Putting the Mar Back in Marheshvan
As you’ve probably seen online or in print, in a few days we’re going to mark the beginning of the Jewish calendar month of Cheshvan. You may have heard that sometimes this month is known as Marcheshvan, because it is bitter (Mar) on account of not having any holidays in it, following the holiday-heavy Tishrei. And we need to propitiate the sad Mr. (Mar) Cheshvan, and maybe write him letters (as some schoolchildren are reportedly asked to do).
Let me stop you right there.
The month is not called Cheshvan, and Mar is not a prefix at all, let alone an optional one. The name of the month is Marcheshvan. Like most Jewish months, it adopts a Babylonian or Canaanite name, as the Yerushalmi tells us (see y. Rosh Hashana 1:2:אמר רבי חנינה שמות חדשי' עלו בידם מבבל.) Those names usually have a particular, often seasonal meaning, like the Canaanite name for this month, “Bul” (the meaning of this name, which appears in the Bible, is controversial). But the Akkadian-Babylonian name Marcheshvan that we know and love is a lot more boring. Marcheshvan (מרחשון) is an alternate version of the phrase Werach Shamnu (ורח שמנ), generated by the fluidity between the labials M-מ and W-ו in two places. Both versions mean, very simply, “the Eighth Month” (in Hebrew represented as ירח שמיני), as Marcheshvan is, indeed, the eighth month when counting from Nisan!
Now is not the time to rehearse all the folk etymologies that exist in Judaism, in a surprising range of languages. But suffice it to say that this case of “Mr. Bitter Cheshvan” is not an outlier, and that good, evidence-based etymology faces an uphill battle against its speciously verisimilitudinous alternative.
But back to Marcheshvan. In a sense, this naming scheme by number might be seen as preferable to cases where Babylonian or Canaanite names with seasonal meanings are adopted. Nahmanides expresses a certain discomfort with counting months based on their Exilic names rather than the Pentateuchal Biblical practice of counting by number, starting from the month of the Exodus from Egypt. He justifies the current practice by arguing that using the Babylonian names recalls and appreciates God’s returning the Jewish people to Israel following the Babylonian Exile. Some Religious Zionists have even proposed reverting back to counting from the Exodus, both for months and even in terms of counting years.
In a sense, then, Marcheshvan might be seen as the ultimate month name, in that it manages to both retain the Babylonian name and to count from the month of the Exodus from Egypt.
May everyone have a wonderfully non-bitter, non-anthropomorphized, doubly theologically charged Eight Month of Marcheshvan!