New York – There is near universal custom during the month of Elul to recite the Chapter of Tehillim (27) “L’Dovid Hashem Ori” during davening, both every morning and evening, and all the way up to Shmini Atzeres as preparation to the Yomim Noraim (Kitzur Shulchan Aruch, 128, 2; Mishna Berura 581, 2). This custom is based on the Midrash Shocher Tov which elucidates that various phrases of this chapter contain allusions to the holidays of the repentance period – Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, and Sukkos, as well as to the month of Elul itself.
The Malbim offers an alternate explanation. In this chapter, Dovid HaMelech, the author of Tehillim, asked to cleave to Hashem and that all obstacles that block his coming close to Him should be removed. The Malbim explains that when we strive to do so, Hashem will attach Himself to us with a higher level of personalized supervision. It is thus quite apropos to recite “L’Dovid” during the month of Elul, whose name hints to the acronym “Ani L’dodi V’dodi Li – I am to my beloved and my beloved is to me” (Shir HaShirim Ch. 6, 3). Elul is a month which symbolizes our relationship to Hashem, and one in which proper repentance is more readily accepted (Mishna Berura’s introduction to 581).
Where’s the source?
Where and when did this minhag start? It is not mentioned in the Gemara, nor in the Rishonim, and not even referenced in the Shulchan Aruch or its main commentaries. It seems a bit odd that such a common custom would not stem from a primary source! Much research has been done and many any works have been written to try to find the earliest source for this meaningful minhag.
Many attribute it to the noted Kabbalist and author of “Amtachas Binyomin”, Rav Binyomin Beinish Cohen, in his sefer “Shem Tov Kattan”, first printed in 1706. There he writes that one should be scrupulous with reciting “L’Dovid” daily from Rosh Chodesh Elul until after Simchas Torah, as saying it has the potential to avert and nullify even Heavenly decrees. Others erroneously concluded that the earliest source was the controversial “Chemdas Yamim”, first printed in 1731.
Yet, there is possibly an earlier source. In the sefer “Nezer Hakodesh – Minhagei Beis Ropschitz” a story is brought down about the Baal Shem Tov, where he mentioned a Tzaddik, known as Rav Eliyahu Baal Shem, who had saved the Jews of a certain town from eviction by successfully promising the childless mayor a son within a year. The Baal Shem Tov mentioned that this Tzaddik, who lived in the late 1600’s, was the one who established the custom of reciting “L’Dovid” during Elul.
History has shown that there were two Tzaddikim known by this name. The better known of the two is Rav Eliyahu Baal Shem of Chelm, who was of such stature that he was known to have created a Golem. His grandchildren, the Gedolim known as the Chacham Tzvi, as well as his son the Ya’avetz (Rav Yaakov Emden), both have written resposae on the topic of the Golem that their grandfather created (Shu”t Chacham Tzvi 93 and Shu”t She’elas Ya’avetz vol. 2, 82). The Chid”a (Shem Gedolim vol. 1, Ma’areches Gedolim – Ma’areches Alef, 166) also attested to its existence. Not only that, there is even a halachic debate between the Mishna Berura (55, 4) and the Chazon Ish (Y”D 116, 1) based on their accounts, whether such a Golem can be counted for a minyan! In fact, the story of Rav Eliyahu and his Golem was featured in a recent edition of Yeshurun (vol. 17, pg. 665 – 666) and was subsequentially adapted as a hardcover comic book entitled “The Golem of Chelm – Hayah V’Nivra”.
The other Rav Eliyahu Baal Shem was Rav Eliyahu Luentz, who was known as a master Kabbalist in the 17th century. He wrote a seminal volume on the Zohar Titled “Aderes Eliyahu”, and was a disciple of my ancestor and namesake, the renowned Maharal M’Prague, who incidentally was rumored to have also created a Golem. [Although legends about the Maharal’s Golem have been in print since 1837, the well known stories that captivated the popular imagination were first published in the early 20th century (Niflaos HaMaharal) by Rav Yudel Rosenberg, author of the Yados Nedarim, who also translated the Zohar into Hebrew, and later was the Av Beis Din of Montreal, Canada. (See Tradition vol. 36, 1 (2002) “R Yudl Rosenberg and the Golem of Prague”, by Prof. S. Z. Leiman.)]
In conclusion, although we are left uncertain as to whom the originator of this powerful minhag was, we can rest assured that it does have a reliable source. We can thus appreciate the significance of saying this chapter of Tehillim during Elul, as it underscores the major goals of the season of repentance.
Postscript: There are a few Chassidic communities, however, including Sanz and Kamarna, who do not recite L’Dovid during Elul. It is known that the Vilna Gaon as well did not approve of this addition to davening (Maaseh Rav 53). See Shu”t Divrei Moshe (34), and sefer Minhagei Kamarna, (printed in the back of Shulchan HaTahor, Elul, 381), as well as Likutei Eliezer (pg. 5, footnotes 30 – 31).
The Kamarna Rebbe of Yerushalayim told this author that although in his shul “L’Dovid” is recited, as most of his congregation are not his Chassidim and nearly everyone’s custom is to recite it, nevertheless, he personally does not.
Much of this article is based on the sefer Likutei Eliezer by Rabbi Eliezer Brodt – Ch. 1.
This article was written as a zchus for שירה יפה בת רחל מרים וכל ילדיה- לישועה מיד.
Rabbi Yehuda Spitz serves as the Shoel U’ Meishiv and Rosh Chabura of the Ohr Lagolah Halacha Kollel at Yeshivas Ohr Somayach in Yerushalayim. He also currently writes a contemporary halacha column for the Ohr Somayach website titled “Insights Into Halacha