Rav Hirsch's Approach to Cheshvan and Shmini Atzeres
What is Cheshvan all about? What is the fundamental message of Cheshvan?Cheshvan, or Marcheshvan, is the only month which does not have any Yom Tov or any special day within it. The contrast to Tishrei is very striking; Tishrei is full of Yomim Tovim. If we want to consider the message of Cheshvan, we have to also consider the purpose of Cheshvan following Tishrei.
Rav Hirsch explains as follows.
Marcheshvan has no other message for us except that after a month of such an abundance of special days, we should start out on the everyday path of Jewish life. However, it is the routine of everyday life which reflects our true existence (emphasis mine) preceding and following those festivities from which they receive their value and significance[i].
The goal of Tishrei is that a Jew should be inspired to serve Hashem well in his ordinary and day-to-day life. This is, Rav Hirsch explains, why Cheshvan comes after Tishrei. Cheshvan is a month which represents ordinary, daily life. During Cheshvan we see how well we did during Tishrei. Tishrei is the month of inspiration, and Cheshvan is the month of application, and, as Rav Hirsch writes, life is about serving Hashem well in one’s ordinary daily life..
This is a common theme in Rav Hirsch’s writings. Whenever a Jew is inspired by something special, he is supposed to translate that inspiration into greater service of Hashem in his ordinary life. This is how Rav Hirsch relates to the Beis HaMikdash:
The purpose of Hashem’s sanctuary lies not in your visitation, not in the festivals celebrated within its walls. The Godly aim of the sanctuary lies not in what you bring to it, but in what you carry away from it into life. The strength of the sanctuary lies in the influence it exerts on your daily life outside its confluence. The sanctuary’s ultimate purpose is to inspire our entire lives to serve Hashem[ii].
This is the challenge all of us are facing right now as we are heading into Rosh Chodesh Chesvan. Rav Hirsch explains that the name ‘Cheshvan’ reflects this idea as well. The root of ‘Cheshvan’ is ‘chashu,’ ches-shin-vav. Rav Hirsch writes,
The stem syllable chashu itself indicates silence and quiet. This is the characteristic of the month of Cheshvan which follows directly the festive celebrations of the month of Tishrei. Cheshvan, in contrast to Tishrei, gives an impression of stillness and entrance into quiet, private life. A Jew has to serve Hashem well in his quiet, private life[iii].
This is exactly what Cheshvan represents, and this is why there are no special days in Cheshvan. Cheshvan is supposed to reflect ordinary, daily avodas Hashem in one’s “quiet, private life.”
Several weeks ago, in the Dvar Torah on eruv tavshilin, we explained that this is also a major theme of Shabbos in contrast to Yom Tov. Yom Tov represents the excitement of a once-a-year special experience, and Shabbos represents the weekly challenge of bringing kedushah into one’s ordinary life. As we explained, Shabbos is more important that Yom Tov; Yom Tov is to Shabbos what Tishrei is to Cheshvan.
So this year, when Rosh Chodesh Cheshvan coincides with Shabbos, it is especially appropriate to think about these themes of Rav Hirsch. How well have we incorporated our exciting life of Tishrei into our ordinary life of Cheshvan? Are we davening with more kavanah? Are we treating our spouses with more love and sensitivity? Are we being more patient with our children? Are we being more careful to avoid lashon hara? Are we looking to find ways to increase our daily Torah learning? These are the types of questions that we should be asking ourselves this Shabbos and this month.
Rav Hirsch develops another theme which relates to the transition from Tishrei into Cheshvan. The month of Tishrei reflects the emphasis in yahadus on simchah in our avodas Hashem. Rav Hirsch explains, simply but powerfully, that
There is only one day of Rosh Hashanah, one Yom Kippur day, but seven days of joyous Sukkos festival. Rosh Hashanah is only a beginning, Yom Kippur is the mediator, but Sukkos is the fruition of life. The first of the month is a dim beginning, the mediating tenth is a growing beacon, but the fifteenth culminates in a profusion of radiant light[iv].
Rav Hirsch points out that unfortunately there are some Jews who whose sole contact with Jewish institutions is limited to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and they receive a distorted view of yahadus. Their view is that
it consists exclusively of thoughts of repentance and warnings of the coming grave. Then the poetry of Judaism consists only of selichos and viduy, and is reduced to eulogies and confessions of sin, and everything about Judaism becomes so bleak that we are unable to use it in our bright, fresh, happy, pulsating lives[v].
Of course this is a mistake. Tishrei does not peak with Rosh Hashanah; Tishrei peaks with the joyous Sukkos festival.
The Torah writes (Vayikra 23:41) “and you shall celebrate it as a festival for Hashem, a seven day period in the year (ba’shanah).” Several meforshim point out that the word “ba’shanah” teaches us that the seven days of Sukkos should impact upon us for the entire year. These seven days should lead into and affect the entire year.
Rav Hirsch points out further that this is one of the roles of the Yom Tov of Shemini Atzeres. “Atzeres” means “preserve, hold fast, hold onto, so that which was attained should be held onto for all eternity[vi]”. As Sukkos is ending and we leave the sukkah, Am Yisroel stands with the Torah – Simchas Torah – before Hashem. Our job is to maintain the simchah which we had gained during Sukkos.
Conditions alter, relationships change, but the joy of fulfilling our God-given tasks remains eternally fresh. This simchas mitzvah, this Simchas Torah becomes the daily companion and guardian of our Torah lives.
Shemini Atzeres falls at the beginning of the winter. Rav Hirsch explains,
When the storms roar, the fields freeze, and the flowers slumber, Israel celebrates its Atzeres and proclaims ever anew that its true survival, its true joyfulness in the midst of our histories nocturnal terrors and tribulations derives solely from the Torah, its eternal national treasure. Specifically at a time when the physical world, the natural world becomes a little darker and more foreboding, we celebrate Shemini Atzeres. The light of the Torah should radiate the simchah of Sukkos, and the light of the Torah should radiate our daily lives as we enter the long winter[vii].
This of course blends with Rav Hirsch’s general approach to Cheshvan. The challenge of Sukkos and Tishrei is to have the special Yomim Tovim affect our ordinary daily lives and instill within them more ruchniyus joy and more Torah.
[i] Collected Writings of Rav Hirsch Vol. 2 p.181
[ii] p. 154
[iii] P. 159
[iv] p. 80
[v] p. 68
[vi] P. 155
[vii] P. 157