The curious names of our months

Dear Rabbi. I have always been puzzled about the names of our Jewish months. Apparently they were adopted from Babylonian culture and at least one is thought to have idolatrous associations. How can it be that we adopted them? Can you enlighten me? Thanks.  Mikail

Dear Mikail,

I too have agonised over this question.  The Torah provides the simplest and most sublime designations for each of the months – “the first month”, “the second month” and so on.  In addition, the later books of Tanakh feature the evocative Hebrew names Eitanim, Bul and Ziv for the months we call Tishri, Cheshvan and Iyyar respectively while the Torah itself calls the first month (our Nisan) Aviv, the month of spring.

How then did it happen that the Jews who returned from the Babylonian exile brought back with them the “un-Jewish” Persian names for the months, one of which  – Tammuz – was actually the name of a Phoenician idol?

I believe that if we extrapolate from what Ramban (1194-1270) has to say on the subject we can come up with an excellent answer.

Ramban (commentary to Exodus 12:2) cites the following prophecy of Jeremiah: Behold days are coming says G-D. when it will no longer be said “The living G-D who brought up Bnei Yisrael from the land of Egypt” but rather “The living G-D who brought up Yisrael from the lands of the north and all the lands to where He had driven them; and I shall restore them to the land which I gave to their forefathers. (Jer. 16:14-15).

In other words, the Exodus from Egypt will be dwarfed by an even greater deliverance which will occupy pride of place in our devotional utterances.

 This prophecy is understood by our Sages to refer to the Messianic era. Yet Ramban implies that the exiles who returned from Babylon to build the second Temple potentially effected the fulfilment of that prophecy!  

With hindsight we know that it didn’t.  Ramban, writing 1,600 years later, certainly knew it!  The Second Temple period was largely a big disappointment and the Temple was destroyed by the Romans after only 420 years. We are still awaiting its third Messianic incarnation

But the all-important factor is that the returnees from Babylon believed that their return was the fulfilment of Jeremiah’s prophecy. They were hoping that the entire Jewish people, not just 49,000 of them, would soon return. They assuredly harboured Messianic hopes. Is it fanciful to assume that the Persian names of the months they brought back with them were regarded by them as akin to spoils of war?  By adopting and transforming the meaning of these names, the Jews were, in a sense, mocking their former captors!

\Today, nobody knows for certain the meanings of the Babylonian or Persian names.  According to one source, apart from Tammuz (and there are alternative renderings for that name too, namely “hidden”, “giver of the vine” or even “clean”), the names are innocuous or even quite appropriate.  Nisan means “their flight” (well we did leave Egypt during that month!) Iyyar means “natural healing”. Sivan means “bright”.  Cheshvan simply means “eighth” (and it is the eight month!) Kislev means “trust”.  Adar means “strength”. One should stress that these are educated conjectures only. Certainly we may say that, whether through chance or Providence, 1st Tishri (א’ תשרי) is an anagram of the Hebrew word ראשית, “the beginning” (The universe began its operation on the day Man was created, namely 1st Tishri, Rosh haShana.) The letters of Elul (אלול) form the acronym for אני לדודי ודודי לי, “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine” (Song of Songs 6:3), a verse bespeaking reconciliation between the Jew and his G-D which is the theme of Elul. And as Baal haTurim (1269-1343) points out, the gematria (numerical value) of Nisan ((ניסן  is identical with that of למלכים, “for kings”, uncannily hinting at the fact that, as the first Mishna of tractate Rosh HaShana informs us, Nisan inaugurates the new year for reckoning the reigns of Jewish kings.  (If a king ascended the throne on any day of the year, we reckon his second year from the ensuing first of Nisan – derived from I Kings 1:6)

So, Mikail, the adopted names of our months are not as terrible as maybe you thought. After all, we don’t bat an eyelid at using names of days of the week – Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, etc. – which are named after the sun, the moon, Saturn and various Norse ‘gods’. The fact that these ‘gods’ are not worshipped nowadays is a factor in the permissibility of their use.  I suppose the same can be said for the old idol Tammuz!

And, as I say, I find the idea compelling (it is my own extension and you can take it or leave it!) that the returning exiles to Jerusalem, having freed themselves from the yoke of their captors, were, as it were, throwing the ‘spoils ofwar’ – the names of their months – in their former captors’ faces by adopting and transforming their meaning.

I conclude fittingly with the following stirring extract from Mark Twain’s famous essay Concerning The Jews (1897)

The Egyptians, the Babylonians and the Persians rose, filled the planet with sound and splendour, then faded to dream-stuff and passed away; the Greeks and Romans followed and made a vast noise, and they were gone; other peoples have sprung up and held their torch high for a time but it burned out, and they sit in twilight now, and have vanished.

The Jew saw them all, survived them all, and is now what he always was, exhibiting no decadence, no infirmities of age, no weakening of his parts, no slowing of his energies, no dulling of his alert but aggressive mind.  All things are mortal but the Jew; all other forces pass, but he remains!

About the Author
Rabbi Chaim Ingram is the author of four books on Judaism and honorary rabbi of Sydney Jewish Centre on Ageing.
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