How do we remove the bitterness of the Hebrew month of Heshvan? - opinion

Considering the important contribution that rain makes to the well-being of this country, surely the seventh of Heshvan should be prominently highlighted on our calendars

 JERUSALEM EXPERIENCES its first rain of the season, last Thursday, even before the beginning of Heshvan. (photo credit: Arie Leib Abrams/Flash90)
JERUSALEM EXPERIENCES its first rain of the season, last Thursday, even before the beginning of Heshvan.
(photo credit: Arie Leib Abrams/Flash90)

The second month of the Hebrew calendar – well, to be accurate, one of the second months of the Hebrew calendar – is Heshvan, which follows the month of Tishrei, during which the traditional Jewish New Year and the associated holidays take place.

However, the second month is more familiarly known by its somewhat less-than-flattering designation. Because Heshvan includes no holiday or any special day of celebration, observance or commemoration, the prefix “Mar” (Bitter) has been added to its name, indicating a sense of bitterness or remorse from it being the only month without some sort of unique notation or feature.

This is something that has troubled me from the time I moved to Israel and adapted myself to the changes between the schedule of prayers established in Israel and those in the Diaspora. Each year as we start the month of Heshvan, I wonder why those who developed our calendric customs and nomenclature for one reason or another decided to overlook the fact that one of the most significant days of the year – at least in Israel – takes place during the month of Heshvan. The “Mar,” in other words, might very well have been erroneously applied.

On the seventh day of that month, the annual heavenly request for rain commences in Israel (in the Diaspora the petition begins on December 5).

No, I have most certainly not forgotten that the annual prayer for rain and the actual mention of rain are included in the services of Shmini Atzeret/Simhat Torah. But we do not yet, on that day, actually request precipitation; we only ask that, for the sake of our ancestors, a bountiful rainfall be granted to Israel during the upcoming season, and remind ourselves that the winds and rains of winter are neither arbitrary nor coincidental. They are, rather, in the hands of God, who is waiting patiently for everybody to safely arrive home from their holiday pilgrimage before getting the rains under way.

 Fear of rain is called ombrophobia. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM) Fear of rain is called ombrophobia. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

Now, considering the important contribution that rain makes to the well-being of this country, surely the seventh of Heshvan should be prominently highlighted on our calendars, and the month be noted, properly, as Heshvan and not as Marheshvan.

A cursory review of the Hebrew calendar provides additional support for this position. The prefix “Mar” was added during the Babylonian exile, and yet we see no similarly denigrating designation to the month of Iyar. Granted, Iyar does have the distinction of being the month in which Israel’s independence was declared and celebrated, but independence occurred a mere 75 years ago.

You can argue, I suppose, that Iyar is the only month in which the Omer is counted on every one of its days, but does that qualify as something extraordinary? Maybe, but if so, I would think that the request for the life-giving properties of rain should be equally honored – or, at least, not dishonored.

What exactly is the problem?

THE PROBLEM may be that water, here, is too greatly taken for granted. Despite regular reports on the water level of the Kinneret, we fail to behave cautiously or seem overly concerned that water in Israel is anything but an unlimited resource. Throughout much of the world there are majestic, flowing rivers from which to draw water; local reservoirs, however, rely, for the most part, on rainfall. It should therefore come as no surprise that Israel has become one of the most advanced nations in the area of water management, and is a shining example of how water can be effectively recycled for use in agriculture and industry.

We depend, though, on what we’re blessed with from late fall until early spring. From Passover until Shmini Atzeret/Simhat Torah nary a drop of rain will fall. It would be foolhardy indeed to regard as nonsense a scenario in which the day will come when out of the faucet from our kitchen sinks will come nothing but a puff of air and a dribble or two of precious liquid that has not yet evaporated. We dare not, therefore, understate our dependence on rain or forget the difficulties resulting from the periodic droughts we experience. The seventh of Heshvan is indeed a critical date for us here in Israel.

I am, if nothing else, a staunch traditionalist, and regard with suspicion attempts to change, modify or undo long-standing customs that have been part of the religion and culture that I grew up and was educated in. Referring to the second month of the Jewish calendar as Marheshvan has always been part of that upbringing. But what is true in New York is not necessarily the same for Israel, and I have adjusted accordingly.

There are, by the way, times when Israel and the rest of the world are not in sync regarding prayer structure and liturgy, so the fact that Heshvan may have some special significance here in Israel but not elsewhere does not bother me all that much. On the contrary, it further affirms the special relationship God has with Israel.

The close association between water and life needs no explanation or clarification. Locally, we have but one natural reservoir – the Kinneret – and it is critical that it be continually replenished by seasonal rainfall from the heavens that lasts approximately six months. It would not be unreasonable to assume that this property was specifically designed during the period of the Creation, making Israel truly dependent on divine benevolence in a very practical way.

The least we can do is recognize the importance of the rain that is generously provided by the Supreme Power and not cheapen the gratitude for His generosity by regarding as inconsequential the month in which we begin our request for this very special gift. An end to prefixing the month of Heshvan with “Mar” is long overdue.

The writer is a retired technical communicator currently assisting nonprofit organizations in the preparation of grant submissions and struggling to master the ins and outs of social media.