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Bitter, Bitter Cheshvan

Friday, 8 October 2010

Artwork: Tom duBois

With the intensity of our Fall Holy Days behind us, we find ourselves in the month of Cheshvan. Known as Mar Cheshvan, or “bitter Cheshvan,” it is the only month on our calendar devoid of festivals or fast days. And it is for that reason that many have assumed it was given its alternate name.

Yet, exploration into the etymology of the word Cheshvan presents a shocking discovery; we have been mispronouncing the name. The names of our Hebrew months were derived from their Babylonian counterparts. Given that we were in Babylonia at the time our calendar was codified, it makes perfect sense. With Nissanbeing the head of the liturgical calendar, the month in question is the eighth month. Because in Akkadian, the language of the day, the “w” (vav) and “m” (mem) sounds can interchange, we see that Marcheshvan which is from the two words “m’rach” and “shvan,” would have been “warh” and “shman,” in Akkadian, corresponding to the Hebrew “yerech shmi- ni,” thus “eighth month.” Ashkenazic tradition incorrectly places a break in the name, “Mar-cheshvan.” Our Yeminite coreligionists have retained greater accuracy in their pronunciation “Marach- sha’wan.” Furthermore, Rashi (11th century, France), the Rambam (12th century, Spain, Egypt), and Ibn Ezra (11th century, Iberian Peninsula) all use the complete name, indicating the longer name as the known name.

And yet historical “truth” ought not invalidate the wisdom that might lurk within the folds of folk etymology. For a certain Cheshvan fifteen years ago turned bitter when the Israeli Prime Minister was murdered at the hands of a fellow Jew.

As my hand reached for the handle, the front door swung open . My father’s face was ashen as he met me at the door to deliver the horrific news, praying that I had not been listening to the radio. Yitzchak Rabin, z”l had been assassinated at a peace rally in Tel Aviv. Moments before his murder, he stood on the dais and, with pop star, Miri Aloni, sang these words:

“…So just sing a song for peace, don’t whisper a prayer; Just sing a song for peace, in a loud shout…”

And then, with seemingly-prophetic words still in his coat pocket, the assassin’s bullet tore through him and stole him from us.

The twelfth of Cheshvan. Set aside to celebrate my engagement to PC with family and friends. What should have been one of the happiest nights of my life was marred by this terrible tragedy. Such an awful, awful night. For me and my family, it was surreal as we numbly maneuvered through a group of oblivious partygoers. The unrequited joy of the evening forever intertwined with a horrific reality.

And though peace seems less possible today than it did fifteen years ago, somehow we must continue to sing and to shout for that peace…

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8 Comments leave one →
  1. Saturday, 9 October 2010 8:35 pm

    sigh….maybe we’re both right?

    • Frume Sarah permalink*
      Tuesday, 12 October 2010 1:47 pm

      That’s what Tevye would say 😉

  2. Saturday, 9 October 2010 10:15 pm

    I remember that night. It was a rough awakening that in some ways innocence had been stolen.

    • Frume Sarah permalink*
      Tuesday, 12 October 2010 1:48 pm

      Yes. That is exactly how it felt.

  3. Sunday, 10 October 2010 5:31 am

    Thank you for the fascinating lesson on Marcheshvan… and for the sad reminder of Yitzchak Rabin, z”l.

    • Frume Sarah permalink*
      Tuesday, 12 October 2010 1:49 pm

      I have a compulsive fascination with words — all the more ironic given my poor track record with languages.

  4. Former Reform Jew permalink
    Sunday, 10 October 2010 11:28 am

    That song has such hatred for Judaism.

    “The strongest prayers will not return you”

    “Don’t whisper a prayer”

    “Don’t say the day will come” (yom yavo)

    Prayer works. That’s a basic tenet of Judaism. G-d cares, listens, and wants our prayers. Saying “yom yavo” is a reference to the coming of the messiah, may it be soon.

    This Judaism-hating pop song received so much attention because it was connected with the Rabin assassination. We sang it at a Jewish summer camp. Why are we teaching our children to sing against prayer and redemption???

    • Frume Sarah permalink*
      Tuesday, 12 October 2010 1:55 pm

      This is where perspective comes in. Not to mention having an affinity for poetry for that is what lyrics often are. Poetry set to music.

      Two examples:

      “Don’t whisper a prayer” can be understood to mean that our song (or prayer) must not be said quietly. Our desire, our plea, our prayer for peace ought to be so loud that it is heard from the bottom of the sea to the top of the highest of heights.

      “Don’t say the day will come” is the reminder that we have an obligation to work for that day. To work for peace. To bring about a time that there will be no more strife. It is as if the line reads “don’t just say that the day will come.”

      I sang this as a child, wept through it as a young adult, and pray it now. There are different ways to pray and different types of redemption.

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