How to ‘mar’ a perfectly legitimate observance

Saturday, October 20, is Information Overload Day.


According to the website, the observance was established by a group of companies concerned about how much money was being lost because employees were spending time checking their emails and other social media components. That price tag is somewhere around $180 billion, which is why Information Overload Day came to be, because “clearly something needed to be done,” the website proclaims.

Among the ways to “celebrate” the day, it suggests, is to “stop checking your email every time it dings…, log [into your email] only five times a day…, turn off the ringer on your phone, including the vibration.”

The trouble is, that could not have worked for many of us, at least not this year, assuming we are aware of “I-O Day.” That is because October 20 is a Shabbat, which means that many of my faithful readers will go beyond these suggestions, and they will do so again next Shabbat, and the one after that, and so on. Perhaps that means that observant Jews observe a Jewish Information Overload Day 65 times every secular year. (This includes all of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and the pilgrimage festivals’ opening and closing days.) That being the case, observing the day on the proper day is one day too much, so how else may we observe it?

My suggestion would be to save this column and read it every October 20 because it will overload you with information you never realized you could live without and probably will forget soon after you have googled your way into realizing I did not make any of this up.

Let us, therefore, discuss the question of what the current Jewish month is called.

Question No. 1: Is it “Marcheshvan,” as some call it, or is it “Cheshvan” or “Heshvan,” with or without a dot under the capital H, which is just about how every Jewish calendar lists it?

Question No. 2: Most people would answer the previous question by saying Cheshvan is its “real” name. If so, why did someone tack on that “Mar”?

Question No. 3: Some people may opt for “Marcheshvan” as being correct. If so, why is it correct — or are they also wrong?

Answer No. 1: Neither Cheshvan nor Marcheshvan is correct, although Marcheshvan comes closer to the actual name.

Answer No. 2: The common belief is that Cheshvan is correct and “mar” was added because it means bitter in Hebrew, and “Cheshvan” is a “bitter” month. Why that is the case is another story. Either it is bitter because it is the month in which the Great Flood began (the anniversary of which, by the way, was last Shabbat), or because it is the only Jewish month in which there supposedly are no formal Jewish observances.

These, however, are just myths.

Answer No. 3: As noted, Marcheshvan comes closest to the actual name, but probably it should be pronounced as two words, “Marach shavan,” as Yemenite Jews pronounce it.

The original name of the month is spelled with letters that we do pronounce as “Marcheshvan.” In the Babylonian Talmud, for example, in tractate Pesachim 94b, we find “MRCHSHVN” at the center of a three-month cycle in which the sun “travels over the seas in order to dry the rivers,” presumably because that helps bring rain to agricultural regions.

In BT Rosh Hashanah 7a, there is a lively discussion of whether Nisan or Tishrei is the “seventh month” referred to in the Torah. An anonymous someone proposes that the actual seventh month is “MRCHSHVN,” but this is rejected because the seventh month requires crops to be harvested, and this month begins after the harvest ends.

In fact, according to BT Bava Metzia 106b, this month is smack in the middle of the planting season, an opinion uttered by the head of the Sanhedrin, Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel II, who was quoting Rabbi Meir, the Sanhedrin’s Number 3 sage at the time (known as the Chacham). That he did quote Rabbi Meir is interesting in itself, since he ejected Rabbi Meir from the Sanhedrin because of a clash of egos, and then banned anyone from quoting law in Rabbi Meir’s name (see BT Horayot 13b). We are told that Rabbi Shimon ben Menasya agreed with this opinion, but that Rabbi Yehudah and Rabbi Shimon had their own ideas. Both, however, included “MRCHSHVN” in their opinions.

Rashi uses the name at least eight times in the Talmud, and once in a comment to a verse in last Shabbat’s Torah reading (see his comment to Gen. 7:11). We also find it in Rambam, in the Shulchan Aruch, and in many other rabbinic writings.

As for why “MRCHSHVN” is more likely pronounced as “Marach shavan,” that takes a bit of explaining.

The name of the month actually originates in ancient Akkadian, a language in which the letters mem and vav are interchangeable, which is then carried over into ancient Hebrew, which also used to interchange the letters vav and yod. (That is why in the Torah “hee,” meaning she, most often is written as “hoo,” meaning he.) Thus, “mar” in Akkadian could be “var,” and “cheshvan” could be “cheshman.” Put those letters together and we get “VRCHSHMN” (“VaRaCHSHaMNu”), which actually is two words — “VaRaCH SHaMNu.” In Akkadian, that phrase means “eighth month.” Interchange those letters in Hebrew and you get YRCHSHMN, which is pronounced as two words, “YeReCH SH’MiNi,” and also means “eight month.” Since Tishrei is the seventh month and this month follows it, “YRCHSHMN” is exactly right.

Now the interchanging comes into play. Instead of YRCHSHMN, we get MRCHSHVN. Yemenite Jews divide it into two and pronounce it as “MaRaCH SHaVaN,” mimicking the two words “YeReCH SH’MiNi.” It is just as easy, of course, to pronounce MRCHSHVN as “MaRCHeSHVaN,” but that would reduce the name to one word, when clearly it began as two words.

In any case, there is nothing bitter about Marach shavan, or Marcheshvan. True, the Great Flood began in this month, but it also ended in this month (on the 27th, which is November 5 this year) with the exit from the Ark. That is a sweet thing, not a bitter one. For another, there really is a Jewish observance of a sort, Rosh Chodesh, which once upon a time was celebrated as a minor festival and still retains many of the trappings of one.

Too much information? Maybe, but at least now you can celebrate Information Overload Day every year by reading this column aloud to anyone willing to listen. Then pop a cork and say, “Oy Vey, it’s I-O Day!”

About the Author
Shammai Engelmayer is rabbi of Temple Israel Community Center, in Cliffside Park, and Temple Beth El of North Bergen, both in New Jersey. A former president of the North Jersey Board of Rabbis, he chose to work as a journalist after being ordained. That career helped him hone the skills that serve him so well on the pulpit, and helped him become a popular adult Jewish education teacher in Northern New Jersey.