By: Rav Mordechai Burg
Ask a child the name of the month that follows Tishrei, and they will likely tell you that it is Cheshvan. Press them further and they will tell you that the month is called Mar Cheshvan, a “bitter” Cheshvan, due to the lack of Yomim Tovim in the month of Cheshvan. The truth, however, is much more complicated.
The Torah generally refers to the months by their ordinal numbers or names that are no longer common. In Melachim (I 6:38), this month is called “the month of Bul, the eighth month.” The Talmud Yerushalmi (Rosh Hashana 1:2) tells us that the names of the Hebrew months are Babylonian in origin. In this case, Mar is not the prefix to Cheshvan at all. Marcheshvan is the actual name of the month. In Akkadian (Babylonian), the vav and mem sounds are interchangeable. Marcheshvan could also be called varh and shaman, which means the eighth month. An appropriate name, given that Marcheshvan is the eighth month of the year when counting from Nissan. Yemenites today actually call the month Marachshawan, which would be a closer pronunciation to the original Babylonian name.
In both Mishnayos (Taanis 1:3,4) and Gemara (Pesachim 94b, Rosh Hashanah 7a, 11b), this month is called Marcheshvan. Rashi consistently calls this month Marcheshvan (Rosh Hashanah 11b viazda litamaihu, 16a dimizdaran, Beitzah 40a biriviah) as does the Ibn Ezra (Vayikra 25:9).
The month’s name has significant halachic ramifications both for halachic documents and kiddush hachodesh. The Ramah (Even Haezer 127:7) and the Aruch Hashulchan (126:17) refer to the month as Marcheshvan. Because the month is commonly known as Cheshvan, the Aruch HaShulchan (127:17) writes that b’dieved if someone wrote Cheshvan in a get, it would still be valid. Some poskim even allow the name Bul to be used. Regarding Kiddush Hachodesh, the Sefer Minhagei Vermaisa (234) says that the people of Worms, Germany, had the Minhag to call the month Cheshvan and not Marcheshvan.
The Minhagim of Klal Yisrael are very precious, and their development is fascinating. Is there a source for referring to the months as Cheshvan or Mar-Cheshvan? Both the Sefer Yetzirah (5:4) and the Zohar 2:275b, 3:260b, Zohar Chodosh 42a) call this month Cheshvan. The Sdei Chemed (Maarechet Chatan V’Kallah 23) teaches that it is called Mar-Cheshvan because it is a bitter month with no Yomim Tovim.
The Pri Chadash (Even Haezer 126:7) suggests that Mar-Cheshvan is so named because it is the beginning of the rainy season. Mar means “water,” as in the verse “like a drop (mar) from a bucket.” (Isaiah 40:15.) Mar-Cheshvan would thus be understood as a Teffila for a month of rain (in Eretz Yisrael, we begin davening for rain in the month of Mar-Cheshvan). According to Rebbe Eliezer (Rosh Hashanah 11b), the Mabul started in the month of Marcheshvan. The Radak (Melachim I 6:38) explains that the name Bul references the Mabul. Thus we see that the concept of rain is tied quite deeply to this month.
The Medrash (Esther Rabbah 7:13) teaches that Sarah Imeinu passed away in the month of Mar-Cheshvan (though there are opinions that she passed away in Nissan), and this month is bitter because of her passing.
The Sdei Chemed (Maarechet Chatan V’Kallah 23) says that there was a minhag in Yerushalayim not to get married during the month of Marcheshvan because of the bitter nature of the month (see also Shut Lev Chaim 2:26 who says that people should not get married in this month), but the Shulchan Haezer (4:5:8) says that this was not the minhag in his city.
On the other hand, some explain that Mar means “master” which would give this month a positive connotation. Since Shlomo HaMelech completed the building of the first Beis HaMikdash in this month, in a certain sense, this month is the master over other months of the year. Still, there is a sense of bitterness to the month because the dedication of the Beis HaMikdash did not take place during the month of Marcheshvan (and once again, there is no Yom Tov to celebrate the dedication). Ultimately, Chazal (Yalkut Shemoni, Melachim 184) teach that the third Beis HaMikdash will be dedicated in the month of Marcheshvan. Mar Cheshvan will thus have been transformed from a bitter month into a month of celebration.
To sum up, these are the approaches we have seen:
● Marcheshvan means the 8th month
● Mar-Cheshvan means a bitter month because there are no Yomim Tovim, the passing of the Sarah Imeinu
● Mar-Cheshvan refers to the rainy season that begins this month (which relates to the name Bul)
● Mar-Cheshvan is the master of other months because of the building of the first Beis HaMikdash and the ultimate dedication that will take place in this month in the times of the third Beis HaMikdash
There is a duality to this month. It can mean a bitter month that symbolizes tragedy and a lack of Godliness, or a month of hope, for the rainy season that is to come and for the dedication of the third Beis HaMikdash. How is this paradox to be understood?
The Baal HaTanya explains the difference between bitterness and sadness. “A broken heart and a bitter soul . . . are not called sadness (atzvus) in lashon hakodesh. In sadness, the heart is dull like a stone and devoid of vitality. But in bitterness (merirus) and a broken heart, there is, on the contrary, vitality in the heart that percolates agitation and bitterness.” (Tanya ch. 31)
Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, the Heilige Piacenza Rebbe HY”D, in his monumental work, Chovos HaTalmidim (ch. 2), explains the distinction between atzvus and merirus using a parable. There is a difference between a wealthy person who loses his fortune and a pauper who knows with absolute certainty that a buried treasure is lying beneath him. The rich man becomes depressed because he despairs of ever regaining his wealth. The pauper is brokenhearted because of the obstacles that stand in the way of gaining the fortune just beyond his reach. But brokenheartedness does not lead to despair. The hope of the pauper that he will attain great wealth is what leads to the feeling of brokenheartedness. While the wealthy man has given up on regaining his fortune, the pauper, frustrated and discouraged, is spurred on by his feelings of brokenheartedness to continue digging. Somehow, he will find ways around the obstacles in his path and access the buried treasure.
This is a critical distinction. A person who is experiencing emotional numbness is devoid of vitality. In their emotionless state, they have no access to hope. Bitterness spurs a person to action. The bitter person is agitated. Restless. Things must change. They are destined to change. Their brokenheartedness stems from a deep place of hope. The dual nature of Marcheshvan must be understood in this context.
On the one hand, the month is bitter. The death of Sarah Imeinu looms large. During the Yamim Noraim, we are told to search for Hashem where he can be found. Hashem’s presence over the last two months has consumed much of our lives. During the month of Marcheshvan, there is an emptiness. Hashem’s presence in our lives is less obvious. There is a greater sense of hester panim. But this is not meant to lead us to depression but to a feeling of bitterness. During Marcheshvan, our bitter feelings can bring our relationship with Hashem to even greater heights than the Yamim Noraim. Like the buried treasure that lies right beneath our feet, Hashem’s presence is so close yet so far. And in this state, we call out to Hashem for rain. We recognize that despite the lack of frontal communication, Hashem provides for us. To paraphrase the great Chasidic Master Rav Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev, we are playing a game of hide and seek with Hashem, and in davening to Him for sustenance, we are finding him everywhere.
Far from bringing us to a place of depression and despair, the bitterness we feel during Marcheshvan is an expression of our vitality, and our hope and hope create change. Marcheshvan is the time when we built the Beis HaMikdash but failed to dedicate it. Now is our chance to change the past. In Marcheshvan, we will ultimately dedicate the third and final Beis HaMikdash. May we be blessed to do so speedily in our days.
Internationally renowned speaker, educator, and author Rav Mordechai Burg is the Menahel of Mevaseret, Mashpia of NCSY Summer, Mashpia of Nitzotzos, author of Nitzotzos on Chumash and a senior Rebbe at Tomer Devorah and Bnot Torah Institute. His shiurim can be found on Nitzotzos.com