The Sweet in the Bitter Month

In the next few days, we will enter the month of מרחשחון (Marheshvan). In truth, the month is
really called Heshvan, but there is a strong tradition to refer to it by the longer name. This tradition is so strong that when the month is announced in synagogue, as it was last Shabbat, one must call it out to the whole community by its “full” name rather than the shorter, but purer, name Heshvan. Likewise, the Talmud and Halakha require that certain legal documents, when dated, use the longer name.

My two most frequent associations with the short word מר (Mar), which becomes something
like a prefix in this calendrical quirk, are in the Passover Seder, where it is referred to as the
basis for Maror; and in the Hebrew folk song Al Kol Eileh, where it is the counterbalance to
מתוק (Matok), sweetness. In both cases, the word means bitter, as in taste. Our tradition
ascribes feelings to things like the moon, Hanukkah candles and the Kiddush wine… in each
case, creating traditions to sympathize with them, to reduce their pain or embarrassment.

How can it be that here Jewish tradition does the opposite, going out of its way to refer to a month as ‘bitter’? The answer usually given is that we are sad that the High Holidays (including Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret and Simhat Torah) are over. Indeed, this is the only month in the entire Jewish calendar without a single holiday in it. When I first learned this explanation, I thought it was a joke. I don’t know about you, but a break from all those holidays doesn’t sound so bad to me!

In my short time at East Midwood Jewish Center, though, I have come to see things differently.

Ours is a community where the holidays are filled with joy and even the sad parts are full of
singing, of spirit and of seeing people we haven’t seen in a while. September and October were
particularly interesting for me because I got to see people I met in the spring but who had been out of town for all or most of the summer. Writing drashot and preparing for unusual services over and over (and over!) again the last few weeks has been difficult and tiring, to be sure, but getting to experience so much of our community in such a short time has also been a blessing.

But we don’t need special holidays to get us in the door. Our community offers so much on a
regular basis that it’s hard to see Heshvan as a bitter month. Rather, it can remind us, perhaps
more than any other month, that there is something special in the everyday. The classes we offer, the services we provide, the daily minyanim that offer people a jolt of spirituality after
waking and before bed (and provide people the opportunity to say Kaddish), our Shabbat worship…these are all reasons, as powerful as any holiday, to celebrate.

Of course they touch our tongues differently than the sweetness of Rosh HaShana’s honey or the salty tears we may cry on Yom Kippur or Shemini Atzeret, but it is a beautiful taste nevertheless. It is a taste that will hopefully remind us of how special every day can be. If this is a message we can ingest every day, perhaps it needs to come from something bitter after all — coffee! May it enliven our every day. Hodesh Tov!