Cattle: Symbol of Elul

Elul is a month of preparation for Rosh Hashanah — at least in modern Judaism.  It’s interesting then, that the first of Elul is the “New Year of Cattle.”

 In ancient Israel it’s the time when the cattle were counted and tithed.  Cows are mentioned from time-to-time in the Tanakh and other scripture — think about the seven cows (פָּרוֹת) of Pharoah’s dream (Genesis 41), the bullock (בָּקָר) regularly sacrificed, and of course the golden calf (עֵגֶל) that got us into a lot of trouble.

Considering this, you’d expect there to be several entries in the Encyclopedia of Jewish Symbols about cows, calves, bulls, and cattle.  But the only one there seems to be the one about the Golden Calf.


Well, the symbol of the entire tribe of Yisrael, our totem (if you will) is the Sheep or Goat.  Sometimes it’s a Ram, sometimes a kid-goat — but regardless, it’s our totemic symbol. Elul is a month to explore our relationships to those cattle, the symbols of power in Egypt before we blow the shofar — the symbol of our peoplehood.

There is a growing movement to reclaim and reinvent the 1st of Elul as a holiday, and use it as a time to explore our relationship to the animals that feed us. Some are hosting Elul seders that explore issues around sustainability and responsible farming. Some are fasting from meat the entire month of Elul.

However you choose to engage, take the time to think about what are the truly sacred cows in your life and what are the profane ones.  Sacred cows truly feed your soul.  Profane ones are like the Golden Calf — they are sad replicas that are really emotional crutches.  Elul is the time to count them all and “tithe” them by truly claiming them for better or worse.