Rabbinical School Divrei Torah MarCheshvan or Cheshvan?

By Harvey Bock

On Tuesday and Wednesday of this week, we marked the arrival of the month that is usually referred to as either חֶשְׁוָן or מַרְחֶשְׁוָן. It is common knowledge that the second name developed from the first: the word מַר, which means “bitter,” was added to חֶשְׁוָן because it is the only month in the Jewish calendar with absolutely no holidays or other out-of-the-ordinary days — not even a fast day.

But sometimes common knowledge is wrong.

When the linguistic facts are examined, the popular explanation of the name מַרְחֶשְׁוָן turns out to be nothing but a charming folk etymology. But the true origin of the name is at least as interesting. The following is a translated paraphrase of a discussion of מַרְחֶשְׁוָן by N. H. Tur-Sinai, a major Israeli scholar of Hebrew and the Bible (1886–1973):

It is a well-known fact, mentioned even in the Talmud, that the names of the months that we use today in Jewish life came from Babylon with the returning exiles in the days of Ezra. We can see from the Bible that different names were used before that. Akkadian texts confirm the provenance of the current names, as these names were in use in Assyria and Babylon during the Judean exile; and from Akkadian we can establish the original meaning of those names. For example, the name of the month תִּשְׁרֵי is tašritu in Akkadian, which means “beginning.” (The same word is found in the Aramaic piyyutAqdamut, which is read on Shavuot: The first line, אַקְדָּמוּת מִלִּין וְשַׁרְיוּת שׁוּתָא, means “an introduction of words and a beginning [שַׁרְיוּת] of conversation.”) תִּשְׁרֵי was so named because it was viewed at the time as the beginning of the year, even though an alternate Israelite calendric system treated Nisan as the first month of the year.

It is this alternative system that accounts for the name מַרְחֶשְׁוָן. First, a pronunciation issue: In Babylon the pronunciation of the letter memand vav (which was at the time still pronounced like the English letter “w”) was reversed; both letters are pronounced with the two lips, and this evidently accounts for their reversal in Babylon. The name that gave rise, through this pronunciation, to מַרְחֶשְׁוָן, was originally waru šamanu — i.e., in Hebrew, יֶרַח שְׁמִינִי, “eight month.” מַרְחֶשְׁוָן thus means the eighth month (counting from Nisan).

So in fact, it is מַרְחֶשְׁוָן that is the month’s original name, and חֶשְׁוָן is just a shortened version.

May your חֶשְׁוָן be a sweet one!

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