The Hebrew month of Elul starts today. It is the month preceding Rosh Hashanah, which is commonly referred to as THE Jewish New Year. The Mishnah (Oral Torah, first major work of Rabbinic literature) offers four new years’ on the Jewish calendar. The first of Elul (today) is Rosh Hashanah Behemot, the New Year (or birthday) of domesticated animals. The four New Years are:
1st of Tishrei (7th month):
- Rosh Hashanah is seen traditionally as the date when the world was created, the anniversary of the creation of Adam and Eve, and when the Jewish calendar advances.
- In ancient times it was also used for calculating certain tithes, such as those for vegetables, and for calculating the start of Shmita and Jubilee years (when land was left fallow).
15th of Shevat:(11th month):
- Tu B’Shvat: New year for fruit trees.
- According to the Torah laws of Orlah, fruits cannot be consumed from trees less than three years old, and in the fouth year were offered at the Temple. Tu B’Shvat was considered the birth date of the trees for this purpose.
1st of Nisan (1st month):
- New year for counting the years of the reigns of kings in ancient Israel.
- It is revered as the day when the Israelites left Egypt and began their journey to freedom and closely tied to our festival of Passover.
1st of Elul (6th month):
- Rosh Hashanah Behemot: New year for determining animal tithes, thus considered a birthday for all the animals. It was used to determine the start date for the animal tithe to the priestly class.
- Marks the beginning of preparations for Rosh Hashanah, where daily ritual practice might include blowing the shofar every morning, reciting Psalm 27, or reciting selichot.
Ahron Varady writes in the Open Siddur Project:
“Rosh Hashanah la-Behemah parallels Rosh Hashanah la-Ilanot (Tu BiShvat), the day for tithing fruit bearing trees — the day on which ribbons were tied around the buds of almond trees indicating which would be its first fruits. These two annual census were essential for upholding the institution of the Temple and the caste of families serving as its priests.
In the millenia after the Temple’s destruction, Tu biShvat was re-established by Jewish mystics as a special day of tikkun — a day to reflect on and pray for healing our relationship with trees and by extension, the whole of life-nurturing Earth. Just as rabbinic Judaism found new ways to realize our Temple offerings with tefillot — prayers — so too the Rosh haShanah la-Behemah challenges us to realize the holiness of the animals in our care in a time without tithes.”
There has not been similar interest in reclaiming this holiday of domesticated animals as much as a holiday of fruit trees because of our disconnect to our food system. Further, most often Tu B’shvat is celebrated as a holiday of all trees, a Jewish Arbor Day, and any connection to tithing is lost in the four worlds of a Kabbalistic seder.
On this first day of Elul, we also begin a month long process of teshuvah (introspection) and consideration of our relationships with all Maasei Bereshit (works of Creation). The letters of Elul form an acronym for the words in the verse Anile‑dodi ve‑dodi li–“I am to my beloved and my beloved is to me.” (Song of Songs 6:3). Commonly understood to refer to our relationship with the divine, we also have the opportunity to focus on this relationship of love with all of Creation.
The 1st Lebovicher Rebbe, Shneur Zalman of Liadi, refers to G!d as being accessible “in the field” during the month of Elul, similarly to the way that the King would meet subjects in the field before returning to his palace.
Holiness is accessible in the fields this month and it is a time ripe in the Jewish calendar for communing with divinity.
We’re reminding of these in the words of members of members of the Jewish Volunteer Gardening Brigade of the way gardening makes people feel:
- Tending to a garden is a peaceful and meditative activity and the garden can be a contemplative place.
- I love working with the earth to produce new things and an artist so I love anything that allows me to be more deeply involved in all stages of production.
- That you can look outside and be interested and happy anytime.
These days, as people are more grounded in place, many are spending time in outside places and increasingly have started to garden. What an opportunity to embrace during Elul!
As you celebrate or prepare for a New Year, and a new season, may you spend time out in the fields, with your beloved.
Co-Founder and Director
Beantown Jewish Gardens
P.s. We’ve got mentors in waiting looking to support new gardeners. It’s not too late to join the Jewish Volunteer Gardeners Brigade if you’re looking for support and peer community.