There is a profit in the land over all else,
for the king is sustained by the field
Ecclesiastes 5:8 (as per Ibn Ezra on verse)
Elul, the last month of the Jewish year, is a time of paradox -- a time of
what might be termed, "spiritual workdays."
The Jewish calendar distinguishes between two general qualities of time:
"mundane" (chol) and "holy" (kodesh). Ordinary
workdays are "mundane" portions of time; Shabbat and the festivals are
examples of "holy" time. On "holy" days, we disengage
ourselves from the material involvements of life to devote ourselves to the
spiritual pursuits of study and prayer. These are also days enriched with
special spiritual resources (rest on Shabbat, freedom on Passover, awe on Rosh
Hashanah, etc.), each providing its unique quality to the journeyer through
calendar and life.
In the latter 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; a time 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; a time to increase 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.
Yet unlike Shabbat and the festivals, the days of Elul are workdays. On
Shabbat, the Torah commands us to cease all physically 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
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 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
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 advertising.
Indeed, the field is the prototype employed by Torah law to define the
"work" that distinguishes between the holy and mundane days of the
calendar. The Talmudic passage which lists the types of work forbidden on
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...
(Talmud, Shabbat 73a)
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"; sorting laundry would fall under the category of
"picking the chaff from the grain." But the prototypes that head and
dominate the list of forbidden labors are labors of the field. In the words of
the Talmud, "The author of the Mishnah follows the process of
For eleven months of the year, our lives alternate between the field and the
palace, between the "process of bread-making" of material life and the
sublime moments in which we leave the field 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? 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?
Let us take a closer look at the "work of the field" and the
"process of bread-making" that defines our workday lives.
The Torah chooses a rather roundabout way to convey to us the 39 types of
work from which we must desist on Shabbat and the festivals: by linking the laws
of Shabbat to the laws of the Sanctuary.
Following the revelation at Sinai, G‑d commanded the people of Israel to
construct a "Sanctuary" for Him. Detailed instructions were given to
Moses on how to shape fifteen materials (gold, silver, copper, wood, flax, wool
of various colors and several types of animal skins) into a "dwelling for
G‑d in the physical world."
In both the 31st and 35th chapters of Exodus, the commandment to cease work
on Shabbat and G‑d's instructions concerning the construction of the Sanctuary
immediately follow each other. The Talmud explains that the Torah juxtaposes
these two seemingly unrelated laws in order to teach us that the 39 creative
acts which the construction of the Sanctuary necessitated are the same 39
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... (Talmud,
For the work of the Sanctuary is the prototype for the work of life. In the
words of the Tanya, "This is what man is all about, this is the purpose of
his creation and the creation of all worlds, supernal and ephemeral -- to make
G‑d a dwelling in the physical world."
In other words, the work forbidden on Shabbat and the festivals -- the work
that defines the difference between the "holy" and "mundane"
days of our lives -- is not mundane work at all. It is holy work -- the work of
forming the physical world into a home for G‑d. Why, then, are the days on which
this work is done regarded as the "mundane" days of our lives? And why
are the days on which we are commanded to cease this work
"holier" than the days on which this work is done?
The Lookout Tower
Indeed, the difference between the "holy" and "mundane"
times of our lives is not a difference in essence, only a difference in
perspective. Yet the reality of physical life is that to achieve a change of
perspective one must change the place and position from which one looks.
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 an elevation in the terrain of time, a lookout
tower that rises above the surface of our workday lives to behold the true essence
of our world -- the essence we are laboring to actualize. (In the words of our
sages, "Shabbat is a taste of the World to Come.") Rising to these
"lookout points" means interrupting our life's work; but without these
periodic glimpses from a higher, more detached vantage point, our involvement in
the material may well become an enmeshment. Instead of sanctifying the mundane,
we may find ourselves being profaned by it.
So one day a week, and on special occasions throughout the year, we cease our
work in "the field" to gain a more transcendent view of our workday
labors. Then, when we reenter the so-called "mundane" days of our
lives, the Shabbat or festival experience lingers on. Enriched with insight into
the true nature of our labors, fortified by the vision of what our involvement
with the material will ultimately achieve, our workday lives become more focused
on their goal, and less susceptible to the diversions and entanglements of the
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, at regular intervals,
cease our work and rise above it in order to glimpse its soul and purpose.
The exception to this rule is the month of Elul. For during the month of Elul,
the king comes to 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 objective 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
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 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 are refined, his soul and fingernails 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
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 capital to school himself in palace
protocol? But 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 become that much more
accessible. No longer do the material trappings of life conceal and distort its
purpose, for the king has emerged from the concealment of his palace and is
here, in the field. But unlike the holy days of the year, when we are lifted out
of our workday lives, the encounter of Elul is hosted by our physical selves,
within our material environment, on our working-man's terms.