By rabbi Paul Freedman
Is there a difference between ‘being Jewish’ and ‘doing Jewish’? It’s a question the ‘Certificate of Religious Practice’ for Jewish school admissions (rather unsuccessfully) tries to address. Clearly, doing Jewish requires some activity and can take many forms. Perhaps if you feel Jewish values and attitudes influence the kind of person you are, you could even say you are always doing Jewish.
Our religious ‘busy season’, the Hebrew month of Tishri, is just behind us. Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Succot and Simchat Torah follow one after the other, with Shabbat still making its weekly appearance. We may feel we have just put in a lot of ‘Jewish time’. The Jewish year is filled with all sorts of major and minor festivals. Every Hebrew month has something – perhaps a minor fast day at the very least – except, that is, for the present month – Cheshvan. Something of a relief after the intensity of Tishri, Cheshvan is a blank page in the Jewish calendar.
In Cheshvan our lives can return to normal – whatever we decide normal is going to be. The month is also known as Marcheshvan, and this may be its original name, with Cheshvan a shortened form. We often (incorrectly) do the derivation the other way round, explaining Mar-cheshvan as an extended form of Cheshvan that would therefore mean ‘bitter Cheshvan’ (Mar means bitter – like maror, the bitter herb we eat at Pesach).
Even if it’s not where the name Marcheshvan comes from, it shows that Cheshvan is traditionally viewed as a bitter month. Its bitterness is ascribed to the absence of any festivals; perhaps ‘boring Cheshvan’ is what they really mean. I wonder if that is really fair on the poor old month of (Mar)cheshvan though. Surely Jewish festivals are not the only opportunity for Judaism to influence our lives, for us to ‘do Jewish’? Cheshvan needn’t be bitter; indeed it can be very exciting. Mitzvah Day? Jewish Film Festival? Just pick your Jewish opportunity.
Kislev, the month of Chanukah is just round the corner, but in the meantime, Cheshvan sameach – happy Cheshvan!
• Rabbi Paul Freedman is Senior Rabbi at Radlett Reform Synagogue and Vice Chairman of the Assembly of Reform Rabbis UK
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