Cheshvan or Mar Cheshvan?

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By: Rabbi Ari Enkin

This post is based entirely on “What’s the truth about Mar Cheshvan” by Rabbi Dr. Ari Zivotofsky, Jewish Action Magazine, Fall 2000.

The true name for the seventh month in the Jewish calendar is actually the one word “Marcheshvan” or “M’rachsh’van” and not “Cheshvan”, as it is often referred to. For the most part, however, the months of the year are referred to throughout Tanach in numerical order. For example, as the months of the year are counted from the month of Nissan, Cheshvan is referred to as “the eighth month”. Another ancient name used for the month of “Marcheshvan” in Tanach is “bul”.[1] There are other designations for the various months of the year, as well.[2] In the Talmud, the month is referred to as “Marcheshvan”[3] and this is the name used by the early commentators such as Rashi and Ramban, as well.

Most of the names of the months that are used today are of Babylonian origin and were adapted from the names of ancient gods. As the Talmud notes: “Three things returned with the Jews from Babylonia – the names of the months, the names of the angels, and the Hebrew script in use today.”[4] Although the proper name of the month is “Marcheshvan”, if one wrote “Cheshvan” on a legal document (such as a get) the document is nevertheless valid since the use of “Cheshvan” has become so widespread.[5] So too, if the name “bul” was used it remains valid, as well.

The name “Marcheshvan” is probably derived from its position in the calendar.  In Akkadian (Babylonian/Assyrian), the “w” (vav) and “m” (mem) sounds are interchangeable.  Thus, Marcheshvan, which is from the two words “m’rach” and “shvan”, would have been “warh” and “shman” in Akkadian, corresponding to the Hebrew “yerech shmini” – the eighth month. Indeed, in the Yemenite tradition, the name of the month is “Marachsha’wan” which is much closer to the original than the Ashkenazi “Mar-Cheshvan”.

There is a famous teaching that the word “Mar” (bitter) was actually added on due to the fact that Cheshvan has no holidays in it, making it “Mar”- a bitter month. There is also a teaching that the “Mar” in this context refers to the passing of Sara Imeinu which was said to have occurred in this month.[6] The Yemenite community also ascribed another meaning to the name of this month. They note that “marachsha’wan” means “spreading [or smoothing] the grain” referring to the final act performed in the agricultural process before the grain is stored in advance of the season’s rains. Because of the “bitter” connotations of Cheshvan there are those who refrain from arranging weddings during this month, though the halacha is not in accordance with this view.[7]

It is suggested that the two-word “Mar Cheshvan” assumed its format based on the fact that it is the beginning of the rainy season. The Targum translates the word “mar” as “tipah”, which can be interpreted as “drops of water”.[8] As such, the two words can actually be read as “rainy cheshvan” alluding to our hope that God send us much needed rain during this month.[9] In contrast to the theme of bitterness that is associated with the month of Cheshvan, there is a Midrash that teaches that the dedication of the third Beit Hamikdash will occur in Cheshvan.


[1] I Kings 6:38.

[2] See for example, Shemot 13:4, 34:8; Devarim 16:1; I Kings 6:1,6:37.

[3] Pesachim 94b; Rosh Hashana 7a.

[4] Yerushalmi, Rosh Hashana 1:2.

[5] Aruch Hashulchan, EH 127:17.

[6] Esther Rabba 7:13, though there are other opinions as to when Sara Imeinu died, as well.

[7] Shulchan Ha’ezer 4:5:8; Btzel Hachachma 2:60.

[8] Yeshayahu 40:15.

[9] Pri Chadash, EH 126:7.

About Ari Enkin

Rabbi Ari N. Enkin, a resident of Ramat Beit Shemesh, is a researcher and writer of contemporary halachic issues. He is the author of the “Dalet Amot of Halacha” series (8 volumes), Rabbinic Director of United with Israel and a RA"M at a number of yeshivot. www.rabbienkin.com

57 comments

  1. So presumably, “Cheshvan” came about because, not knowing its real meaning, people dropped the “mar,” thinking it was bad?

    If “Cheshvan” is allowed because it’s so widespread, shouldn’t the opposite apply to “Bul?” I doubt most people would know what it means, unless they listen well during the haftarot of Sukkot in chutz la’aretz (which also included Eitanim and Ziv). Or are we just trying to make things as meikil as possible, in both directions?

    Is the same true for “Menachem Av?”

  2. What’s the point of a post based entirely on R. Zivotofsky’s article? Why not have him do the post?

  3. abba's rantings

    “There is a famous teaching that the word “Mar” (bitter) was actually added on due to the fact that Cheshvan has no holidays in it”

    as opposed to the other months that are without holidays?

    i learned in elementary school (so it must be correct) that “mar” was added as an honorific so cheshvan wouldn’t feel bad that it lacks holidays.

    ““Three things returned with the Jews from Babylonia – the names of the months, the names of the angels, and the Hebrew script in use today.”

    chukos hagoyim?

  4. SM-

    The post is not the article. It is a transformed, shortened and edited version of it.

    Ari Enkin

  5. Good kashe, Abba!

    Ari Enkin

  6. Nachum-

    The ‘menachem’ to Av is in order to a) offer a sense of consolation to the tragedies that occurred in Av and b) to remind us that Mashiach is born in Av

    Ari Enkin

  7. See the 3rd and 4th paragraphs in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cheshvan.

    I also found this interesting note online:

    The kabbalists also believe that Cheshvan is the month in which the Messiah will arrive. However, in Talmud Sanhedrin 97a, Rabbi Zeera tries to discourage such calculations by quoting an earlier teaching that “Three things come from nowhere: Moshiach (the Messiah), a found article and [the bite of] a scorpion.” The mention of the scorpion is interesting because Cheshvan is associated with the zodiacal sign of the scorpion.

  8. Ari: I meant, is a get kosher if it says “Menachem Av.”

    Abba: Chukat Hagoy doesn’t apply, first, because not even Babylonians use those names (or worship those gods), and because there’s actually a line from the Navi that implies that the return from the galut will be bigger than yetziat mitzraim. “First month” etc. is a remembrance of the latter; “Nisan” etc. of the latter. (The year starting in Tishrei is also from there.)

  9. The original article:

    http://www.ou.org/jewish_action/10/2012/whats-the-truth-about-mar-cheshvan/

    Your “summary” reads like outright plagiarism. Gil should remove your post immediately and place an apology to R. Zivotofsky in its place. The citation at the beginning (without a link?) is not enough — your work should contribute something new. But your citations, facts, and even phrasing is simply stolen. And the original article is not that long, so it’s hard to say that you are offering an abstract service for your readers.

    Gil, please remove this post immediately.

  10. Skeptic-

    Putting aside your tone and accusations, I really dont know how an immediate, italicized, and centered full credit of the original article can be called plagiarism.

    I will try to give Rav Zivitofsky a call and confirm his endorsement.

    Ari Enkin

  11. plagiarism   [pley-juh-riz-uhm, -jee-uh-riz-]

    1. An act or instance of using or closely imitating the language and thoughts of another author without authorization and the representation of that author’s work as one’s own, as by not crediting the original author. [Emphasis mine].

    Skeptic:

    How exactly does R. Ari Enkin’s fully attributed and footnoted, well organized and nicely informative post fit into the above definition? It’s one thing to say you didn’t learn anything new from the post that you didn’t know or read already. But it’s quite another thing to level the serious charge of plagiarism against someone, particularly against a talmid chacham such as R’ Enkin.

  12. Lawrence Kaplan

    The title of the post should have been

    “Cheshvan or Mar Cheshvan”

    by R. Dr. Avi Zivitofky

    Edited and abridged by R. Ari Enkin

    The issue here is not plagiarism, but copyright. Did you receive permission from R. Dr. Zivitofky to abridge and publish his article?

  13. I was always bothered about how entire divrei Torah have been constructed around the names of months acquired from Babylonian gods. One that comes to mind is what has been said about the rashei teivot of E·L·U·L (ani ledodi vedodi li).

  14. Umm. I have not done a word for word comparison, but note http://hirhurim.blogspot.com/2009/10/cheshvan-or-marcheshvan.html. It is reasomable to expect that R. Zivotofsky would have raised an objection over the past 3 years, if he has one.

  15. The title of the post should have been

    “Cheshvan or Mar Cheshvan”

    by R. Dr. Avi Zivitofky

    Edited and abridged by R. Ari Enkin

    Prof. Kaplan:

    If R’ Enkin had chosen that route, wouldn’t he then have been required to follow the same general outline and format of R’ Zivitovzky’s original article, rather than reorganize the points in the article (which he ended up doing)? Isn’t R’ Enkin’s disclaimer at the beginning sufficient?

    You are in the academic world and I am not, so I am just asking.

    Thanks.

  16. I think most of us have become accustomed to the way information is now disseminated. This is the way. While here we have some popularizing another popular, rather than academic, treatment of this information – this is how it’s done. My hunch is that the gripes here are more of the kind which R. Enkin’s posts are regularly subjected – people feel he should do more research.

    I can’t speak for him, but I know that R. Zivotovsky is aware of blogs, and personally tries to popularize the information which he writes about. I cannot for the life of me imagine that he would have an objection to someone who passes on, restoring to life as it were an old essay, and furthering the conversation which he started, making public and popular this idea among the masses.

  17. Dear R’ Jacob and S —

    Thank for your support. Indeed, I think I fulfilled the requirements of “ha’omer davar b’shem omro” (per Jacob) as well as “zakin l’adam shelo b’fanav” (per S).

    Ari Enkin

  18. For the record, it was news to me when I originally read the article in Jewish Action. A few years ago I revisited the topic and went more into the history of the idea, which was a 19th century archaelogical discovery. I reflected on the fact that even though it was known to the scholarly (non-Jewish and Jewish_ public fully 150 years ago, it wasn’t until the Jewish Action essay that it reached the wider public.

  19. Ah, left out the key sentence. And I would not be surprised if it was news to some who read it here today.

  20. Ah, I left out the key sentence. And I would not be surprised if it was news to some who read it here today.

  21. Rabbi Enkin:

    The credit you stated at the beginning was more than adequate.

  22. “Three things returned with the Jews from Babylonia – the names of the months, the names of the angels, and the Hebrew script in use today.”

    People may be interested in this book. It contains a scientific study of the Ashurit Script Hebrew language. Quite compelling stuff.

    http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1556437234/ref=s9_simh_gw_p14_d0_i1?pf_rd_m=ATVPDKIKX0DER&pf_rd_s=center-2&pf_rd_r=06E9CTYYR5Z9MH75XJB3&pf_rd_t=101&pf_rd_p=1389517282&pf_rd_i=507846

  23. To support R. Zivotofsky, the Mechaber endorses “Marcheshvan” as one word in OC 428:2
    http://www.hebrewbooks.org/pdfpager.aspx?req=49626&st=&pgnum=188
    Interestingly, though, Mishnah Berurah – in footnote marked by an asterisk at the bottom of the page – nonchalantly refers to the month as “Cheshvan”.

  24. What I thought I’d get an answer to but don’t think I did is how and why this common error/wide-scaled practice of calling Marcheshvan by an incorrect name came about. It didn’t happen with any of the other months.

  25. Regarding the hilkhot zekhuyot ha-yotzrim question of copyright that has been cogently raised: Excellent point, R’ IH. At the same time, one might counterargue that three years ago, this forum was not so popular and was not yet cited in Tradition. Since then, it has earned the distinction, thus raising this forum’s profile. Accordingly, Mori ve-Rabbi R. Kaplan possesses a worthy claim that we should be concerned for copyright. Le-ma’aseh, I think both sides are correct and tzaddikim gemurim – Elu va-Elu Divrei E-lo(k)im Chaim (-see IM OC 4:25, where RMF applies the dictum to contemporary talmidei chakhamim just as to Chaza”l). Namely, I am sure R. Zivotofsky is honoured that R. Enkin recapitulated his research. At the same time, for the future, in the spirit of “mashal le-melekh bassar va-dam she-hayah over al beit ha-mekhess” (as per the gemara in Sukkah 30a), perhaps the original author’s consent should be reached for any further essays of this genre.

  26. >What I thought I’d get an answer to but don’t think I did is how and why this common error/wide-scaled practice of calling Marcheshvan by an incorrect name came about. It didn’t happen with any of the other months.

    My guess is that people *did* drop the prefix because mar does mean bitter.

  27. Joseph: I suggested that Dr. Zivitofsky may have gotten things backward: That first, people thought “Mar” was an additional word and only after that dropped it.

    Fred: From hearing discussions among academics in Israel, it seems the true meanings of all the month names have been widely known here for a while.

    Jacob: And “Ani Hashem Rofecha” for Iyar.

    David: Mr. Tenen’s theory is, to put it mildly, rather tenuous.

  28. The thread on the one-star comment is wild, though.

    See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Babylonian_calendar

  29. perhaps to give it a little more kavod – and upgrade – we should call the month dr. heshvan.

  30. Abba: Chukat Hagoy doesn’t apply, first, because not even Babylonians use those names (or worship those gods),

    Yechezkel talks about the worship of Tammuz who was a Mesopotamian deity.

  31. I remember Dr. Avshalom Kor adddressed this issue over 20 years ago on his TV show, and cited the theory that it is indeed simply the “8th month”, that is — Varh shMan. He added that the phenomenon of Vav and Mem interchanging is not exclusive to Akkadian, but happens in the Tanach itself: the color ArgaMan also appears as ArgaVan. perhaps that word itself is of also Akkadian origin.

  32. >Fred: From hearing discussions among academics in Israel, it seems the true meanings of all the month names have been widely known here for a while.

    You mean among the man on the street?

  33. Shlomo: But no one’s worshiped him lately, so it’s academic.

    Fun fact: Tammuz was held in such esteem, he was not referred to by name, but rather called “Adoni.” (Much as, l’havdil, we do to Hashem’s name.) When he drifted into Greek mythology, they, who didn’t like vowels at the end of names (hence Moses, Jesus, etc.) called him “Adonis.”

  34. Fred: A number of these academics- Avshalom Kor, for example, or Avigdor Shinan, who does this bit about the meaning of the month at his monthly event at Beit Avi Chai- have some following among the man in the street. My ulpan teacher gave us Akkadian month meanings on Rosh Chodesh.

  35. Offhand, I would suggest both that the un-Hebrewness of the month names is more readily apparent to Israelis and academic Jewish vertlach are more accessible to the Israeli public than to the American Jewish given that in a sense academic Jewish studies are a branch of Israeli culture/history.

  36. More generally, it seems to me the Orthodox are resistant to accepting words and concepts that were borrowed because it was perceived as potentially threatening to Emunah. And that wissenschaft was the domain of non-Orthodox didn’t help.

    In Israel, the atikot broke the taboo. E.g. walking around with a Tanach, finding zodiacs in the synagogues, etc.

  37. A little bit of this and a little bit of that. Jewish antiquities is a part of Israeli culture. There are things you’d expect an intelligent and educated American to know, and things which filter down to common knowledge. Also can’t underestimate the importance of Hebrew, whether one is a Teitelbaumite or a Zuckermanite, Modern Israeli Hebrew is Hebrew enough to allow even children to raise and understand perceptive linguistic matters that really elude American Jews without that grounding.

  38. FWIW, I just checked Prof. Rachel Hachlili’s JSQ 2002 The Zodiac in Ancient Jewish Synagogal Art: A Review paper and the Scorpion appears as the symbol for the 8th month at Hammath-Tiberias (4th cent), Sepphoris (5th-6th cent), Beth Alpha (6th cent) and Na’aran (6th cent). In Sepphoris the word מרחשון as one word is adjacent to the scorpion

    Also, in Fig 7: Zodiac inscription on “En Gedi mosaic pavement” (late 6th cent) one can clearly see מרחשון (also one word).

  39. Nachum:

    It’s not academic that at the point the Jews took the Babylonian Calendar names (and their calendar that pretty much everyone was using), the Babylonians were still using their calendar as well as worshiping their respective gods, so the question on Chukat Goyim isn’t off base.

    Fun fact, Tishrei is actually also not a god and was merely Rosh HaShanah in Babylonian, as appropriately rendered by Ezekiel 40:1.

  40. I’m surprised noone has mentioned yet that the Ramban in his commentary on chumash (parshas Bo) discusses at length the reason for the adoption of Babylonian names for the months. Also, Rav Dovid Cohen shlit”a in his sefer Avraham Yagel Yitzchok Yeranen discusses the original Babylonian names of the months as discovered by archaeologists, and explains the change of the name of marcheshvan based upon the Ramban.

  41. As always, we can count on Rabbi Enkin for thoroughly researched original scholarship!

  42. I did not see R. Ari Z. in shul this morning, but I doubt his opinion is relevant here. Most likely the copyright belongs to the OU which published the piece. In either event I find it very hard to believe that there is a copyright issue here.

    For me its a question of whether on not cli shlishi is mevashel. To summarize an article by AZ on Swordfish or turkey, on any one of the numerous topics in which he has real expertise, would it seems to meme make sense. but AZ is no assyriologist and does not read cuneiform. All he is doing is passing on something he learned from another source. Why cite him on this? Why not go back to his source?

  43. R. MeirSoloveitchik, in a talk this past Shavuot night, went over this in detail, crediting Dr. Zivotovsky. His handout included a reprint of the JA article.
    His talk, BTW, was entitled something like “Ten More Mistaken Things You Learned in Yeshiva.”. It was, k’darko, both informative and entertaining.

  44. Avinoam- what were the other nine? (I seem to recall a talk he gave years ago on halacha in Star Trek.)

    IH, S.: I agree with all. Obviously I may be overestimating the average Israeli, but I think overall this holds true vis a vis even Orthodox Americans.

    Synapse: You are right. I offer one point, which may be what Kovner was referring to: Yirmiyahu 23:7-8, which I was taught possibly reflects a change from Nissan being the first month to Tishrei being such. The names may have come along with that.

  45. Moshe-

    I think the same credit would be called for anyway if I a) went to all HIS original sources and b) got the idea to do such a thing from his article.

    Ari Enkin

  46. Avinoam on October 24, 2012 at 3:44 am

    R. MeirSoloveitchik, in a talk this past Shavuot night, went over this in detail, crediting Dr. Zivotovsky. His handout included a reprint of the JA article.
    His talk, BTW, was entitled something like “Ten More Mistaken Things You Learned in Yeshiva.”. It was, k’darko, both informative and entertaining.
    ==============================
    you might ask him why his shiurim given on non holiday/shabbat are rarely recorded
    KT

  47. By the by, the original JA article is available online. Perhaps the solution is simply to provide a link in the body of the post.

  48. Hi!
    Perhaps not directly related to your post, but in the original article by Rabbi Dr. Ari Zivotofsky, the footnote on Yerushalmi R”H 1:2 mentions 3 things that were brought back from Bavel to Eretz Yisroel. 1-the names of the months, 2-the names of the angels and 3-Ksav Ashuri. I found the first two but can’t find the third. Could someone point me in the right direction?
    Thanks,
    Leibel

  49. Of course I have no idea what happened but I have seen accountants who when faced with a discrepancy between the whole and the sum of the parts, when they are sure the whole is correct, say “just throw the delta into category X”
    KT

  50. Leibel- it is mentioned elsewhere, e.g., “The Torah was given in Hebrew and K’tav Ivri and then re-given by Ezra in Aramaic and K’tav Ashuri.”

  51. Hi Nachum!
    I’m sorry but I don’t understand. Where is “elsewhere”?
    Thanks,
    Leibel

  52. Part of the machloket over Ktav Ivri, Sanhedrin 21b on.

  53. Oddly, no one has mentioned –and the article in question omits– the fact that Yerovam Ben Navat moved Sukkot by a month and it was celebrated on 15 Marcheshvan in Israel rather than the traditional date at the Temple in Judea. That was always taught as the historic source for the subsequent ban on any holidays in the month of Marcheshvan (mar being the proper Babylonian term having nothing to do with the double entendre of bitter in Hebrew). It was a visceral response to the blocking of access for Sukkot and change of the chag to the following month of Marcheshvan for MOST of the Jews for centuries. How quickly we forget.

    We just read maftir Yonah a few weeks ago. yonah is one of only 3 prophets from Israel, and all 3 of his prophecies came to him while at the Temple for Simchat Bet HaShoeva, as he was one of the very rare Israelis who ventured to Judea to celebrate the original date of the chag — and because of his wife’s insistence we are told.

  54. “We are taught” where? In any event, they didn’t start calling it Marcheshvan until centuries after the Northern Kingdom had been destroyed.

  55. Yeshivat Itri. Hardly the caliber of learning that is REITS, it gets by in a pinch, mate.
    Not discussing referring to it as Marcheshvan but rather the insistence that it be the month without chag as a response to Yerovam Ben Navat moving Sukkot to Marcheshvan and forcing the holiday.

  56. Re: why the “Mar” was dropped. This may be a tad simple, but “Marcheshvan” is the only month with three syllables, causing it to be shortened. And once you were truncating, the “Mar” was the most sensible syllable to drop.

  57. Today is 23 MarCheshvan, the historically accurate date of Chanukah and the Maccabees conquest of the Bet HaMikdash. It was a full chag well into the Talmudic era. The lack of a MarCheshvan holiday was ancient, then rescinded, then reimposed. There is no doubt a PhD dissertation for some young eager beaver in this sequence. I can locate no credible explanations for the changes either historically or halachically.

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