Elul, the last month of the Jewish year, is a time of paradox.
The Jewish calendar distinguishes between two qualities of time: “mundane” work days, and “holy” days, such as Shabbat and the festivals. Shabbat is a day of disinvolvement from all material endeavor, a day devoted to the spiritual pursuits of study and prayer. The festivals which dot the year are likewise transcendental oases in time, each providing its unique spiritual quality (freedom on Passover, awe on Rosh HaShanah, etc.) to the journeyer through calendar and life.
In this respect, the month of Elul resembles the “holy” portions of the calendar. Elul is a haven in time, a “city of refuge” from the ravages of material life; a time to audit one’s spiritual accounts and assess the year gone by; to prepare for the “Days of Awe” of Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur by repenting the failings of the past and resolving for the future; to immerse oneself in Torah study, prayer and charitable activities. Elul is the opportune time for all this because it is a month in which G-d relates to us in a more open and compassionate manner than He does in the other months of the year. In the terminology of Kabbalah, it is a time when G-d’s “thirteen attributes of mercy” illuminate His relationship with us.
And yet, unlike Shabbat and the festivals, the days of Elul are workdays. On Shabbat, the Torah commands us to cease all materially constructive work (melachah). The festivals, too, are days on which melachah is forbidden. Regarding the month of Elul, however, there are no such restrictions. The transcendent activities of Elul are conducted amidst our workday lives in the field, shop or office.
Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi explains the paradox of Elul with the following metaphor: The king’s usual place is in the capital city, in the royal palace. Anyone wishing to approach the king must go through the appropriate channels in the palace bureaucracy and gain the approval of a succession of royal secretaries and ministers. He must journey to the capital and pass through the many gates, corridors and antechambers that lead to the throne room. His presentation must be meticulously prepared, and he must adhere to an exacting code of dress, speech and mannerism upon entering into the royal presence.
However, there are times when the king comes out to the fields outside the city. At such times, anyone can approach him; the king receives them all with a smiling face and a radiant countenance. The peasant behind his plow has access to the king in a manner unavailable to the highest ranking minister in the royal court when the king is in the palace.
The month of Elul, says Rabbi Schneur Zalman, is when the king is in the field.
Bread is the “staff of life” that “sustains the heart of man.” There was a time when most everyone plowed, sowed and harvested the grain that sustained him and his family; but even today, when only a small percentage of us farm the land, we all labor for bread. Everyone works in the field—be it the wheatfield or cornfield, or the field of banking, steelmaking, medicine or politics. “The field” represents the entire spectrum of our workday endeavors.
Indeed, the field is the primary prototype employed by Torah law to distinguish between the “holy” and “mundane” days of the calendar. The Mishnaic passage that lists the types of work forbidden on Shabbat reads: “The categories of work are forty minus one: sowing, plowing, reaping, making sheaves, threshing, winnowing, picking the chaff from the grain, milling, sifting, kneading, baking…”
Each of these activities represents an entire category which includes many different types of work. For example, leveling the ground to make a tennis court is tantamount to “plowing,” mixing cement is a form of “kneading,” and fishing out a fly from your soup would fall under the category of “picking the chaff from the grain.” But it is the work of the field which heads and dominates the list. In the words of the Talmud, “The author of the Mishnah follows the process of bread making.”
For eleven months of the year, our lives alternate between the field and the palace, between the material endeavors of life and the sublime moments in which we abandon the “process of breadmaking” to enter into the royal presence. In the month of Elul, however, the king comes to the field.
What happens when the king comes to the field? The field is not transformed into a palace, yet neither is the king any less a king when he greets the farmer in his soiled overalls. Back in the throneroom, however, in the aura of sanctity that surrounds the king, the sweat and mundane toil of the field seem a million miles away. How do these two worlds meet and what happens when they do?
To understand the essence of Elul, we must first examine the relationship between the palace and the field, between Shabbat and the workweek, between the very concepts of “holy” and “mundane.” Are they really as distant from each other as their very different faces suggest? Or is there some deeper connection between them, some common bond that unites these diverse worlds?
A glance at the calendar reveals that mundane days of the year far exceed the holy. Of course, it would be extremely difficult to earn a living if the week consisted of a single workday followed by six days of Shabbat. This, however, is an outgrowth of how G-d created us, encumbering us with a host of material needs and placing us in a world that requires a great deal of plowing, sowing and reaping (or dealing, doctoring or lawyering) to satisfy these needs. Why did G-d so order our lives as to necessitate the investment of the bulk of our time and energy in material endeavors? How is this consistent with the mission with which He charged us at Mount Sinai—to be His “kingdom of priests and holy people”?
The answer lies in G-d’s instruction to the people of Israel, following the revelation at Sinai, to construct a physical edifice to serve as a “Sanctuary” for Him. Fifteen materials (including gold, silver, copper, wood, flax, wool and animal skins) are to be fashioned into a “dwelling for G-d in the physical world.” The construction of the Sanctuary represents the purpose of our soul’s placement within a physical body and world: to imbue our material involvements with an integrity and sanctity of purpose, so that our workday life becomes a “home” for G-d, an abode for His goodness and perfection. Indeed, the Talmud tells us that when a soul ascends to heaven upon the completion of its earthly life, the very first question it is asked—before any questions about the fervor of its prayer or the depth of its Torah study—is, “Have you dealt faithfully in business?” In no other area of life is our purpose in this world fulfilled more than in our day-to-day material dealings.
This explains the rather roundabout way by which the Torah defines the types of work from which we must desist on Shabbat. In both the 31st and 35th chapters of Exodus, the commandment to keep Shabbat, and G-d’s instructions concerning the construction of the Sanctuary, immediately follow each other. The Talmud explains that the juxtaposition of these two seemingly unrelated laws is to teach us that the thirty-nine creative acts which the construction of the Sanctuary necessitated are the same thirty-nine categories of work that are forbidden to us on Shabbat:
A person is guilty of violating the Shabbat only if the work he does has a counterpart in the work of making the Sanctuary: they sowed (the herbs from which to make dyes for the tapestries —Rashi); you, too, shall not sow [on Shabbat]. They harvested [the herbs]; you, too, shall not harvest. They loaded the boards from the ground onto the wagons; you, too, shall not bring an object from a public domain into a private domain…
In other words, the work that occupies the “mundane” days of our lives, and from which we are to desist on Shabbat and the other “holy” days of the year, is holy work—the work to construct a “Sanctuary” for G-d out of the materials of physical life. The mundane is mundane in appearance only—an appearance that is the result of the opacity of the material world, of the veneer of corporeality that conceals its holy function to serve as a “dwelling for G-d.”
The Fortieth Labor
But if the mundane days are intrinsically holy, what are the “holy” days of our lives? If the “holy” days are days in which the construction of the “Sanctuary” is to be halted, what relation, if any, do they have to the purpose of our souls’ descent into the material world? Is Shabbat a vacation from life?
Shabbat and the festivals are elevations in the terrain of time, lookout points for a transcendent view upon its plains and valleys. Without these periodic glimpses from a higher, more detached, perspective, our involvement in the material may well become an enmeshment; instead of sanctifying the mundane, we may find ourselves being profaned by it.
Beyond its mundane surface, the material world possesses a deeper truth—its potential to house the goodness and perfection of its Creator. The purpose of our workday lives is to reveal this potential, to develop the material world as a home for G-d. But on the workdays of our life, this potential is all but invisible to us—obscured by the very process that serves to bring it to light; our very involvement with the material prevents us from experiencing its spiritual essence. To do so, we must rise above it. A “holy” day is a point in time in which we transcend the surface mundanity of our workday lives to behold the true—and future—face of our world.
Thus the Torah instructs: “Six days you shall labor and do all your work.” The Midrash is puzzled by the phrase “do all your work”—is it imperative to finish all one’s work before Shabbat? What if one is working on a project that takes many weeks, or years, to complete? The Midrash explains: “When Shabbat comes, you should see all your work as done.” But is not Shabbat the day on which we transcend our workday endeavors? Would it not be more appropriate to say that on Shabbat one is to view all his work as utterly insignificant and non-existent?
In truth, however, Shabbat is indeed a day on which we “see all our work as done”: a day on which we rise above our workday life to perceive the goal and end-product of our labors.
And when we re-enter the mundane days of our lives, the Shabbat or festival experience lingers on. Enriched with insight into the true nature of reality, fortified by the vision of what our involvement with the material will ultimately achieve, our workday lives become focused on their goal, and less susceptible to the diversions and entanglements of the mundane.
For eleven months of the year, our lives alternate between the holy and the mundane—between the material labor of life and the spiritual vision of that labor’s objective. For eleven months of the year, we must regularly cease our work and rise above it in order to glimpse its soul and purpose.
In the month of Elul, however, the king is in the field.
The king is the heart and soul of the nation, the embodiment of its goals and aspirations. The king, though sequestered behind the palace walls and bureaucracy, though glimpsed, if at all, through a veil of opulence and majesty, is a very real part of the farmer’s field. He is the “why” of his plowing, the reason for his sowing, the object of his harvest. No farmer labors for the sake of labor. He labors to transcend the dust of which he and his field are formed, to make more of what is. He labors for his dreams. He labors for his king.
So is the king in the field an apparition out of its element? Hardly. We may not be used to seeing him here, but is not the royal heart, too, sustained by bread? His bread may be baked in the palace, its raw ingredients discreetly delivered to a back entrance; the golden tray on which it is served may in no way evoke the loamy bed from which it grew; but it is the yield of the field all the same.
The king in the field is making contact with the source of his sustenance, with the underpinnings of his sovereignty. And the field is being visited by its raison d’être, by its ultimate function and essence.
Shabbat is when the farmer is invited to the palace. On Shabbat, his overalls are replaced with the regulation livery, his vocabulary is polished and his manners refined, his fingernails and soul are cleansed of the residue of material life. On Shabbat, the farmer is whisked from the hinterland to the capital and ushered into the throne room.
But Elul is when the king comes to the field.
When the farmer sees the king in his field, does he keep on plowing? Does he behave as if this were just another day in the fields? Of course not. Elul is not a month of ordinary workdays. It is a time of increased Torah study, more fervent prayer, more generosity and charity. The very air is charged with holiness. We might still be in the field, but the field has become a holier place.
On the other hand, when the farmer sees the king in his field, does he run home to wash and change? Does he rush to the capitol to school himself in palace protocol? The king has come to the field, to commune with the processors of his bread in their environment and on their terms.
In the month of Elul, the essence and objective of life becomes that much more accessible. No longer do the material trappings of life conceal and distort its purpose, for the king is paying a visit. But unlike the holy days of the year, when we are lifted out of and above our workday lives, the encounter of Elul is hosted by our physical selves, within our material environment, on our workingman’s terms.
Based on an address by the Rebbe, Elul 4, 5750 (August 25, 1990)
Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe by Yanki Tauber
. See A Haven in Time, WIR, vol. VIII, no. 51.
. The laws prohibiting work on Shabbat apply, with several exceptions, to the festivals as well.
. Excepting, of course, Elul’s four Shabbatot.
. Likkutei Torah, Re’eh 32b.
. Cf. Leviticus 26:26.
. Psalms 104:15.
. Talmud, Shabbat 73a.
. Ibid., 74b.
. Exodus 19:6.
. Ibid. 25:1-9.
. Midrash Tanchuma, Nasso 16; see Tanya, ch. 36.
. Talmud, Shabbat 31a.
. Ibid., 49b.
. Thus, Shabbat is a taste of the World to Come (Talmud, Berachot 57b; et al).
. Exodus 20:9.
. Mechilta on Exodus, ibid.
. This is also expressed in the curious manner in which the Mishnah refers to the number of categories of work forbidden on Shabbat: “The categories of work are forty minus one.” As a rule, the Mishnah employs a “pure and concise” wording; why doesn’t it simply say, “The categories of work are thirty-nine”? The Talmudic commentaries explain that, in truth, there are forty categories of work, alluded to by the fact that the wordmelachah is mentioned forty times in the Torah. Yet when we count the categories of work involved in the construction of the Sanctuary, we find only thirty-nine. The missing endeavor is one that is permitted on Shabbat—“the work of Heaven.” In other words, there are actually forty elements to the worklife of man: our thirty-nine creative labors within physical reality, and a fortieth, spiritual element that must pervade our work, and whose source is the “work” of Shabbat.
. Sefer HaSichot 5750, vol. II, pp. 642-648.