The second century sage Rabbi Yose ben Halafta, student of Rabbi Akiva and teacher of Rabbi Yehudah ha Nasi calculated that the 25th Day of Elul was the day that Creation began. On that day, God brought into existence time and matter, darkness and light, and began to separate out the primal chaos of tohu vavohu. This is the anniversary of the creation process beginning, the moment of conception.
Talmudic and other rabbinic texts all teach that the 25th Elul was the date. According to the narrative in the book of Genesis, Adam and Eve are believed to have been created on day 6, which would have been Friday 1st Tishri, so that God could rest on that Shabbat .
The 1st of Tishri is also of course the date for Rosh Hashanah, which therefore commemorates the bringing into existence of human being. Rosh Hashanah itself is not understood to be the birthday of the world, but the birthday of what the rabbis understood to be the purpose of the world – for on it God created humankind, the pinnacle of Creation, made in the likeness of God and expected to function in the world with some of the attributes of the divine – caring for the world and protecting everything upon it, working with God to complete creation.
On this day, 25th Elul, God begins to make some kind of sense of the chaos that was present at the beginning of the narrative. The spirit of God is hovering over the primal waters, there is darkness, and there is a sense of unknown depths. And using words of intent, God both brings forth light, and then separates the light from the darkness. Quite what this primal light is – given that the moon and stars are only created some days later – we cannot know; but we can understand that it emanates from a place where God is, it is the beginning of the beginning.
The days of Elul which lead up to festival are all about preparation, about reflection and giving oneself time to think about one’s life – they are, so to speak, the beginning of the beginning. There is no requirement to complete the work, just as the creation of the world is not complete. The requirement is to be engaged in it. In the words of the 2nd century sage Rabbi Tarfon, “It is not your duty to finish the work, but neither are you free to desist from it” (Pirkei Avot 2:21)
Today is the birthday of the world, the moment of beginning of creation. But creation was never a once only thing. Even God takes 6 days and after that has a rest, knowing that what is created will now go on to more and diverse possibilities – creation will continue to make creation.
In the final week of Ellul, the month that is the beginning of the beginning, the time of reflection and deeper awareness, of putting right what we can put right and of owning who we are, it is good to remember we are part of a process, a link in a chain of creation. We can look back to the emerging world of creation, and forward to an unknown world emerging, knowing that we are responsible only for our time, working to make it the best we can.