Three centuries ago, Jewish life was in a very bad situation. Massacres and persecutions had devastated the Jewish community in both body and spirit. The harsh conditions forced most Jews to abandon their Torah studies at a young age to help with earning a livelihood. This caused a great lack of Torah knowledge and low morale among the simple folk. The scholarly elite kept aloof from their unlettered brethren and regarded them with contempt.
Technically, Judaism was alive. Jews went through the motions, putting on tefillin each weekday morning, praying three times a day, observing the Shabbat and the dietary laws. But the spark of life was growing cold.
Then, on the 18th day of the Hebrew month of Elul 1698, a child named Yisrael (Israel) was born. Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov breathed life into Judaism– awareness, warmth, and joy. On Elul 18, 1734 — his 36th birthday — the Baal Shem Tov began to publicly disseminate his message. He spoke of the immense love that G-d has for every Jew, of the significance of every mitzvah a Jew performs, of the G-dliness that resides in every blade of grass, in every event, and in every thought in the universe. He spoke to the downtrodden masses and to the aloof scholars. He gave meaning to their existence, and thus joy, and thus life.
Elul 18 is also the birthday of Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the founder of the “Chabad” Chassidism. Rabbi Schneur Zalman was the disciple of the Baal Shem Tov’s disciple, Rabbi DovBer of Mezeritch, and thus regarded himself as the Baal Shem Tov’s spiritual grandson. He was born exactly 47 years after his “grandfather” on Elul 18, 5505 (1745), and his teachings and works carried the Baal Shem Tov’s vitalization of Judaism to greater mystical heights, deeper intellectual depths and yet broader realms of application in the daily life of the Jew.
Chai Elul, Hebrew for “the 18th of Elul,” also means “the life of Elul” . And so the Rebbes of Chabad taught: “Chai Elul infuses life into the month of Elul, and via Elul — the month of divine compassion and our own month of soul-searching and stocktaking — into the entire