As the holiday-packed Hebrew month of Tishrei departs, we welcome the holiday-starved month of Cheshvan in its place. Cheshvan is the only month of the Jewish year completely devoid of holidays or fast days, except for Rosh Chodesh, with which every Jewish month begins. We call this calendrical desert Mar-Cheshvan, and while there is no universal consensus a to the meaning of the prefix “mar,” one common interpretation is that “mar” means bitter and is a reference to that month’s lack of any noteworthy occasion to break the monotonous routine of everyday life. This spiritual monotony is in contrast to the incessant rush of holidays in the month of Tishrei, which precedes it.
But let’s be honest. How many of us actually experience a letdown when Tishrei ends and the routine boredom of Cheshvan takes its place? How often do we speak of being “yontifed out”, eager to return to the predictable routine of daily life? Whether we want to admit it or not, isn’t the prevailing emotion when the holiday season ends relief rather than disappointment?
Maybe that’s the point. Perhaps the bitterness we experience as Tishrei ends results not from Cheshvan’s lack of holidays but rather our realization that we view that lack with relief rather than sadness. This realization proves (if further proof were needed) that the transformative power of the holiday season was less effective than we had hoped.
Still, there’s Rosh Chodesh. In the list of occasions for which special offerings were brought to the Beit haMikdash (Holy Temple), Rosh Chodesh is second in frequency only to Shabbat (Num. 28:11-15). Yet while the Torah tells us a great deal about the significance and observance of Shabbat, it tells us virtually nothing about Rosh Chodesh. In ancient times, it appears, it was a day of feasting (1 Sam. 20:5), and perhaps also for visiting prophets or holy men (2 Kings 4:23). The only hint of its contemporary significance is found in the liturgy of Musaph, where we thank God for having “given New Moons to Your people as a time of atonement for all their offspring.”
What is the significance of Rosh Chodesh’s role as a time of atonement? Perhaps its frequency enables it to serve as an effective reminder that the transformative work of teshuva, which dominates the holiday season, need not end when Tishrei does. If we have not succeeded during Tishrei in transforming ourselves as much as we had hoped, we should not despair. The work of spiritual transformation is always in season.