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”. There are other designations for the various months of the year, as well. In the Talmud, the month is referred to as “Marcheshvan” 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.” 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. 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. 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.
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”. 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. 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.
 I Kings 6:38.
 See for example, Shemot 13:4, 34:8; Devarim 16:1; I Kings 6:1,6:37.
 Pesachim 94b; Rosh Hashana 7a.
 Yerushalmi, Rosh Hashana 1:2.
 Aruch Hashulchan, EH 127:17.
 Esther Rabba 7:13, though there are other opinions as to when Sara Imeinu died, as well.
 Shulchan Ha’ezer 4:5:8; Btzel Hachachma 2:60.
 Yeshayahu 40:15.
 Pri Chadash, EH 126:7.