Jewish tradition. Read the first article in the series, on Tu be-Av, here.

On what basis is Hodesh Elul seen as ushering in the season of repentance?[1] Conventional wisdom maintains that, after having been granted atonement for the sin of the Golden Calf, Moses reascended Mount Sinai on 1 Elul. This launched a second period of forty days and nights spent in celestial study, after which Moses descended with the second tablets on 10 Tishrei, Yom Kippur.[2] This position, popularized by Ran (Rosh Hashanah 12b be-alfas s.v. “garsinan”) and Tur (Orah Hayyim 581), is based on the the midrashic account of Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer (chap. 46):

Rabbi Joshua, son of Korhah, said: Moses was on the mountain for forty days, reading the Written Law by day and studying the Oral Law by night. After forty days he took the tablets and descended into the camp on the seventeenth of Tammuz, shattered the tablets, and slew the sinners of Israel. He spent forty days in the camp until he had burnt the calf and powdered it like dust of the earth, destroyed idol worship from Israel, and established every tribe in its place. Upon the new moon of Elul the Holy One, blessed be He, said to him: “Come up to me on the Mount” (Exodus 24:12), and have them sound the shofar throughout the camp, for Moses has ascended the Mount, so that they do not go astray again after the worship of idols. The Holy One, blessed be He, ascended with that shofar, as it states, “God ascended with a shout, the Lord with the sound of a trumpet” (Psalms 47:5). Therefore the Sages instituted that the shofar should be sounded on the new moon of Elul every year.

The midrash is intriguing, particularly in its mysterious description of God’s ascent with the shofar, to which we will return. Regardless, following Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer’s chronology, we can well understand the commentaries’ depiction of Elul as ushering in the season of repentance: it was during these forty days leading to Yom Kippur that Moses reestablished the relationship between God and His people.

However, its popularity notwithstanding, this conclusion is not necessarily warranted. Nowhere does the midrash identify the month of Elul with repentance; in fact, it does not even mention the practice of blowing the shofar throughout the remainder of the month. It is only after citing the midrash that Ran (ibid.) adds, “On this Ashkenazim relied to blow throughout the month of Elul, morning and night; and from here we may account for those places where they arise early [for Selihot] beginning with Rosh Hodesh Elul.”[3]

What is more, Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer’s timeline has no explicit basis in the biblical text. Even granting the midrash’s general timetable, a quick calculation indicates that Moses would have been required to ascend the mountain not on 1 Elul (which only contains 29 days, equalling just 39 days with the addition of Tishrei’s first ten days) but on the last day of Av. While one might respond that the standard of a 29-day Elul was only set during the time of Ezra (see Rosh Hashanah 19b), Seder Olam Rabbah (6), followed by Bekhor Shor (Deut. 10:10), record Moses’ ascent as having taken place on the final day of Av. There is considerable debate, then, whether or not Moses ascended on 1 Elul.[4] Given these concerns, might there be an alternative basis for the significance of Hodesh Elul?

In fact, there is an extremely strong candidate for this distinction: the opening prophecy of Haggai. Let us set the stage by reviewing the biblical background to Haggai’s prophecies, delivered during the years immediately prior to the Second Temple’s construction. Earlier, Cyrus had called upon the Jews to return from exile and rebuild the Temple (Ezra 1:1). The Samaritans, however, furiously opposed the reconstruction efforts, and, during the reign of Artaxerxes, petitioned successfully for a royal command halting the work (Ezra 4:7-23). The Jews became dispirited, and abandoned the project until a year after Darius’ ascent to the throne (Ezra 7:24).

Enter Haggai. The two chapters of his book, particularly the first, are dedicated to urging the people to overcome their hesitation and proceed with the reconstruction. Haggai delivers his first prophecy on 1 Elul, repeatedly invoking the language of repentance:

In the second year of King Darius, on the first day of the sixth month, this word of the Lord came through the prophet Haggai to Zerubbavel son of Shealtiel, the governor of Judah, and to Joshua son of Yehotzadak, the high priest:

Thus said the Lord of Hosts: These people say, “The time has not yet come for rebuilding the House of the Lord.”

And the word of the Lord through the prophet Haggai continued:

Is it a time for you to dwell in your paneled houses, while this House is lying in ruins?

Now thus said the Lord of Hosts: Consider how you have been faring [“simu levavkhem al darkheikhem”]!

You have sowed much and brought in little; you eat without being satisfied; you drink without getting your fill; you clothe yourselves, but no one gets warm; and he who earns anything earns it for a leaky purse.

Thus said the Lord of Hosts: Consider how you have fared [“simu levavkhem al darkheikhem”]!

Go up to the hills [“alu ha-har”] and get timber, and rebuild the House; then I will look on it with favor and I will be glorified, said the Lord. (Haggai 1:1-8)

Given that the biblical year generally begins in Nissan, it is evident that the sixth month refers to Elul (R. Yosef Kara to Haggai 1:1, Da’at Mikra ad loc.).[5] On Rosh Hodesh Elul, then, Haggai exhorts the people to recognize that their agricultural failure is a direct outgrowth of their misplaced priorities: “Because My House which lies in ruins, while you all hurry to your own houses!” Haggai thus appears to provide an explicit biblical basis for 1 Elul launching a period of repentance.[6] Indeed, Kaf ha-Hayyim (Orah Hayyim 581:15; see also Kaf ha-Hayyim Orah Hayyim 429:6) cites Nezirut Shimshon, who goes so far as to recommend that one read the beginning of Sefer Haggai on the first of Elul. Further, the verses go on to state that “They came and set to work on the House of the Lord of Hosts, their God, on the twenty-fourth day of the sixth month” (Haggai 1:14-15), indicating that Elul opens with a call to repentance a and continues with this theme throughout the month.

What are we to make of this biblical precedent? We may begin by noting a subtle textual similarity between Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer and Haggai: the verse describing Moses’ ascent to the mountain reads “aleh eilay ha-harah,” “ascend to Me to the mountain,” paralleling Haggai’s charge of “alu ha-har,” “ascend to the mountain,” to collect materials for the construction of the Temple. In both instances, the charge of climbing a mountain inaugurates the period of repentance.

Yet this correspondence primarily underscores the extent to which these models for Hodesh Elul diverge. The respective ascents differ in regard to the nature of the mountain, who is instructed to go up, and for what purpose. Moses climbs the mountain of God. Haggai’s listeners, however, go up to an anonymous mountain. In Exodus, only Moses ascends, whereas in Haggai the entire nation must alight. Moses, according to the midrashic literature, studies Torah with God for forty days and nights, while the Jews of the Second Temple period engage in the decidedly mundane process of wood collection, albeit to construct the Temple.[7]

These basic differences are presumably born of their respective contexts. In Exodus, the nation had effectively shattered the Sinaitic covenant by sinning with the Golden Calf. What is more, at no point does the nation repent for its misdeeds. To the contrary, while God accepts Moses’ pleas and is persuaded not to decimate the Israelites, His reconsideration is an outgrowth of Moses’ argument from the desecration of God’s name, as well as his invocation of the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy, rather than a result of actions taken by the Jews themselves.

Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer reinforces the motifs of the Exodus narrative. According to the midrash, the shofar blast announces Moses’s ascent to the mountain in order to avoid the very real possibility that, thinking Moses has died, the people will again be ensnared by the sin of avodah zarah.[8] Apparently, while the nation has been granted clemency, there is little reason to conclude that they have repented as a nation. Moreover, the midrash’s esoteric depiction of God’s concurrent ascent with the shofar blast suggests that He, along with Moses, withdraws His presence from the nation, indicating His continued displeasure with their actions.[9]

The contrast to Haggai could not be more clear. Here, while the people have erred, they have not sinned egregiously, and the prophet addresses himself to the entire Judean community (albeit numbering only some 50,000 strong). Specifically, instead of engaging in an act of rebellion, the people are guilty of hypocrisy and apathy. Their sin is not one of commission but of omission: they have failed to overcome the challenges confronting the rebuilding project.

Seeking to stir the people, Haggai exhorts four times in his sefer, “simu levavkhem al darkheikhem” (1:5,7; 2:15,18). As Da’at Mikra notes (1:5 note 12), this locution is unique to Sefer Haggai. Quite literally, the prophet urges the people to “pay attention.” And it is not so much a spiritual message as a practical, albeit religious, one. Haggai is the pragmatic Religious Zionist, calling on all people to drop the excuses, roll up their sleeves, and engage in the rebuilding efforts.

Further, unlike Moses, who must separate from the nation, Haggai and his contemporary Zekhariah may have personally joined the people by engaging in manual labor themselves. The verse states, “Thereupon Zerubbavel son of Shealtiel and Jeshua son of Yehotzadak began rebuilding the House of God in Jerusalem, with the full support of the prophets of God” (Ezra 5:2). Malbim (5:1) appears to maintain that the prophets were instrumental merely inasmuch as they called on the populace to build. Rashi (ibid., s.v. “ve-sarav”), on the other hand, seems to take the verse at face value: the prophets practiced what they preached, engaging in heavy lifting as they concomitantly urged the people to follow suit. The contrast to the aftermath of the Golden Calf, whereupon Moses was specifically separated from the nation, could not be thrown into sharper relief.

It is no surprise, then, that Haggai’s universal, practical message and personal model resonated with the entire nation:

Zerubbavel son of Shealtiel and the high priest Jeshua son of Yehotzadak and all the rest of the people gave heed to the summons of the Lord their God and to the words of the prophet Haggai, when the Lord their God sent him; the people feared the Lord. (Haggai 1:12)

Yet a glaring question remains. With few exceptions, the classical commentaries omit Sefer Haggai in their discussions of Hodesh Elul. Why?

A number of factors may be at play. First, as noted elsewhere, the rabbis sought to link nearly all the biblical holidays to the Jews’ first year as a nation, suggesting that the annual cycle of holidays mirrors that original yearlong series of events. The midrash does just this. Second, Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer’s narrative enables us to view Elul as a period of preparation for Yom Kippur, heightening the stature of this holy day and extending its “footprint”; this is lacking in Haggai’s prophecies. Third and perhaps most interesting, Haggai’s prophecy was delivered during a period of Judean resettlement, with lessons that were particularly poignant at that time, but less so in later stages of Jewish history. The events of the Golden Calf and its aftermath, leading to Yom Kippur, were seen by the Rabbis as models for the full sweep of Jewish history.

If this final reason for the historical sidelining of Haggai’s prophecy is correct, today’s period of a renewed return to Zion might be precisely the moment to reintroduce Haggai’s clarion call. As Rav Soloveitchik argued passionately in his classic 1956 plea Kol Dodi Dofek, albeit at a very different moment in Israeli history, we can in no way be lackadaisical in our support of Medinat Yisrael. Stated in 2018 terms, as American Jews we cannot take for granted the next generation’s support for Israel, both materially and attitudinally, nor can we take for granted the relationship between the diaspora and Israeli Jewish communities.

Further, Haggai’s exhortation of “simu levavkhem,” an attack on apathy, is acutely relevant in our time, although ironically perhaps most of all in Jewish communities beyond Israel’s borders. The great challenges confronting our generation, at least on Modern Orthodox American soil, resemble less the outright rebelliousness of the generation of the desert and more the dispassion and misplaced priorities of Haggai’s returnees.

This year, I will be following Kaf ha-Hayyim’s recommendation to read Sefer Haggai on Rosh Hodesh Elul. Indeed, perhaps the time has come for a renewed appreciation of Haggai’s inspiring message not only for 1 Elul, but the entire month to come.

[1] Of course, there are numerous associations between the term Elul and repentance. For instance, the classic association between Elul and the phrase “Ani le-dodi ve-dodi li” (cf. Song of Songs 6:3), as well as the Hasidic bon mot “the king is in the field” suggest a heightened level of divine intimacy during Elul. Meiri (Hibbur ha-Teshuvah, Meishiv Nefesh 2:2) posits that during Elul God uniquely enables us to prepare for the approaching Days of Judgment. In support of this view, Meiri, based on a midrash, extends the Talmud’s application of the verse “Seek the Lord while He can be found, Call Him while He is near” (Isiaiah 55:6) from the Ten Days of Repentance to Hodesh Elul. These explanations and others, however, do not explain why the entire month of Elul is specifically selected for this period of intimacy or preparation; as Arukh ha-Shulhan (Orah Hayyim 581:1) maintains, they are best characterized not as full-fledged sources but as allusions.

[2] Or third period of forty days, see Tanhuma , Ki Tissa 31:1.

[3] Relatedly, as noted by Bah (Orah Hayyim 581 s.v. “tanya”), Ran and Tur seem to have a somewhat different text of Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer. In Ran’s version, the midrash concludes by recording that on the basis of the events at Sinai, the Jews began blowing the shofar on Rosh Hodesh Elul to inspire the people in repentance and to confuse Satan. Even according to this text, as Ran makes clear in the continuation, the midrash speaks exclusively about blowing the shofar on Rosh Hodesh proper. Tur’s (ibid.) citation of the midrash does include a reference to blowing the shofar throughout the month, but this appears to be a far later and less reliable citation.

[4] See also Rashi to Exodus 33:11, R. Eliyahu Mizrahi ibid., Tosafot Bava Kama 82a s.v. “kedei,” and Bah (Orah Hayyim 581) s.v. “be-Rosh.”

[5] While in Sefer Ezra there are indications that the months are actually counted from Tishrei, Da’at Mikra (ibid.) convincingly argues from internal evidence that Haggai’s book certainly follows the bulk of Tanakh in counting the months from Nissan.

[6] Rabbanit Shani Taragin makes this point in a brief lecture available at: http://www.hatanakh.com/en/lessons/chagais-rosh-chodesh-elul-teshuva-derasha.

[7] This is similar to the call in Nehemiah 8:15 for the Jews to climb to the mountain and collect materials with which to construct sukkot.

[8] In this, Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer adopts the view that the Jews sinned upon arriving at the erroneous conclusion that Moses had died on the mountain; see also Tanhuma (Buber) Ki Tissa 13 and Rashi Exodus 32:1. It is also worth noting that Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer’s shofar blast, which indicates God’s ascent from the mountain, provides a bookend of sorts with the initial shofar blast of Sinai, which signaled God’s descent onto the mountain.

[9] See also Nedarim 38a, which claims that “the Torah was given initially only to Moses and his descendants, as it is stated: “Write for you” (Exodus 34:27), and it is also stated: “Hew for you” (Exodus 34:1), meaning: Just as their waste is yours, so too their writing is yours. However, Moses treated the Torah with generosity and gave it to the Jewish people. And about him, the verse says: “He that has a bountiful eye shall be blessed, as he gives of his bread to the poor” (Proverbs 22:9).” Note that both proof texts are drawn from the narrative regarding the second set of tablets, suggesting that Moses’s final forty days primarily are not centered on the relationship between God and the Jewish people, but between God and Moses.

Tzvi Sinensky is Director of Judaic Studies and Upper School Principal at Main Line Classical Academy, and Director of the Lamm Heritage Archives at Yeshiva University. He earned his PhD in Jewish Philosophy on the subject of rabbinic conceptions of manhood at Yeshiva University's Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies. A popular lecturer and author, Tzvi completed three book-length series published by Yeshivat Har Etzion’s Virtual Beit Midrash, is editor of a forthcoming posthumous edition of Rabbi Lamm's halakhic writings, and is writing a book on the overarching themes in Rabbi Lamm's oeuvre. He has served as Lehrhaus editor for over four years, and lives in Lower Merion, PA, with his wife and three children.