The Elul Immersion
The significance of this month – the month of Elul – can be understood based on the laws of "Bittul," whereby a small amount of forbidden food becomes "nullified" when mixed with a much larger quantity of permissible food.
The basic rule is that when a small amount of forbidden food is mixed with permissible food, the mixture is permissible if the amount of permissible food is 60 times greater than the amount of forbidden food. This famous Halachic concept is called "Bittul Be’shishim."
However, there are a number of exceptions, including that of a "Beriya" – a whole entity. According to the Talmud Babli (Babylonian Talmud), a whole entity, such as an entire insect, cannot ever be "nullified" in a mixture. No matter how small a percentage of the mixture the "Beriya" comprises, the mixture is still forbidden for consumption. The Talmud Yerushalmi, however, presents a different view, establishing that a "Beriya" is "nullified" if the proportion is 960:1. If the whole entity comprises just 1/960th of the mixture, then the mixture becomes permissible.
This concept is relevant also to the "nullification" of our beings. Each person is a "Beriya," and we’ve become contaminated through sin. In order to cleanse and purify ourselves, we must "nullify" our defective beings and emerge as new creatures, embarking on a fresh start with a clean slate.
A Mikveh, which brings purity to somebody who has become defiled, must consist of 40 "Se’a" of water. A "Se’a" is a Talmudic measurement of volume, equal to 24 "Log," and thus a Mikveh requires 960 "Log" of water to bring purity. Immersion in a Mikveh symbolizes our process of "Bittul," the "nullification" of our beings so we can begin creating ourselves anew.
When G-d determined that the world become irreparably corrupted during the time of Noah, He brought a flood that lasted for 40 days, or 960 hours (40 X 24). In order to "nullify" the world so it could start anew, He "immersed" the world it water, submerging it in floodwaters for 960 hours, corresponding to the 960 "Log" of water in a Mikveh.
The period of Elul and the High Holidays functions as a Mikveh. For 40 days, from the first day of Elul through Yom Kippur on the 10th of Tishri, we "immerse" ourselves in introspection and repentance. Just as a Mikveh requires 960 "Log," and not a single "Log" fewer, our process of "immersion" during this period requires us to make the most of every hour of these 40 days so we can emerge pure and pristine.
This 40-day period concludes at the end of Yom Kippur, after we read the Book of Yona, which tells how Yona spent 40 days inside the whale, which then expelled Yona onto the shore. After our 40-day period of repentance, we are "expelled" from this "Mikveh." The special opportunity we are given for purification and forgiveness lasts only for these 40 days. We must therefore take full advantage of each and every hour of this critical period.
In the final chapter of Tehillim, which we include in the Musaf prayer on Rosh Hashanah, King David proclaims, "Haleluhu Be’tof U’mahol" – which literally means, "praise Him with drums and dances." Additionally, however, the word "Tof" has the numerical value of 480, and thus the word "Be’tof" may be read as "Bet" – "Tof," meaning, twice the value of "Tof," or 960. If we use these 960 hours properly, then "Be’mahol" – we are granted "Mehila" (forgiveness).
May we all take full advantage of each and every moment of this most precious time of year, so we emerge from Yom Kippur in a newfound state of purity and holiness, prepared to make this year far better than the previous one, Amen.