By Rabbi Rachel Greengrass
While calendars turn to November, the Jewish calendar has entered the month of Mar Cheshvan. I was always taught that the correct name for the month following Tishrei is Cheshvan, and it is a “cute” tradition to call it Mar Cheshvan because it is bitter (Hebrew = mar) due to the lack of holidays. But guess what? That’s wrong! It’s just a kind of play-on-name that has become so widely accepted as fact that people now refer to the month incorrectly as just Cheshvan!
“Rabbi,” you’re thinking, “how did you learn this fantastic nugget?” Glad you asked. I am part of a worldwide activity called “Daf Yomi” where participants have committed to reading a page of Talmud every day. Not impressed? What if I tell you that “one page” is really one page front and back and that there are 2,711 pages in the Talmud so that one Daf Yomi cycle takes about 7 years, 5 months? Yep. It’s a lot. It’s also where I learned that Mar Cheshvan is not cute, but correct. And I wanted to use this article to share a few other funny/strange/and powerful things I have learned.
The Talmud, while being a collection of laws and rules, is also full of stories, insults, miracles and really bizarre scenes. I have read of rabbis who make their students examine feces to determine how moist or dry it is (and your kids complain about their homework assignments), a rabbi whose lectures were so long all the men in his class became impotent from holding in their urine (think about that before you complain that services are too long), and a black widow who was so attractive that just a glimpse of her wrist made a respectable rabbi go wild (and his wife beat her and sent her out of town). I have read of rabbis who are so fat that a herd of cattle could walk under their bellies as they talked to one another. Seen rabbis insult one another and lose their tempers so badly they brought on the wrath of God. I have read of rabbis who neglected their families so badly their children did not recognize them, and their wives’ heartbreaks caused their death.
And I have learned how far we are to go to avoid embarrassing anyone, that not giving tzedakah is equivalent to idol worship, that sex is a holy act meant for more than procreation. I have learned that learning Torah means nothing if one doesn’t live it’s values, that we shouldn’t ask of the community more than they are capable of, and that even the greatest of us is incredibly flawed. The rabbis teach that everything in creation has a purpose, that every word of Torah has many interpretations, and they teach the holiness of learning, recording, and reciting opinions that are different than your own.
I have laughed out loud, cried, been so excited that I told anyone who would listen about what was on the daf, been angry and bored. It’s been beautiful.
On the second of Mar Cheshvan, we start a new tractate of the Talmud, Nedarim, Vows. Just the word makes one question: who are the people I am committed to? What are the activities? How do I fulfill my commitments?
I am two years and 10 months into a 7-year, 5-month commitment. Every day I show up. I think that’s how to be accountable. Showing up, every day, even when it’s challenging, or I am feeling bitter. (See what I did there? That was a play on “mar” Cheshvan.)
May you show up for your commitments.