By: Rabbi Ari Enkin
(This post is an adaptation of "What's the truth about Mar Cheshvan?" by Rabbi Dr. Ari Zivotofsky, Jewish Action Magazine, Fall 2000)
The true name for the eighth month on the Jewish calendar is actually the one word "Marcheshvan" or "M'rachsh'van" and not "Cheshvan", as it is frequently referred to. For the most part, however, the various months of the year are usually referred to throughout Tanach in numerical order. For example, as the months of the year are counted beginning with the month of Nissan, Cheshvan is referred to as "the eighth month". Another ancient name for the month of "Marcheshvan" which is also used 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 name is used by the early commentators such as Rashi and Ramban.
Click here to read moreMost of the names of the months which are used today are of Babylonian origin, and were often 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 can interchange. As a result, 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 pronounced "Marachsha’wan" which is much closer to the original than the Ashkenazi pronounced "Mar-Cheshvan".
There is a well-known legend which teaches 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 new meaning to the name of this month. They note that "marachsha’wan" means "spreading [or smoothing] the grain". This refers 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 like this view.
It is suggested that "Mar Cheshvan" assumed its two-word 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 word format can actually be read as "rainy cheshvan" alluding to our hope that God send us [Israelis] much needed rain during this month. In stark contrast to the bitter connotations associated with Cheshvan, there is a Midrash which teaches that the dedication of the third Beit Hamikdash will occur in Cheshvan. Ken Yehi Ratzon.
 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 E.H. 127:17
 Esther Rabba 7:13, though there are other opinions as to when Sara Imeini died, as well.
 Shulchan Ha'ezer 4:5:8, B'tzel Hachachma 2:60
 Yeshayahu 40:15
 Pri Chadash E.H. 126:7
Tuesday, October 27, 2009
By: Rabbi Ari Enkin