William Shakespeare famously said “What’s in a name?” Words are, after all, social constructs to allow for greater ease of communication and don’t have intrinsic meaning. A rose by any other name would smell just as sweet.
When it comes to Hebrew it’s a bit different. The words of Biblical Hebrew were designated by God and thus teach us the very meaning and essential characteristics of the word.
Cheshvan is the eighth month of the Jewish calendar, when starting the count from the month of Nissan. It is a month also known as Mar-Cheshvan, the bitter Cheshvan, a reference to the lack of festive occasions within it.
Interestingly, the name Cheshvan is not a Hebrew word, nor that which the Torah uses. In fact, the month was originally called 'Bul' and only changed to Cheshvan in common usage after the Jews from the Babylonian exile with Ezra.
The month of Bul is first mentioned by King Solomon at the completion of the First Temple, "and in the eleventh year in the month of Bul, that is the eighth month, the House was completed according to all its details and all its specifications. It took him seven years to build it" (Kings 6:38).
So what does Bul actually mean?
The month of Cheshvan corresponds with the beginning of autumn, when the days are shorter, the leaves dry up and the organic world begins its decay in anticipation of a renewal months away. The word Bul connotes ‘drying’ and ‘decay’ and when looking out the window in this month it feels like an appropriate name.
Following the spiritual and emotional rollercoaster of the month of Tishrei with boasts the majesty of Rosh Hashanah, the trepidation of Yom Kippur, and the celebration of Sukkot, entering the month of Cheshvan – devoid of any holidays – can feel a little anti-climactic. We come back to earth with a thud. It is no wonder it is known as the bitter month.
Upon reflection, we do find events taking place during Cheshvan which shed a bit more light on the nature of this time of year. The infamous Flood (in Hebrew ma-bul), began on the 17th of Cheshvan. It was originally destined to begin on the 10th but was delayed for the death and week of mourning for Methuselah the spiritual leader who preceded Noah (more on this soon).
With all of the bad energy (or lack of it) surrounding this month one can almost be forgiven for wanting to lock themselves in their room and wait out the month until the rebuilding energies of Kislev come to the fore culminating in the holiday of Chanukah. But for all those hoping to use their time to the fullest and appreciate every day here is something to help you leave your home. Something seemingly out of sync with what we have seen until now, a paradigm shift if you will. The sages view this decay as a positive experience.
Where is the positive you may ask? When the flood destroyed the world, it ushered in a new world built upon principles of justice and truth. The death of Methuselah signalled the opportunity for Noah to take the reins of leadership in this new world order.
When the grass withers and the trees lose their leaves they are beginning the process of change, of providing an environment for growth. Cheshvan marks the beginning of the rains and thus symbolises a month of potential. It is a month when seeds which have just been planted are receiving their essential life-giving water. The seeds of spirituality sown over the preceding month of Tishrei, now begin to receive their water. These seeds begin their process of growth by first decaying, as all seeds do before they begin to sprout. The process of this new growth takes place underground beyond our field of vision, but that seed is there, taking root, and we only see the results in spring.
Perhaps understanding Cheshvan as the month of undercover growth helps to give hope in a time of an apparent decay. We may even go as far as suggesting that this decay itself is a necessary part of the process leading to the very growth in spring.