Early Sunday morning, when the ram's horn shofar sounds the quaking cry of alarm and awakening, observant Jews everywhere begin a period of introspection and repentance that climaxes with Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.
"This is the start of the Teshuvah," says Rabbi Marcel Blitz, "the 40-day period before the Day of Atonement."
Sunday is the first day of the month of Elul, in the lunar-based Jewish calendar. Rosh Hashana is the first day of Tishri, the beginning of the Jewish New Year. Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, comes 10 days later. For Jews, these are the Days of Awe.
"Teshuvah," says Rabbi Blitz, the spirited spiritual leader of Beth Isaac Adath Israel Congregation, "is a period of introspection, soul searching, examining our ways, and thereby returning to God.
Teshuvah," he says. "We call it repentance. It literally means to return, go back."
Beth Isaac Adath Israel is a modest brick synagogue tucked into a nook of Crest Heights Avenue between Millbrook and Colonial Village, a couple blocks west of Reisterstown Road. Blitz is a blunt, stocky combination of piety, militancy, humor and learning.
"In this shul," Blitz says, "I am the rabbi, the cantor, and I blow the shofar.
His shofar is a spiraling 3-foot-long gazelle's horn. He'll blow it 10 times at the end of the morning service Sunday, and 10 times every day of Elul until Rosh Hashana, when he'll blow it 100 times.
The four basic calls -- teki'ah, teru'ah, shebarim and teki'ah gedolah, in the European Askhenazi tradition -- are very old and echo down the centuries from the desert of the Exodus.
The Torah instructs Jews when to blow what note," Blitz says.
The Torah says that on the New Moon of Elul, Moses ascended Mount Sinai after crushing idol worship among the Israelites. The ram's horn sounded throughout the encampment of the wandering Jews, warning against sinning again while Moses was gone. Thus, the sages instituted the blowing of the shofar on the first day of Elul, according to a 16th-century text.
"What the alarm clock is to our physical beings," Blitz says, "waking us by its shrilling sound, penetrating our slumbering minds, so is the shofar to our slumbering souls, arousing them to a sense of spiritual awareness, of alertness."
Repentance is acceptable at any time, the Beth Isaac rabbi says, but the month of Elul is especially propitious for introspection and forgiveness.
"God is in a better mood during this particular time," Blitz says. "God is more accessible, the Prophet Isaiah says."
The Book of Exodus relates that Moses spent Elul and the 10 days between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur on Mount Sinai. He descended from Sinai on Yom Kippur.
"On that day," says Blitz, "when he came down, we have the famous words that God had forgiven the Jewish people."
Rosh Hashana begins this year at dusk on Sept. 8 -- Tishri 1, 5752, on the Jewish calendar -- and Yom Kippur at dusk on Sept. 18.
"Rosh Hashana commemorates the creation of Adam," Blitz says. "Adam was a human being but not a Jew. The first Jew was Abraham, not Adam. We commemorate the creation of Adam who was not a Jew.
"He sinned on the very first day of his creation, and he was judged and sentenced on that day. And on this day mankind will be judged...."
"This is a period of total introspection," Blitz adds. "The shofar is to shake the Jews up. To sound the alarm that the Day of Judgment is approaching."
And then, the rabbi says, "the fate of the world is written and sealed on Yom Kippur."