What's in a Word?

For the week ending 25 May 2024 / 17 Iyar 5784

The Shiny Month

by Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein
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“It was in the second year in the second month, on the twentieth of the month, the cloud ascended from upon the Tabernacle of the Testimony” (Num. 10:11). On that very day of the year in the Jewish Calendar, my grandfather Dovid (Dezider) Messinger returned his soul to his Maker in the year 2009. He hailed from a small village in Slovakia called Horne Saliby, whence he lived before the Holocaust and to where he returned afterward. Later, he and his wife moved to Bratislava (Pressburg), where they raised four children; and after his wife’s death, he lived in Los Angeles and then in Williamsburg. In this essay dedicated to his memory, we discuss the two names for “the second month” in the Jewish Calendar — Ziv and Iyyar. That month is very special because the commandment of Counting the Omer runs through the entire month, marking it as the only month on the calendar that has a special commandment associated with the entire month.

As Ibn Ezra (to Deut. 16:1) famously writes, technically-speaking Hebrew does not have names for the months of the year (just like it does not have any names for the days of the week). Rather, in the Hebrew tradition, the months are numbered ordinally, staring with the first month marked by when the Jews exited Egypt (what we call Nissan) and continuing through until the twelfth month (what we call Adar). That said, if one looks carefully in the Bible, one will encounter names for the months. For example, in reporting about the construction of the First Holy Temple in Jerusalem during King Solomon’s reign, the Bible states: "And it was in the four-hundred and eightieth year to the Children of Israel’s exit from the Land of Egypt, in the fourth year — in the month of Ziv, which is the second month — to the reign of Solomon over Israel, and he [Solomon] built the house for Hashem" (I Kings 6:1), and later on again summarizes that “in the fourth year, the House of Hashem was established in the month of Ziv” (I Kings 6:37). In these two passages, the Bible gives us a name for the “second month” — Ziv.

Historians and Bible scholars tend to explain that Ziv is the Phoenician/Canaanite name for the second month, and the Hebrew Bible simply borrowed the Canaanite name for that month. Even without resorting to that sort of speculation, we can point out that besides the two instances in which the second month is referred to as Ziv, the word ziv appears six times in the Aramaic parts of the Bible in the sense of “radiance/shine/splendor” (Dan. 2:31, 4:33, 5:6, 5:9-10, 7:28).

The only difference is that the month-name Ziv is spelled defective (ZAYIN-VAV), while the Aramaic common word is consistently spelled plene (ZAYIN-YOD-VAV). Interestingly, Radak in his Sefer HaShorashim writes that the etymological root of the month-name Ziv is the triliteral root ZAYIN-YOD-VAV, even though the name is never spelled with a YOD in the Bible. On the other hand, Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim in Cheshek Shlomo traces the name Ziv to the biliteral root ZAYIN-VAV, which he also sees as the etymon of the word zavit (“corner”). In doing so, he explains that the second month is called Ziv because in it, the sun somehow turns a “corner” (perhaps by introducing the new season of spring?).

The Talmud (Rosh HaShanah 10b-11a) teaches that while everybody agrees that the Patriarch Isaac was born in the month of Nissan, there is a dispute between Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua about whether the Patriarchs Abraham and Jacob were born in Nissan or Tishrei. In elaborating on the ramifications of that dispute, the Talmud explains that one difference is how to understand why the second month is called Ziv: According to Rabbi Eliezer, who held that Abraham and Jacob were born in Tishrei, the second month is called Ziv in allusion to the “radiance/splendor” of trees that occurs in that spring month, as that is when the trees begin to blossom. Similarly, the Jerusalem Talmud (Rosh HaShanah 1:2) writes that the second month is called Ziv because that is when the flora and trees have budded and become recognizable.

According to Rabbi Yehoshua, who said that Abraham and Jacob were born in Nissan, the second month is called Ziv in allusion to the birth of the “radiant ones of the world” (zivatnei olam) — i.e., the three Jewish Patriarchs. This seemingly strained explanation seems to conflate Nissan with the month after it, because if the forefathers were all born in Nissan, why would that be a reason for the name given to the next month? Rashi touches on this question by explaining that by the time the second month “comes around,” the forefathers who had been born in the month before were already born. We will elaborate more on the connection between these first two months and how it relates to the Forefathers later on.

The more popular term for the second month is Iyyar, but that name never appears in the Bible. Rather, that name came to the Jewish calendar from the Babylonian calendar by prophetic revelation (see Jerusalem Talmud Rosh HaShanah 1:2 and pseudo-Rashi to Bereishit Rabbah §48:9). In fact, the names of all the months in the Jewish Calendar used nowadays were borrowed from the names of the months on the Babylonian calendar. Hence, scholars trace the Hebrew month-name Iyyar to the Akkadian month-name ayyaru, which means "light" (and anyways seems awfully similar to the Hebrew word ohr, which also means “light”).

Because the name Iyyar does not appear in the Bible, there is no official way of knowing how to spell the name. At bar in this question is whether the name Iyyar ought to be spelled with two yod s (ALEPH-YOD-YOD-REISH) or with one yod (ALEPH-YOD-REISH). The month-name Iyyar does appear in the Mishnah (Rosh HaShanah 1:3), but its spelling is still subject to dispute: The famous Kaufmann Manuscript of the Mishnah (which dates back to late 11th century Italy and is the oldest vowelized MS of the Mishnah) and the Parma Manuscript spell the name Iyyar with two yod s, but in many other popular editions of the Mishnah (including Ein Yaakov to Rosh Hashanah 18a), the month’s name is spelled with only one yod.

Rabbi Yakov Moelin (1365-1427) in responsa Maharil (§189), Rabbi Yisroel Isserlin (1390-1460) in Terumat HaDeshen (§233), Rabbi Yaakov Margolis of Regensburg (1430–1501) in Seder HaGet (§17, §19), the Shulchan Aruch (Even HaEzer §126:23), and Rema (Even HaEzer §126:7) all conclude write that when writing a gett, one should optimally spell the month Iyyar with two yod s — even though they acknowledge that some sages would spell the name of the month with one yod. Rabbi Shmuel ben David Halevi (1625-1681) in Nachalat Shivah likewise concludes that Iyyar ought to be spelled with two yod s, noting that he found in the Yalkut Chadash (s.v. avot v’imahot in the name of Megaleh Amukot §121) that the name Iyyar can be read as an acronym for the names of the Jewish foreparents — Avraham, Yitzchak, Yaakov and Rachel — who are said to be the “Chariot of Hashem.” This allusion is also cited by Beit Shmuel (Even HaEzer §126:20).

Rabbi Shmuel HaLevi also notes that when the Torah stipulates the rules of Pesach Sheini to be performed in the “second month” (Num. 9:11), Targum pseudo-Jonathan explicitly writes that this refers to the month of Iyyar, which he spells with two yod s. Interestingly, Rabbi Moelin adduces the opposite proof from Targum attributed to Jonathan, noting that because Targum spells it with one yod, it should be spelled with one yod (in our versions of Targum pseudo-Jonathan, the name Iyyar is always spelled with two yod s, per Rabbi Margolis). Rema (Even HaEzer §126:7) writes that because of this orthographical question, many rabbinic courts have a tradition to refrain from issuing gittin during the month of Iyyar, thus avoiding the question entirely (see Aruch HaShulchan Even HaEzer §126:15).

Rabbi Eliezer Hagar of Vizhnitz (Damesek Eliezer to Lev. 9:22) connects the deficient spelling of Iyyar to the second blessing of the tripartite Priestly Blessings, as that blessing begins with the word ya’er (Num. 6:25), which is a perfect anagram of the name Iyar spelled with one yod. Perhaps this relates to what we cited above from the Zohar about this month being the source of all radiance in the world.

An anonymous sage who studied under Rabbi Meir of Rothenberg (1215–1293) wrote a work published by Rabbi Y. Y. Stahl as Sefer HaKushyot. In that work, he writes that the month name Iyyar is related to the Rabbinic Hebrew word avir (“air”) in allusion to the pleasant spring weather common in that month, whereby the air is neither too hot nor too cold. (See Rabbi Yosef Kara to I Kgs. 8:2 and Maharal’s Chiddushei Aggadot to Yevamot 62b who likewise connect the name Ziv to the enjoyable Goldilocks weather typical of that month.) Needless to say, the Rabbinic Hebrew avir is actually borrowed from the Greek word aer, which is also the etymon of the English word air.

Alternatively, the anonymous author of Sefer HaKushyot explains the name Iyyar based on the Talmudic tradition (Shabbat 88a) that after Hashem created the world, its continuation was held in abeyance until the Jews would later accept the Torah in the month of Sivan. That abeyance or suspension can be characterized as though the world is "hanging in the air," hence the name of the month that precedes Sivan is related to the word for "air."

Rabbi Moshe Shapiro (1935–2017) expounds on the significance of the name Ziv: When the Bible describes the "rays of glory" emanating from Moses' face (Ex. 34:29), Targum Onkelos uses the Aramaic word ziv to denote that radiance. Similarly, when Isaiah speaks of Hashem's honor filling the entirety of creation (Isa. 6:3), Targum Jonathan (there) employs the term ziv to signify the “radiance” of His honor. Thus, ziv denotes the spread or radial emanation of something — such as light or honor — rather than the thing itself.

The Talmud (Rosh HaShanah 31a) mentions that the song sung by the Levites in the Temple during the Mussaf offering on Shabbat was the Song of Haazinu (Deut. 32:1–43). The song was serialized into multiple parts, each of which was sung on a sequential week. The mnemonic for remembering how it is broken up is haziv lach (literally, “the splendor for You”), which is comprised of the first letter of the initial verses of each section. Maharsha (to Rosh HaShanah there) explains that this song alludes to its author Moses. Singing this song on Shabbat, the day of the week on which Moses died, is a declaration of Moses' radiance, i.e., the glowing after-effects of his teachings, which endure in the world despite him passing away long ago.

In the Jewish calendar, the month of Iyyar follows Nissan, which is associated with “miracles” (nissim). It thus represents the residual effects of the month before it, in the same way that radiance of light signify the light’s effects without talking about the source of light itself. Although the Forefathers — the "shiny ones" — were technically born in Nissan (the thing itself), Iyyar represents the continuation of the light that they brought into the world in the previous month (their “radiance” or “shininess”). Likewise, the forefathers of the Jewish people themselves are called the “Chariot of Hashem” in the sense that they are not Him, but are rather vehicles for the spread of His will to the world at large. In other words, they help His will radiate and reverberate throughout creation.

Because of Iyyar’s role as the continuation and legacy of Nissan, if one did not bring the Paschal Sacrifice in Nissan, one may still bring it in Iyyar, because Iyyar reflects part of the light of Nissan and is, after a fashion, considered a continuation of it. Likewise, the fruits and buds of a tree/plant alluded to in the name Ziv are the splendor that radiate from the core trunk, even if they do not refer to the tree trunk itself.

There is another fascinating take on the meaning of Iyyar and the significance of that particular month. The great Kabbalist Rabbi Shimshon of Ostropoli (d. 1648) connects the name Iyyar to the verse “Let my enemies be shamed and utterly confused, they will regret and be shamed in but a moment” (Ps. 6:11), as the first letters of the final four words of that verse spell out the name Iyyar (with two yod s). As confirmed by the Base HaSefer website (developed by Moshe Escott of Taryag Analytics), this is the only verse in the entire Bible whose words form an acronym that spells out Iyyar.

Rabbi Moshe Sofer (Chatam Sofer to Shabbat 147b) similarly connects the name Iyyar to the verse “I will not place all the maladies of Egypt upon you, for I am Hashem your Healer" (Ex. 15:26), as the first letters of the final three words of that verse spell out Iyyar (with one yod). Rabbi Mordechai Nachman Aronovsky explains that taken together, this means that the month of Iyyar represents the notion that Hashem will destroy the Jews’ enemies on their behalf, while saving the Jews from a similar fate (he also references Seder Olam Rabbah ch. 5, which states that the war against Amalek occurred in the month of Iyyar).

Rabbi Aronovsky adds, in the name of Rabbi Dovid Jungreis (1897–1971), another illuminating insight: the first letters of the final eight words of Ps. 6:11 spells out the phrase “yom KAF Iyyar,” which refers to the twentieth day of the month of Iyyar. That was the very day that the Jews started traveling away from Mount Sinai after receiving the Torah (Num 10:11). In light of the above, it is no wonder that the Bible relates that when the camp began to travel, Moses would pray, "Arise O Hashem, and Your enemies will be scattered and Your haters will flee from before You" (Num. 10:35) as that too refers to the downfall enemies, which is appropriate for the month in question.

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