The bitter month Mar-Cheshvan?
By Rina Wolfson
Today is the first Shabbat in the month that is usually referred to as ‘Cheshvan’. But there is some dispute as to whether that is actually its real name.
The names of the Hebrew months have a somewhat surprising history. In the bible, the months are usually referred to by number, the first month, the second month and so on. Occasionally, they are given names which are no longer in use, for example the month of ‘Bul’, which is listed as the eighth month, which we now call Cheshvan. (1 Kings 6:38)
According to the Jerusalem Talmud, the names of the months that currently make up the Jewish calendar, Nissan, Iyar etc, were adopted by the Babylonian exiles (Jerusalem Talmud, Rosh Hashanah 1.2) and some of these are cited in the books that were written after the Babylonian exile. For example, the Book of Esther describes events that take place ‘in the twelfth month, which is the month of Adar’ (Esther 9:1)
But the month of Cheshvan is not mentioned anywhere in Tanach.
In the Mishna and the Talmud, the month is referred to as ‘Marcheshvan’. This is usually the name of the month that is used in prayers, for example, when blessing the new month, and in legal documents, for example a wedding ketubah. In addition, commentators such as Rashi (11th century, France), Rambam (12th century, Spain, Egypt), and Ibn Ezra (11th century, Iberian Peninsula) all use the complete name, suggesting that this was considered its proper form.
But there are also some very old examples of the shorter name, Cheshvan, being used. Sefer Yetzirah, for example, uses the name Cheshvan, as does the Zohar. Perhaps most importantly, it is the shorter name that is commonly used today.
The discrepancy is often explained as follows. The original name of the month was Cheshvan. But the prefix mar, meaning bitter, was added, to reflect the sombre nature of this month. The reasons for this ‘bitterness’ are various; there are no festivals in this month, the matriarch Sarah is thought to have died in this month, and during the era of the First Temple, it was the month of Cheshvan that saw the institution of a pagan holiday by Jeroboam, King of Israel that set the wheels in motion for the eventual fall of the Northern Kingdom of Israel and the disappearance of the Ten Lost Tribes.
But a closer look at the etymology of the name Marcheshvan suggests that the discrepancy might be slightly more prosaic than these references to biblical traumas imply. As noted above, the names of these months were derived from the Babylonian calendar, and the language spoken at that time in Babylon was Akkadian. Cheshvan is the eighth month, and in Akkadian, the phrase for ‘eighth month’ is m’rach shwan. It’s worth noting that the letters vav and yud are interchangeable with mem in Akkadian. This means that the Hebrew word yerech (month) becomes m’rach, and the Hebrew number eight (shemini) becomes sh’wan. So the Hebrew phrase ‘eighth month’ (yerech shmini) would be pronounced as m’rach shvan by Jewish Akkadian speakers.
When pronounced as a Hebrew word, this became Marcheshvan, with an implied break in the name between mar and Cheshvan. This erroneous break seems to have stuck, particularly in Ashkenazi tradition, leading to attempts to explain the bitterness (mar) of the month. But Yemenite Jews, who have retained the oldest and most authentic Hebrew pronunciation tradition, still refer to this month as Marach Shawan.
Rina Wolfson is a member of New North London Synagogue