Marheshvan / Equinox/ Samhain

This is a piece I wrote several years ago about the fall equinox and the Hebrew month of Marheshvan, reposting since we are in Marheshvan and because of Hallowe’en / DDLM coming up this weekend. Your thoughts welcome. 

Right now we are in the middle of the month of Marheshvan. Incorrectly called Heshvan by many, the ’Mar’ is interpreted as the word מר mar, which means bitter. Heshvan is bitter, people then say, because it has no holidays. This is not entirely correct, on two counts. One, the correct name of the month is Marheshvan (or, as Temanim rightly say, Marahshewan): there was a metathesis (switching of letters) of the m and w, which are similar sounds, from the original Akkadian name warah-shaman (warah like ירח yareah, moon or month, and shaman like שמונה shemone, eight; that is, the eighth month). Two, there are actually several important dates in Marheshvan. Leaving aside the Ethiopian holiday of Sigd which falls on the 29th of Marheshvan (there will be another post about that later), there are two additional dates to focus on: the 7th of Marheshvan and the 11th.

The 7th of Marheshvan is the date to begin praying for rain. Yes, technically we should start immediately after Sukkot; however, in Israel the prayers are delayed until the 7th (according to the rabbis, the reason is to allow the pilgrims who came to Jerusalem for Sukkot to return to Babylonia before the rain falls) and in the Diaspora they are delayed even longer. In any case, in Israel we begin formally asking for rain on the 7th of Marheshvan, which was this past week. As it turns out, that’s perfect, because the fall equinox (Sep. 21) is roughly the beginning of the rainy season in Israel. This is one of the main differences between a Jewish pagan calendar and a Celtic or Norse pagan calendar: in Europe, the fall equinox, the beginning of winter, is the beginning of death. The earth grows cold and dark, snow covers the ground, and life lies dormant, or dead, waiting for spring to come back to life. The fall season, therefore, marks the beginning of winter by acknowledging death, remembering ancestors, and praying for enough life to last through the winter. Celebrations such as Dia de Los Muertos (Day of the Dead), All Saint’s Day, and Hallowe'en could all be considered manifestations of this concept. However, in Israel, the fall season is the beginning of the rainy season - it is the beginning of life! All summer, the earth has been dry and shrivelled. With the beginning of rain suddenly the plants begin to turn green again and gardens come back to life. A Jewish celebration of the equinox must therefore relate to this aspect of rain and rebirth.

The second important date in Marheshvan is the 11th, which is traditionally celebrated as the death-day, the yarzheit, of the Biblical Rachel, wife of Jacob. Rachel is the mother of Joseph; but in rabbinic imagination she becomes the mother of the entire Jewish people. For example, in Eikha Rabba, a commentary on Lamentations, the rabbis imagine G!d deciding the fate of the Jewish people in exile. One by one, biblical figures like Abraham and Moses attempt to plead with G!d and beg for an end to the exile. G!d is not swayed; finally Rachel gets up and asks G!d for mercy for her sake, arguing that if she could overcome her jealousy of her sister Leah and help her marry Rachel’s lover Jacob, then G!d must have pity on the people of Israel. And it is for her sake that G!d agrees to bring an end to the exile and return the people of Israel to their land. As Rabbi Jill Hammer writes, “Rachel represents the truth that the Divine within us is loving, compassionate and unselfish. She transforms severity into compassion and despair into hope”. The midrash ends with a quotation from Jeremiah 31: 

כה אמר ה’ קול ברמה נשמע נהי בכי תמרורים רחל מבכה על בניה מאנה להנחם על בניה כי איננו. כה אמר ה’ מנעי קולך מבכי ועיניך מדמעה כי יש שכר לפעולתך נאם ה‫'‬ ושבו מארץ אויב‫.‬ ויש תקוה לאחריתך נאם ה’ ושבו בנים לגבולם‫.‬
“Thus says the L!RD: A voice is heard in Rama - sighing, and bitter weeping. It is Rachel, weeping for her children, refusing to be comforted for her children, for they are gone. Thus says the L!RD: Stop your voice from weeping, and your eyes from crying; for there is a reward for your labours, declares the L!RD, and they will return from the enemy’s land. There is hope for your future, declares the L!RD, and children will return to their borders.”
(Jeremiah 31:14-16)

In the Zohar, Rachel becomes a symbol of the Shekhina, the Divine Feminine, the Earth-Dwelling Presence of G!d, which goes into exile with the people of Israel. The death of Rachel is a metaphor for the exile of the people of Israel and the descent of the Shekhina. But, as Jeremiah promises, there is hope for the future: Rachel also symbolizes the hope for the end of exile and the return of the Shekhina. As mentioned earlier, the fall equinox is the beginning of the rainy season, and so it is also the beginning of the planting. The last of the harvest is just ending now, and the farmers are beginning to plant the seeds of new growth, to be nourished by the rain. The tears of Rachel, weeping for her exiled children, remind us of the Psalmist’s description of the farmers planting:

 הזרעים בדמעה ברינה יקצרו הלוך ילך ובכה נשא משך הזרע בא יבא ברינה נשא אלמתיו.
"The ones who sow in tears will reap in joy; the one who goes out weeping as he carries his bag of seeds will return in joy as he carries his sheaves of harvest.”
(Psalms 126:5-6)

Why is the farmer weeping? On one level, this Psalm is about the return to Zion, and so the turning of weeping to joy is, as we’ve seen, another manifestation of the sadness of exile and our hope for return. However, it also conveys truth on an agricultural level (an insight that I learnt at Neot Qedumim, a biblical garden outside Jerusalem). Why is the farmer weeping as she plants her seeds? Because those seeds are her food. At the fall equinox the farmer must make a choice: to save his seeds to eat through the winter and thus be assured of immediate food, or plant the seeds and wait the long and risky wait until the harvest. The farmer weeps as she plants, entrusting her future to the elements and the Divine; but the Psalm promises that her tears, like Rachel’s, will be rewarded: we will return in joy, bearing the fruits of our harvests.

In this way, our prayers for rain at the fall equinox echo the tears of Rachel, praying for the return of her children, and the tears of the farmer as he sows his crops and hopes for the best. For me, the fall equinox is a day of hope and a day of rebirth; a day when the falling rain reminds us of the return of the Shekina and the hope we have in ourselves and our future. An additional level, for those of you so inclined to such things: Rachel can be seen as a parallel to other Near Eastern mythologies of goddesses who die and are reborn, such as the Sumerian goddess Inanna (the Greek Persephone is another example). Inanna and her consort Tammuz/Dumuzi are both connected to cycles of descent and rebirth, much like Rachel and her son Yosef (who has been linked to Dumuzi by many thinkers — see, e.g., Thomas Mann’s lyrical Joseph and His Brothers); furthermore, both Rachel and Inanna are connected to that ancient symbol of death/rebirth, the moon, being both daughters of the moon (Rachel, the daughter of Lavan, which means moon, and Inanna daughter of Nin, the moon god). Food for thought…

May we all use this winter to plant the seeds of the things we want to see grow this year, and that the rains of rebirth come to renew us all. May blessings pour down like rain; may joy spring up like new growth.

Tequfa tova: may we have a good change of seasons. Blessed be!