Names of Hebrew Months

August 21, 2011 | by

How did the Hebrew months get their names? When did the names of the months come about and to whom are they attributed?

The Aish Rabbi Replies

If you look in the Bible, you'll see that the Hebrew months don't have names. Rather they have numbers, counting from the month of Nissan, which is described as "the first month" (Exodus 12:2).

In 1-Kings 6:2 the month of Iyar is referred to as the "month of Ziv." The word "ziv" is an adjective and means "radiance." Rabbi Eliyahu Kitov explains that it is called "radiance" because in this month the sun is in full radiance. Similarly, the Jewish people came into full radiance in this month, for they were made ready to receive the Torah during this month.

1-Kings 6:38 refers to the month of Cheshvan as "the month Bul," related to the word "baleh" which means, "withers," and the word "bolelin" which means "mixed." It is described in this fashion since the grass withers in this month, and the grain is mixed for the household livestock. The Radak explains that the word "bul" is related to "yevul" which means produce, since plowing and planting begins in this month.

Other names we use today are Babylonian in origin, adapted by the Jews some time during the Babylonian Exile, circa 400 BCE. Ironically, the month of Tammuz is the name of an idol which appeared (via optical illusion) as if it was crying. This was achieved by putting soft lead into its eyes, and by kindling a small fire inside, which would melt the lead. This explains the reference in Ezekiel 8:14: "There were women sitting, causing the Tammuz to cry."

There are other opinions about the name of this month. Rashi says that the name Tammuz is an Aramaic word meaning "heat," since it is a hot summer month.

Another interesting note: Tammuz-17 was the name of the Iraqi nuclear reactor destroyed by Israel in 1981. It was so named because the 17th of Tammuz is the day that Jerusalem was sieged prior to the destruction of the Temple by Nebuchadnezzar, and Saddam Hussein was known to fancy himself as the heir to Nebuchadnezzar's fallen dynasty.

How could our ancestors adopt idolatrous names for the months? Doesn't the Torah forbid even mentioning the names of idols (Exodus 23:13)?

Nachmanides explains that when we originally left Egypt, we were instructed to count the months from Nissan, the month of the Exodus (Exodus 12:2). By doing so, we implicitly commemorate the Exodus every time we mention the date. And in fact, as observed above, in almost all of the Torah there are no names for the months. They are simply referred to as the nth month (since Nissan) – e.g., Exodus 19:1, Leviticus 16:29, II Kings 25:1, I Chronicles 27:2.

After the Babylonian Exile, however, the Jewish people realized they had a more recent salvation to commemorate – their redemption from Babylonia. Thus, rather than remembering the Exodus, the Sages of the time decided that more appropriate was to in some way commemorate the latest nation they had been redeemed from. They did so by taking the very same idolatrous month names of their previous exile and turning them into Jewish names. They saw in this a fulfillment of Jeremiah 16:14-15: “And it would no longer be said, ‘As the Lord lives, who lifted the Children of Israel from the land of Egypt,’ but rather, ‘As the Lord lives who lifted the Children of Israel from the land of the north….’” (Ramban Exodus 12:2).

(Some explain additionally that since the idols of the Babylonian month names are no longer worshiped or revered, there is no prohibition mentioning them (Igrot Moshe Y.D. II, 53).)

For that matter, our use of pagan names is no more unusual than the Western world whose months are connected to pagan practices: March is named after Mars, June is named after Juno, etc. Furthermore, even the days of the week - e.g. Sunday, Monday - are called after "sun" god and the "moon" god. The name Tuesday is connected to the Norse god of war.

Even though the names of the months are linguistically speaking Babylonian, they were adopted by the Jews with the understanding that they were Divinely inspired names, and are laden with kabbalistic nuances. Based on this, the Sages expounded the names of the months - e.g. Elul is an acronym for "ani ledodi vedodi li" (I am to my beloved, and my beloved is to me”), and Nisan is the month of "nissim" (miracles).


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