Two of the well-known customs during the month of Elul are performed one right after the other at the end of Shacharit services: the blowing of the shofar and the recitation of Tehillim Chapter 27 “L’Dovid Hashem Ori”. Of the two customs, shofar blowing during Elul is more established and referenced earlier and more often in books of Jewish law. Due in part to its more established status, some Rabbis believed that the proper order of operations is to recite Psalm 27 first and end services with the sound of the shofar. Although this makes a lot of sense and would seem to be a more dramatic way to end services, it is not the customary order of operations in most synagogues, including ours. We blow the shofar and then recite “L’Dovid”. We can get a better understanding of why we do what we do by briefly reviewing the reason for each custom.
The Tur (O.C 581) quotes Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer to explain why we blow the shofar in Elul. Historically, Moshe broke the first set of tablets on the 17th of Tammuz. After praying for the People’s forgiveness, Moshe was finally ready to ascend Mt. Sinai again to receive the second tablets on the first day of Elul. On that day, the shofar was sounded as a warning to the Jewish People not to make the same mistake this time around.
In effect, the sound of the shofar during Elul is a reminder of how very difficult it is for human beings to change their ways. The sin of the Golden Calf was a once-in-history type of event. And yet, as Moshe ascends Mt Sinai to receive the second tablets the shofar is sounded to remind the Jewish People not to make that mistake again. When we hear the shofar, we too are being challenged to change our ways and perspectives. But we are creatures of habit. If the Jews who erred and were forgiven for the sin of the Golden Calf were suspected of not changing, what hope can we have?
That is why we recite Tehillim Chapter 27 after the shofar blasts. As King David writes in this Psalm, Hashem is our light and our salvation. Teshuva may be difficult, but if we put our trust in Hashem then it is well within our reach. During the month of Elul, Teshuva is the natural outcome if we heed the call of the shofar and understand the lesson of “L’Dovid Hashem Ori”.
The Tur also notes that blowing the shofar—which is actually a Rosh Hashanah activity—for a month in advance “confuses the prosecuting angel”, who now has no idea what day is the real Rosh Hashanah. How is blowing the shofar for a month going to confuse the prosecuting angel? Wouldn’t the crafty angel catch on after a few hundred years? The Lubavitcher Rebbe explains that by hearing the shofar and internalizing its message, we will feel remorse over past misdeeds and set ourselves upon a fresh new path. If so, the case is already sealed—and we won. Hashem has already inscribed us in the book of life for the coming year, even before Rosh Hashanah. This leaves the prosecutor confused. What’s left for him to do when the trial date finally arrives?
That’s the meaning of “not knowing what day is Rosh Hashanah”—the prosecuting angel can no longer tell when the judgment occurs. Because we proactively took care of the whole thing on our own accord and in advance of the Day of Judgement.
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