The month of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot is called Tishrei. The month we celebrate Hanukkah is called Kislev. The month in between is the only month in the Hebrew calendar in which there are no holidays. It is commonly referred to as Heshvan, although that is not the proper name. The real name of the month is Marheshvan, and midrash suggests that the Mar is a prefix added to the proper name because Mar, like the maror on Pesah, means “bitter.” It might be a nice midrash to think that a month without holidays is sad and bitter, but it is a completely wrong understanding of what the name Marheshvan means. The Akkadian name of the month is warah-sh’van. The Akkadian ’v’ or ‘w’ and the Hebrew ‘m’ interchange. Warah is related to the Hebrew word yerah, month; and sh’van is related to the Hebrew word shemini, eighth. So Marheshvan is the eighth month, following Tishrei, the seventh month.
Why does the New Year fall in the seventh month? First, because the Bible says it does. Second, because the Bible considers Passover to be the celebration of the national beginning of Israel, so it considers Nisan, the month of Passover, to be the first month. That makes Rosh Hashanah fall in the seventh month.
Marheshvan can fall any time from late October to early December. And while it is true that there are no Jewish holidays during that time, there is one American civil holiday which is fully consistent with Jewish values, and that is Thanksgiving. Leaving aside the problematic aspects of the history of the holiday, the concept of Thankgiving aligns perfectly with our celebration of Sukkot, also a festival celebrating the blessings of the harvest.
There is of course one other American holiday in this time period. Halloween. My ambivalence about the celebration of Halloween comes because Judaism has an overabundance of holidays. In traditional Jewish life, there are more than 35 major and minor festivals, not including the weekly Sabbath. Purim even includes the opportunity to dress up in costumes and receive gifts of food from our friends (and of course give gifts as well). For adults, Purim is a time when we are encouraged to get a bit tipsy – how great is that for a religious holiday!
I love celebrating holidays, but I have all I can handle with our own holidays, plus a few civic holidays like Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July. I don’t have the energy to add onto the rich tapestry of Jewish holidays.
I do not encourage the celebration of Halloween because I would rather see the time, energy, and money spent on Halloween instead devoted to living Jewish life and celebrating Jewish holidays with more enthusiasm. On the other hand, I do not actively discourage Halloween because there is nothing inherently evil about dressing up and getting treats from our neighbors, and besides, being the grinch trying to fight halloween is a losing battle.
My personal ambivalence about Halloween has had absolutely no effect on my family. My children used to love Halloween. At a certain point, Marisa and I gave up and started counting the years until they would be too old for trick or treating. And in the meantime, we consoled ourselves by stealing their candy.
Hebrew Words of the Month – Memorize the Hebrew months: