There is a segula (remedy) brought down in the book Noam Elimelech that it takes 40 days to break a middah (character trait). He suggests simply that whatever it is you are struggling with you should act the opposite. If it is anger – be calm, if it is laziness – get up and move. Embarrassed easily? Raise your voice to heaven and daven (pray) out loud 40 days straight. Do you think that your voice isn’t worth listening to? For 40 days listen to the words you speak and you will see that there is substance to your speech. Maybe you want to create a new habit like learning more – the Noam Elimelech suggests learning more every day for 40 days.
Why 40 days?
There is tremendous significance to the number 40 in Jewish tradition. Moshe was on Mount Sinai for 40 days and nights before he received the Torah and gave it to Israel, he then prayed for 40 days to forgive them for the golden calf and another 40 days to receive the second tablets. The flood was 40 days. The spies searched out the land of Israel for 40 days, and the Jewish people wandered the desert for 40 years. It takes 40 days for a fetus to be formed. There is a measurement of 40 Seah (measurement) of water required in a mikvah (spiritual bath). These are only a few, there are many other examples in our tradition.
There are 40 days between the first day of Elul, when we begin to blow the Shofar to prepare for Rosh Hashana, until Yom Kippur, the end of the annual teshuva (repentance) period. These 40 days are the most auspicious time for personal growth and renewal.
There are several accounts in the talmud where repeating something 40 times was what was necessary to ensure that this new information that was taught would stick and not be forgotten. After Rabbi Yitzchak Ben Yoseph learned a law from Rabbi Abahu 40 times he felt as if this information was now “as if it was in his wallet”(Pesachim 72A).
There is an understanding that we have patters of actions and thoughts that will live by on a daily basis. There are things that we do on “auto-pilot” which are part of our daily routine, both physical and emotional. These patterns govern our decision making process and are not conscious, but rather ingrained ways of being. In order for our thought patterns and actions to change it takes 40 days to re-wire our neurological movements and create sustainable ongoing new patterns in our life. That is why it says that we only attain bina (understanding) after the age of 40. The cycle of 40 years is the time it takes to repeat our actions and thoughts to truly understand ourselves and solidify what we have been working on in our lives up to that point in order to take us to the next level. (I created this workshop shortly after my 40th birthday)