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A Yearly Conundrum

Readers Ze’ev Orzech and Seth Cohen have written separately to inquire about the names of the months in the Hebrew calendar. Mr. Orzech especially wants to know about the calendar of the “Qumran sect” —which, he writes, “used a completely different set of names for their months.” Mr. Cohen inquires how it can be that, while “current names of the Hebrew months are Babylonian or post-Exilic in origin, as opposed to the earlier names used in the Bible (Aviv, Ziv, Etanim and Bul),” the “Gezer calendar mentions the current Hebrew names of the months, yet is dated to 1000 BCE, which is very much pre-Exilic!”

Although both Mr. Orzech and Mr. Cohen have confused certain things, they do, between them, mention all four of the different Hebrew calendars known to us historically, i.e., 1) an ancient, lunar, prebiblical calendar, known only from a stone tablet found in an excavation near Tel Gezer halfway between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, that indeed dates to about 1000 B.C.E.; 2) a second lunar calendar, the one used by the Bible, which generally refers to the months of the year only by number (e.g., “the first month,” “the second month,” etc.), but also calls four of them by name; 3) the Hebrew calendar we use today, which is also lunar and was brought back to Palestine by the Babylonian exiles returning in 538 BCE after the Babylonian empire was destroyed by the Persian King Cyrus; 4) a solar calendar used by some Palestinian Jews (including the sectarians of the Dead Sea Scrolls) who refused to recognize the Babylonian calendar in the last centuries before the Common Era.

This solar calendar was divided into 12 months, eight having 30 and four having 31 days, yielding a total of 364; the remaining one-and-a-quarter days of the 365 1/4-day solar year were presumably intercalated every few years, though exactly how is unknown. These months, however, did not, as Mr. Orzech thinks, have names; they simply were called “the first month, the second month,” etc., like the biblical months. What were given names by the Dead Sea sectaries were the weeks, each bearing the name of the family of priests that was rotationally in charge, according to the practice in the Temple in Jerusalem, of the sacrifices for that seven-day period. Since there were only 24 of these families, however, these names reoccurred at least twice a year and were not associated with any particular time or season.

This brings us to our three lunar calendars. Starting with the oldest of them, the Gezer calendar, one must observe, first of all, that Mr. Cohen is wrong about its names being the same as those of “our current Hebrew months,” since they are in fact completely different. Moreover, although the Gezer calendar’s months were clearly lunar, inasmuch as each is called a yerah., from Hebrew yareah., “moon,” it is unlikely that they really had names at all. This is because only eight such yerah.s are listed, of which four appear not as single months but double months, viz: “The two months of asif, the two months of zera, the two months of lakish, the month of atsid pishta, the month of k’tsir se’orim, the month of katsir va’khel, the two months of zamir, the month of ketz.” Since these italicized words mean, in order, “[olive] harvest,” “planting,” “late planting,” “flax hoeing,” “barley harvest,” “[wheat] harvest and festival,” “grape harvest” and “summer fruit,” it seems obvious that they designate the activities of these months rather than their names.

It is quite possible, therefore, that the months of the Gezer calendar actually were the same as the biblical months and may have been either numbered, too, or had names like the four we are familiar with from the Bible. (Aviv, “Spring,” was the name of the month, roughly corresponding to our April, known to us as Nisan; Ziv, “Bright Light,” of Iyyar, corresponding to our May; Eitanim, whose meaning is unclear, of Tishrei, corresponding to our September, and Bul, “Heavy Rain,” of Heshvan, corresponding to our November, when the Palestinian rainy season seriously begins.)

As for the Hebrew months we are all familiar with, whose names go back 2,500 years, they indeed derive from Babylonian names, to which — with one exception — they sound highly similar. Thus, our Hebrew month of Elul, which we have just begun, was Babylonian Ululu; the month after it, Tishrei, was Tashritu, and forth. The exception was the month after Tishrei, Heshvan, which was the Babylonian Warhu Samna — literally, “Eighth Month.” (Warh.u is a cognate of the Hebrew yerah., and samna of Hebrew shemini, “Eighth.”) If we take into account, however, that the original Hebrew name of Heshvan was Marheshvan, and that in many words, Babylonian “v” or “w” and Hebrew “m” reverse themselves (the Hebrew month of Sivan, for instance, was Babylonian Simanu), Warhu Samna’s transformation into Heshvan is easily explainable. The only Babylonian month to be numbered instead of named, it points back to an earlier age when the Babylonian months, like the biblical ones, were known by number only.

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