June 2, 2024
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The Meanings of Our Month Names

As is well known, the names of our months were imported by the Jews from Babylonia. The language of Babylonia, Akkadian, is a Semitic language with many cognates to Hebrew. (But some of the month names may have earlier origins, from non-Semitic languages.) How do scholars understand the meanings of our month names?

My suggested explanations are culled mainly from: 1) H. Tawil, “An Akkadian Lexical Companion for Biblical Hebrew” (2009), 2) M. Cohen, “The Cultic Calendars of the Ancient Near East” (1993), and 3) E. Klein, “A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the Hebrew Language” (1987).

Tishrei (not in Tanach): Most likely this means “beginning.” The Akkadian name of the month was “Tashritu,” from an Akkadian verb “shurru”=to begin. It may have something to do with first fruits of the year, or the verb may connote “inauguration” and allude to an inauguration ceremony. (There are Aramaic words שרי and שרא that mean “to begin.” See Jastrow, p. 1630.)

Because the month is not in Tanach, there is a dispute as to the last vowel. Yemenite Jewry (which usually preserves accurate traditions) record the month’s name as “Tishri.”

Marcheshvan (not in Tanach): The Akkadian name for the month was “Araahsaamnu” (or something close to that). A widely suggested explanation is that it is the equivalent of “yerach shemonah” (=eighth month). See, e.g., A. Zivitovsky’s article in the fall 2000 issue of Jewish Action. Cohen disagrees because the other Akkadian month names are not based on their numeric position. He believes this name originated in Old Persian and that we do not know what it means. He thinks that the Babylonians adjusted it slightly so that it would mean “eighth month” in their language.

The reason most Jewish people today do not realize that “mar” was originally part of the month’s name is that the name of the month is not in Tanach. If it were, we would all know the full name from the verse. (In the Mishnah, “mar” is always there.) Yemenite Jewry pronounces the name of the month as “Marach-sha’wan,” which is probably closer to its original pronunciation.

Kislev (Zech. 7:1 and Neh. 1:1): The meaning is not known. The Akkadian name was “Kissilimu,” or something close to that. Cohen opines that this name is not of Semitic origin.

Tevet (Est. 2:16): A widespread older suggestion is that the name is related to the root טבע, which means “sink” and that things would sink in the mud due to the rain. Neither Cohen nor Tawil mention this suggestion. (They do not give any other.) I also saw a suggestion that the month was named for the low position of the sun. The Akkadian name for the month was “Tebetu.”

Shevat (Zech. 1:7): A widespread older suggestion is that this name is related to instruments for beating and striking (like שבט) and that it alludes to the heavy rains that struck the ground in this month. Neither Cohen nor Tawil mention this suggestion. (They do not give any other.) The Akkadian name for the month was “Shabatu.”

Adar: The name of the Akkadian month was “Addaru.” Cohen writes (cited by Tawil): “It is unclear whether the name Addaru is of Semitic origin, presumably a cognate of the Akkadian verbs adaru A (“to be worried,” “to become obscured…)” or adaru B (“to be afraid”) or whether the month name is an Elamite or foreign word.” Klein mentions the suggestions “month of the threshing floor” and “dark or clouded month.”

Nissan (Est. 3:7, Neh. 2:1): One view is that the name is cognate to the Hebrew נס and means “banner, flag.” Cohen argues for a different view, that it derives from Sumerian and their word “nesag,” which means “first.” (Sumerian is not a Semitic language. It was an older language in the region and it influenced Akkadian.) The name of the month in Akkadian is “Nissanu.”

Iyar (not in Tanach): The name in Akkadian is “Ajaru.” There are words of this spelling in Akkadian that mean “young man” and “rosette.” But the month name is probably not related to either. I have seen the suggestions: “month of blossoming,” “light” and “young donkey.” (The second is related to אור and the last is related to עיר, Gen. 32:16.)

Sivan (Est. 8:9): It means something like “season.” The Akkadian name was “Simanu.”

Tammuz (Ezek. 8:14): This word is in Tanach but only as the name of a god. “Tammuz” derives from the name of the god “Dumuzi.” This name comes from Sumerian and means something like “faithful son.” Worship of this god can be traced back to 3000 B.C.E. See the Soncino commentary on Ezek. 8:14.

Av (not in Tanach): The name of the month in Akkadian is “Abu.” Cohen writes that the name derives from the “ab/pum” festival for the dead. He does not explain where that festival got its name.

The entry in the Encyclopaedia Judaica had made the interesting suggestion that Av is a shortened form of אביב. The root אבב denotes “fresh growth.” In other sources, it is often claimed that the name of the month means “father.” (Unfortunately, Tawil’s work has no entry for this month, as Tawil does not have entries for the four months that are not in Tanach.)

Elul (Nech. 6:15): The Akkadian name for this month was “Ululu” or “Elulu.” In this month, the goddesses were purified in the sacred river. There is an Akkadian verb “ullulu”= to purify, to consecrate a deity. This raises the possibility that the name of the month derives from this activity. But perhaps the truth is otherwise: whatever the original meaning of the name, eventually it was understood as deriving from ullulu=to purify, and so a custom of consecrating goddesses evolved during this month.

***

Now I will end this column with an explosive entry and a revolutionary one:

Bikini: This was named after “Bikini Atoll,” one of the Marshall Islands (near the international date line) where U.S. scientists did extensive testing on atomic bombs. (“Bikini Atoll” meant “coconut place” in the Marshallese language, with the first word spelled “pikinni.”) On July 5, 1946, four days after the first nuclear device was detonated there, Louis Réard introduced this new swimsuit design. He was a French mechanical engineer by training and manager of his mother’s lingerie shop in Paris. He hoped that this new revealing style (e.g., open mid-torso and navel area) would create an explosive cultural reaction similar in intensity to the nuclear explosion at Bikini Atoll! (P.S. Perhaps the “bi” in the name also alludes to the two parts of the swimsuit.)

Two months before, in May 1946, a different Parisian designer had released a swimsuit named the Atome (=Atom) and advertised it as “the smallest swimsuit in the world.” But it covered the navel and other areas, and it failed to attract much attention.

מהפך: In 1977, when he was told that Menachem Begin won the election, Israeli anchorman Haim Yavin spontaneously invented this word. He recalled: “Somewhere in my memory…I knew the word ‘mapecha’ (=the Hebrew word for revolution). I played with the word, which was my second job, and modified it in the moment to ‘mahapach.’ More revolutionary than revolution, as this was an election by ballots, not a revolution of bullets.”


Mitchell First can be reached at [email protected]. He did not learn about the etymology of “bikini” from traditional or scholarly sources. He read it in “Reader’s Digest.”

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