Special days often receive special greetings and the Yamim Noraim are certainly no exception. The Maharil (c.1360 – 1427, Germany) felt it an imperative that letter writers include a hint that they request a good new year for the recipient. He gives several options, including: You should be inscribed and sealed for a good year or The One who holds the world on nothingness should bestow upon you a good inscription and sealing. A more commonly known extension (1) of this idea is expressed by R. Moshe Isserles (1520 – 1572, Poland). R. Isserles writes (2) that, on the opening night of Rosh HaShanah, it is appropriate to greet others with a blessing for a good new year.
The idea of beginning a letter with a seasonally appropriate blessing makes a lot of sense. However, at the same time, the Maharil’s emphasis on the importance of this blessing during Elul seems to imply that during the rest of the year it isn’t so important to include a blessing. Such a notion would not seem to stand up against the following teaching from Gemara Berachos 6b:
R’ Chelbo said in the name of Rav Huna: All who know that their friend is accustomed to greet them should initiate a greeting, as it states, “Ask for peace, and pursue it” (Tehillim 34:15). And if his friend greets him and he does not respond, he is called a thief, as it states, “And you ravaged the vineyard, stolen goods of the poor are in your homes” (Yeshayah 3:14).
Rashi (1040 – 1105, France) explains the derivation from Yeshayah:
Stolen goods of the poor – Stealing from the rich is also stealing! Rather, a poor person has nothing that he can be robbed of other than his greetings.
Greetings are indeed of critical importance (3) given the failure to extend one is compared to theft!
Here’s to you, for me!
R. Nasan Gestetner (1932 – 2001, Hungary, Israel) explains the Maharil’s custom and apparent emphasis on Elul greetings in the following manner. The Gemara in Bava Kama 92a teaches that all who request compassion on behalf of their fellow, and they themselves need that same thing, they will be answered first. As such, when one includes a blessing for a new year, which everyone needs and wants, it follows suit that the writer should receive this blessing first. On the surface, this seems to be self-serving, G-d forbid. When understood in light of a similar teaching, however, it becomes clear that this isn’t the case. The Gemara Berachos 12b teaches (4):
Anyone who has the ability to request compassion for their fellow and doesn’t is called a sinner, as it says, “I also, far be it from me to sin against G-d in ceasing to pray for you…”(Shmuel I 12:23).
This verse is pulled from Shmuel’s rebuke of the Jewish people for having requested a human king and thereby flouting G-d’s kingship. He assures them that as they do their part and repent, he will do his and pray on their behalf. Just as they have ceased to sin and are now changing their deeds, he most certainly will not turn right around and sin himself by not praying. This establishes a precedent and necessity to pray for others during their time of need, regardless of whether you have this need as well (5).
The Maharil’s Elul greeting can serve to reinforce several critical ideas within us. It reminds us that we ourselves need G-d’s compassion and it pushes us to be more aware of the the fact that others have this same need (and desire). Add to this the powerful act of greeting another human being and the Maharil’s emphasis on Elul greetings isn’t so strange after all.
(1) R’ Yissachar Tamar does not feel that the two are related, see Alei Tamar to Yerushalmi Berachos 2:1. He also notes that later authorities do not consistently quote the teaching of the Maharil. He suggests that this may depend on whether or not the Maharil’s custom had spread to different locales in Europe and that nowadays the Rema’s approach is the accepted one.
(2) see Shulchan Aruch OC 582:9.
(3) Derech Eretz Zuta Perek HaShalom notes the emphasis made by the word bakeish – seek. Other mitzvos include phrases like, “when” or “if.” Maintaining peace is not something that we wait to just take happen. Instead, it is to be actively pursued.
(4) R’ Yeshayah Berlin explains that “anyone who is able” refers to a tremendously righteous person whose prayers will certainly be accepted and believes that this is why this teaching isn’t quoted by halachic authorities. See also Iyun Yaakov who explains the Gemara in the same fashion. This may be based on the fact that Shmuel, an unquestionably righteous person, is cited as a source of this idea. Later authorities do note this teaching. See Shu”t B’Tzel HaChochma 3:33 and Chashukei Chemed to Berachos 12b. R’ Gestetner is apparently adopting a broader understand of “anyone who is able.”
(5) The connecting of Gem. Bava Kamma 92a and Berachos 12b is my own and not R’ Gestetner’s. So, any mistake in doing so is my own. Feel free to comment.