When I was growing up the name of the month that immediately followed Tishrei was called CHESHVAN. Period. Full Stop. But as it turns out, it's not that simple and, I may have been calling it the wrong name all these years.
Let's go back to the very beginning:
The lunar months in their simplest form can be called "month one",
"month two" and so on. In the Torah, Tishrei (the month that we now consider the start of the year and contains Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, and Simchat Torah) was actually the seventh month and Nissan was the first month. That meant that the month that came after the High Holy Days was really the eighth month.
As Shlomo Zuckier explains in his piece "Putting the Mar Back in Marcheshvan":
"Like most Jewish months, it adopts a Babylonian or Canaanite name. Those names usually have a particular, often seasonal, meaning like the Canaanite name for this month, "Bul". But the Akkadian-Babylonian name Marcheshvan that we know and love is a lot more boring. Marcheshvan (מרחשון) is an alternate version of the phrase Werach Shamnu (ורח שמנ). Both versions mean, very simply, "the Eighth Month" as Marcheshvan is, indeed, the eighth month when counting from Nissan!"
Eventually the month's name was shortened to "Cheshvan" but that sneaky "Mar" comes back in into our lives in lore and interpretation. Here are a few of my favorites:
- MAR meaning "bitter": The month is called "Mar Cheshvan" because we are (or perhaps the month itself is) upset (bitter) that there are no special holidays besides Shabbat. After the high of Tishrei last month filled with sacred day after sacred day we are left somewhat deflated or brought down by the notable absence of such chagim (festivals). There is also a midrash that our Foreparent Sarah died during Cheshvan and we collectively mourn her death.
- MAR meaning "Mr.": The month is treated with kavod
(respect) as it gets to be the month directly following Tishrei - how lucky to be situated so close to our more sacred days!
- MAR meaning "Drops of water": Cheshvan is the beginning of the rainy season in Israel. The Targum (explanations of the TaNaKh that would be said in the common language of the listeners) translates "Mar" as "Tipach" which then translates to "drops of water". This is the time of year when Jews around the world pray for a successful rainy season in Israel.
For more interesting reading on the month of Cheshvan, check out: