Last night, the Hebrew month of Cheshvan began. In a Jewish calendar filled with holidays, fasts, and special observances, Cheshvan is the only month with none of these days. For this reason, it has the unfortunate nickname of Mar Cheshvan, or "bitter Cheshvan." For those who seek to put their faith at the center of daily life, Cheshvan feels different from the other months of the Hebrew year.
The nickname of Mar Cheshvan is a bit of a historical anomaly, unknown to many Jews. The month's original name is not Cheshvan, but Marcheshvan, which probably derives from the ancient Akkadian for "the eighth month." Because this first syllable "mar" also means "bitter" in Hebrew, over time it was separated from the rest of the name. Today, many incorrectly think that the full name of the month is just "Cheshvan."
Cheshvan is also bitter because it marks the beginning of the rainy season in Israel, and because according to various rabbinic traditions, Cheshvan is the month in which Sarah the Matriarch died, in which Rachel the Matriarch died, and in which the great flood of Noah's time took place. Cheshvan's reputation for bitterness has led to certain Jewish traditions: Some Jews avoid getting married in Cheshvan so that their marriage will not begin under a bad sign.
The emptiness of Cheshvan contrasts with Tishrei, the month that precedes it. Tishrei is full of holidays, beginning with Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) and continuing with Yom Kippur, Sukkot (the Feast of Booths), and the lesser-known days of Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah. All told, Tishrei has seven holy days on which Jews can do no work, meaning that an observant Jew might have to take off up to seven work days in a four-week period.
This year, most of the fall holidays took place on weekends, but that is not the case every year. One year, I unwisely started a new job in September, right before Rosh Hashanah. I was absent Monday and Tuesday three times in a four-week period, and a Wednesday of another week. One of my new colleagues looked at me after the trying period was over and asked, "Do you still work here?" For this reason, to observant Jews, the onset of "bitter Cheshvan," and the attendant ability to get back to work, can actually seem kind of sweet.
Outside of the work context, though, is a month without special observances a superior or inferior month? In many ways, Judaism is defined by its celebrations and special occasions. Holidays like Passover or Chanukah are times of great joy, so a month without those holidays can seem bitter. But what about the summer months of Tammuz and Av, whose primary observances are the fast days of Shiva Asar B'Tammuz and Tisha B'Av, which commemorate tragedies of Jewish history? Alas, there's no shortage of those on the Jewish calendar. Many Jews prefer the empty month of Cheshvan, without those kinds of observances.
But there is also a deeper meaning to the month's bitterness. Because it lacks special observances, Cheshvan can potentially make Jews feel less connected to G-d, or to one another. This is especially true now, thanks to COVID-19; the synagogues, if open, are mainly available for truncated outdoor services only, and not for traditional communal activities. Holidays, even if celebrated remotely, can remind us of shared religious connections.
But while this year's Cheshvan still has some of its traditional bitterness, it will also feel less abnormal than the High Holy Day month of Tishrei did. In this year of isolation, the High Holidays were an especially strange time. Instead of the traditional observances with large crowds in services and meals with friends and extended families, there were Zoom gatherings, outdoor prayers, and meals only with immediate family. A COVID Tishrei feels very different from a regular Tishrei, but a COVID Cheshvan feels pretty normal. And in these uncertain times, getting back to normal sounds pretty good.