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Why Babylonian Names for Jewish Months?

Why Babylonian Names for Jewish Months?

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In the pre-Babylonian era, we find in the Scriptures only four months on the calendar that are identified by name:

The first month (Nissan): Aviv1
The second month (Iyar): Ziv2
The seventh month (Tishrei): Eitanim3
The eighth month (Cheshvan): Bul4

The other months were just known by their place in the calendar—e.g., third month, fourth month—starting from the first month: first by virtue of the fact that it is the month when our nation left Egypt, the month when we became a nation.

(Apparently, even the four months that had names were more often than not referred to by their numeric place on the calendar, with the names serving as secondary titles accompanying their numbers.)

The Jerusalem Talmud5 tells us that the modern names of the months “came up [to Israel] with [the returnees] from Babylon,” at the onset of the second Jewish commonwealth, approximately 350 BCE.6

So, why did we begin to use these names? Why didn’t we stick with the biblical practice of referring to months by their number?

Nachmanides7 suggests that this is consistent with Jeremiah’s prophecy: “Therefore, behold days are coming, says G‑d, and it shall no longer be said [by one who wishes to pronounce an oath], ‘As G‑d lives, who brought up the children of Israel from the land of Egypt,’ but rather, ‘As G‑d lives, who brought up the children of Israel from the north land [Babylon] . . .’”8

The original system was to count months in numeric order, starting from Nissan. Thus, any time a person mentioned a month, he was in effect recalling the exodus from Egypt: we are in, say, the sixth month—six months since the month of the Exodus.9 Thus, the numeric naming served as a constant reminder of our deliverance from Egypt.

After we were delivered from Babylonian captivity, however, we started using the names that we became used to using in Babylon. And now, these names served to remind us that G‑d has redeemed us from this second exile.

I hope that I’ve been helpful today.

Yours truly,

Rabbi Menachem Posner

FOOTNOTES
1.

Exodus 13:4. Literally, “spring” or “ripening.”

2.

I Kings 6:1 and 6:37. Literally, “radiance,” so called because it is the time when the trees become radiant with blossoms.

3.

I Kings 8:2. Literally, “strong ones,” so called because the ripe fruit are at the height (strength) of their goodness. (Our sages [Talmud, Rosh Hashanah 11a] attribute the names Ziv and Eitanim to the births of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob—the radiant and strong ones—in these months.)

4.

I Kings 6:38. Related to the word for “withering,” and so called because at that time the branches and stubble in the field begin to wither.

5.

Rosh Hashanah 1:2.

6.

While many maintain that the names are actually taken from the Babylonian tongue, the Rebbe maintains (Likkutei Sichot, vol. 23, pp. 214ff) that it is likely that many (if not all of) these names are actually Hebrew, but that the practice of calling months by names instead of their numeric position on the calendar originated in Babylon.
See also Tammuz—Time for Transformation.

7.

Commentary to Exodus 12:2.

8.

Jeremiah 16:14.

9.

For similar reason, Nachmanides argues, we have no names for the days of the week. Sunday is called “the First Day,” Monday is “the Second Day,” and so on—because we are constantly counting down to the Shabbat. Every time we mention the day of the week—any day of the week—we are fulfilling the divine precept (Exodus 20:8) to always “remember the Shabbat day to keep it holy.”

Rabbi Menachem Posner serves as staff editor for Chabad.org. He lives with his family in Montreal, QC.
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Discussion (14)
June 11, 2013
To Yankel
Both Zecharia and Esther were written after we went to Babylon.
Gershon
June 9, 2013
what about Kislev? And Shevat? They are in Zechariah?
Yankel Lipskier
March 26, 2013
The Torah uses numbers for the names of months. That should be good enough for anyone that honors the Torah.
Eliyahu
Rehovot
February 25, 2013
what about teves? it says it in megillas esther?
yankel lipskier
February 25, 2013
What are the the names of other jewish months before Babylonian exile ?
NWAGBOROGU C.C. Nigeria , west Africa
Awka Anambra state Nigeria
January 9, 2013
Why does current Hebrew calendar not start with month one? Or put another way. Why is the head of the year Rosh Hashana not the first month?
Len Levine
ViennaVA
January 6, 2013
will we go back to months from leaving mitzrayim?
thank you for this very fine article. does anyone still use the numeric system?
Why don't we go back to that system? the use of these names ..how could it be healthy for us?
ron
June 6, 2011
to Daniel
indeed it would be better to use the names september, october, november, and december, since they mean 7th, 8th, 9th, and 10th. and do not refer to any pagan deity! the interesting part i find is that those months of the High Holidays, G-d never allowed them to be named otherwise, even if they do not correspond exactly to the date, they cover the whole time so that no pagan god's name is pronounced. unfortunately it is not so for the days of the week in most countries. in portugal, and brazil, they use 1st, 2d, 3rd to 6th, then Sabado (shabbat)! and no pagan god's name at all. an improvement! i think in the orient also. thai, chinese. don't quote me!
fabk
ft laud, fl
April 14, 2011
Babylonian name of the months
I don't believe using the names of pagan deities serves to remind us of our second exodus, I believe it serves to show how we became influenced by paganism...Hashem told us that the names of other G-Ds should never be found on our lips! We need to abolish these pagan names and return to the biblical numbering of the months except for the original four names! Stop sugar coating...Lilly
Lilly
Ocala, FL USA
September 22, 2009
Good question Daniel, I was wondering the exact same thing!
Anonymous
Harlem, NY
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