Cheshvan is month, like Elul, with no holidays. Elul lets us prepare for the flurry of activity that happens with all the holidays of Tishrei, and Cheshvan lets us recover. The seeds of transformation that were planted during the Days of Awe need time to sprout and take root. That’s what Cheshvan is all about. It’s time to prepare for the winter, either through working hard to bring in the fall harvest or “putting up” to ensure that it lasts through the winter. I’m speaking both physically and spiritually here.
The sense associated with the month of Cheshvan, according to the Sefer Yetzirah, is smell. I don’t know what the smells of Cheshvan were in the ancient world, but I know what they are now. They are the smells of life transitioning and people coming together: crisp leavings, fires, apple pie, mulled cider, and so on. Inner.org says, “the Hebrew word for “smell” (רֵיחַ) is cognate to the word for “spirit” (רוּחַ).” Think of the effect the odors have on you.
In Tishrei we began the process of coming together to ensure the future of the community. This is the season of Air within Earth (per The Jewish Book of Days), and the spiritual focus of Communal Resources (per my own thinking). In Cheshvan, we move from supporting the community institutions, to ensuring that we have enough food to get through the winter and share it as a community. This adds a whole new element to the timing of the American and Canadian Thanksgiving holidays.
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The one “holiday” that really stands out in Cheshvan is the Yahrzeit of Rachel Imeinu, Rachel the Matriarch, which is said to be on the 11th of Cheshvan. Observances of her death have grown more and more popular in recent years as women work to reclaim their own stories. I think her yahrzeit corresponds beautifully with the card and netivah of the month; the death card and the Mekonenet. Rachel is often imagined as weeping for her children. Her weeping is not just out of pity, but to implore G!(d)dess to have pity on her children. This month is a perfect time to explore amazing modern Jewish women whose yahrzeits fall during Chesvhan: poet and freedom fighter Hannah Senesh, poet Emma Lazarus, and author Anzia Yezierska.
The tears of Rachel are what we pray for this beginning this month. We communally shift our prayers from the dew to the rains, at least Ashkenazic Jews outside Israel do. Some start this prayer right after Sukkot. Either way, Cheshvan is the first full month where we begin praying for rain. This precious resource that we so desperately need to live. Water is the ultimate communal resource. You don’t really think about it until you don’t have it. How can you add this to your understanding of the month? What rituals or activities can help you explore the impact of the communal prayer for rain on a community?
Cheshvan is a deceptively easy month for Jews, but as Rav Kohenet Jill Hammer points out,
“Tishrei is about abundance and luxuriance, but Cheshvan, which follows closely upon the festival season, is the month of hard labor. It is an underground time, when we turn over the soil within and without, when we seek our roots. We merge with the earth, and give our strength to it, that it may bloom again in the spring. Cheshvan, the time of work, is the month of the Body–the deep physical and spiritual body that is ours, and, through us, Shekhinah’s. It is only when we acknowledge the inner truths of our daily lives, the truths of the baking pan and the spinning wheel, the truths of the skin and the soil, that we come close to wisdom and redemption.”
Adapted from a post originally written for Peeling a Pomegranate, 2010