Question: I see that some people refer to the month of Cheshvan as Marcheshvan. What’s the month’s real name?
Answer: My family has a personal connection with Marcheshvan. Twenty-eight years ago, my dear mother, Hinda bas Reb Simcha Halevi, a”h, passed away on the 11th of Marcheshvan. So, I find the word “mar – bitter” apropos for this month.
Yet, we don’t find such an adjective for any other month. Why for Cheshvan, then?
The Gemara (Jerusalem Talmud, Rosh Hashanah 1:2) cites Rabbi Chanina who states, “The names of the months were brought up with [the exiles who returned to the Land of Israel] from Babylonia.” Beforehand, the months were called by their numbers – “the first month,” “the second month,” etc. Indeed, that’s how the Chumash refers to them.
The Gemara supports Rabbi Chanina’s statement by noting that the “modern” names of the months only appear in post-exile books of Tanach. Nissan appears in Esther 3:7, Kislev appears in Nechemia 1:2, and Tevet appears in Esther 2:5.
Although not mentioned by the Gemara, we also find Shevat in Zecharia 1:7, Adar and Nissan in Esther 3:7, Sivan in Esther 8:9, and Elul in Nechemia 6:15.
There is no Scriptural mention, however, of Iyar, Tamuz, Av, and Marcheshvan. We have a tradition, though, based on the Gemara, that these names were also adopted from Babylonia. Babylonians used a lunar calendar similar to ours and were also quite knowledgeable of astronomy. Thus, we eventually adopted the Babylonian names for the months.
The names of three months, though, differ slightly: Sivan (from the Babylonian Siman), Tamuz (from Tuvuz), and Marcheshvan (from Arachshamn, which probably comes from Arach Shaman – i.e., “the eighth month”]. In each of these three changes, it is noticeable that a corruption occurred with a mem somehow replacing a vav or the opposite.
Almost all of the months’ names are mentioned in Tractate Rosh Hashanah. An exception is Marcheshvan, which is mentioned in a mishnah in Mesechet Ta’anit (10a) in the context of a dispute about the proper time of year to start requesting rain in “Mevarech Hashanim” in Shemoneh Esreh.
The Tanna Kamma maintains that we should start on the 3rd of Marcheshvan, and Rabban Gamliel says we should start on the 7th of Marcheshvan. The latter’s reasoning is that the 7th is 15 days after Sukkot, which is sufficient time for the last of the olei regel – those who traveled to Jerusalem for the holiday – to return home unhampered by rain.
The Gemara states that in the Diaspora, where there is less need of rain, we should start saying the prayer 60 days after Sukkot (December 4th, 5th, or 6th). The Rambam (Hilchot Tefillah 2:16) rules according to Rabban Gamaliel and says we should start asking for rain on the 7th of Marcheshvan in Eretz Yisrael.
The month you ask about is consistently referred to in halachic discussions as Marcheshvan, not Cheshvan. Rabbi Sperling in Sefer Ta’amei Ha’Minhagim U’mekorei Hadinim (Inyanei Simchat Torah, siman 836) stresses the minhag of using the name “Marcheshvan” when blessing the new month. Rabbi Sperling explains that this custom comes from the Midrash Tanchuma (Parshat Noach 11). There we learn that from the time of the flood, Hashem enacted that there will always be heavy rains from the start of Marcheshvan.
“Mar” means a drop (of rain), as in Isaiah 40:15, “Hen goyim k’mar midli… – Behold, all the nations are like a drop [of water] from a bucket…”
Rabbi Sperling notes as well (infra, 838) that even the name of the month that was used pre-exile in Scripture – “Bul” (I Kings 6:38) – reflects water. “Bul,” from the word “mabul,” implies that it is the month of the flood.
Additionally, Rabbi Sperling notes that the Midrash (Yalkut to Melachim p. 27) says this season includes heavy rains for a 40-day period. When King Solomon built the Holy Temple, the edict of heavy rains for 40 days was rescinded. Thus, the name “Bul” represented the edict having been rescinded with the removal of the mem, the numerical equivalent of 40 – the 40 days fixed in the original edict.
Consequently, we might add, as far as the Babylonian name Cheshvan is concerned, that the addition of the word “mar” refers to this change – that the rains of the season will not necessarily be consistently heavy; in fact, at times they will only be “mar,” drops of rain. And that’s what we pray for: a normal, bearable blessing of beneficial rain.
(To be continued)