The controversial name of this Jewish month - opinion

But what is a name if not a means to convey identity, and whether we call it Heshvan, Mar-heshvan, or Marah-shwan, it is clear which month is being referred to.

 BRAVING THE rain in Jerusalem this week: Because the current month is the beginning of the rainy season and the prayers for rain, its name appears numerous times in rabbinic literature (photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)
BRAVING THE rain in Jerusalem this week: Because the current month is the beginning of the rainy season and the prayers for rain, its name appears numerous times in rabbinic literature
(photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)

The busy, holiday-packed month of Tishrei is behind us, and we have headed back to “routine” as winter begins. Looking around at how dates are listed in various contexts, it becomes obvious that there is some confusion as to the name of the current month. The front page of The Jerusalem Post gives it as “Heshvan” and yet at a recent wedding, the rabbi read it out loud as Marheshvan. Indeed, one will see both names being used throughout the month. 

So, why are there two names used and which is the “real” name?

There are two potential explanations: either the original name was the shorter version, Heshvan, and at some point a prefix got added, or alternatively, the true name is the long version, Marheshvan, and for some reason, it was shortened, possibly only colloquially.   

One of the most austere tasks thrust upon parents is the giving of a name to a child. How much more so when a people or culture bestow a name upon a division of time. 

The English-speaking world has given names to the days of the week that were originally related to celestial bodies. In Jewish tradition, the week is centered around Shabbat (which has a name) and thus all other days are merely numbered in relation to shabbat and are known as “yom rishon” – first day, “yom sheni” – second day, etc. 

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

Month names are more complicated

Month names are more complicated. In the English-speaking world, some are named for Greek and Roman deities, some for Roman rulers, and yet others simply based on their place in the calendar.

The first two categories are straightforward. For example, March is named for Mars, the Roman god of war, May for the Greek goddess Maia, and August for Augustus Caesar. An example of the final category is October, which means “eighth month,” with the root “oct” meaning eight, as in the words octopus, octogenarian and octagon. The same is true for September, November, and December.

This might seem odd, in that in today’s calendar all of those months are not what their names imply, e.g., October is the 10th month and not the eighth. However, when the names were originally given, they were indeed in the place indicated by their names and it was only the later addition of January and February that led to today’s strange situation.

During most of the biblical period, Hebrew months were simply known by their place in the Jewish calendar, without a name. Thus, Passover is in the first month and Rosh Hashanah, the new year, is oddly enough in the seventh month, as the Jewish biblical calendar started with the Exodus.

There are a few exceptions, and thus during the reign of King Solomon, the current month was once in the Bible called “Bul.” It was with the return of the Jews from the Babylonian exile that the month names with which we are familiar came into use. Eight of them appear in the later books of the Bible; however, the name for the month after Tishrei is not one of them. 

If the name does not appear in the Bible, the next place to look is rabbinic literature. Because the current month is the beginning of the rainy season and the prayers for rain, its name appears numerous times in rabbinic literature throughout the generations. Whenever it appears in the Mishna, Talmud, Rashi, Rambam or essentially any source until approximately the 16th century, the name for the month is always the complete MaRHeSHVaN, which raises the obvious question of its meaning and origin. 

Yemenite Jews never shortened the name and preserved what seems to be its original pronunciation of “Marah-shwan” and claim that it derives from the word for spreading the grain, a process carried out immediately before the rainy season. Modern scholars accept the Yemenite pronunciation but provide an alternative origin. They propose that it derives from “warach-shamna,” or “yerech-shmini,” meaning “eighth month.”

It seems that in the last few centuries, this month, the only one with a tri-syllabic name, had its name shortened. When people who were not familiar with the pronunciation saw how it was written, they parsed the Hebrew consonants slightly differently, into mar-heshvan, and once that happened it was natural to see the syllable “mar” as a prefix that is colloquially added, the way the summer month of Av has an added prefix of “menachem” (consolation), yielding Menachem-Av. There is thus no question as to the actual name of the present month.

The historical literature is dispositive that the original name was not a simple Heshvan. In addition, as often occurs, halachic literature contributes to the discussion. The 16th-century Rema, the authoritative Ashkenazi authority, when discussing how to write month names in a legal document, offers only one option for the month – the complete MaRHeSHVaN. 

Once the practice developed to see the first two letters as a prefix, various explanations were offered for its “addition.” The two most popular are that “mar” means “bitter” and is appended because the month has no holidays or that “mar” relates to “drop (of water)” because the month is the start of the rainy season. One thing led to the next, and because the month had taken on a sad association there were even locales, including Jerusalem 120 years ago, where weddings were not held in this “bitter” month. 

Folk legends aside, it is clear that the current month was once upon a time known as Bul, was then re-named Marah-shwan, which in some places was mispronounced as mar-heshvan, leading to the first two letters sometimes being erroneously dropped and that resulted, in the last few hundred years, with a new name, Heshvan, appearing. But what is a name if not a means to convey an identity, and whether we call it Heshvan, Mar-heshvan, or Marah-shwan, it is clear which month is being referred to – may it be a healthy, happy month for all.

The writer is a professor of neuroscience at Bar-Ilan University.