The Jewish calendar is confusing. The Hebrew months have names, but they are Persian in origin. Why do Hebrew months have Persian names? Another question: These names are not employed by the Five Books of Moses or the Books of the Prophets, when were they adopted into our culture?
In the Torah, the Hebrew months are identified by number rather than name, yet here again we run into confusion. In the book of Genesis, the second month is in the Fall, yet in the book of Numbers the second month is in the Spring.
This change occurred shortly after the Exodus from Egypt. At that time G-d told Moses, “This month shall be for you the head of the months, it is the first for you of the months of the year.” The Torah identifies the harvest, which always occurs in the fall, as the beginning of the year. The Exodus occurred in the early spring, six months after the harvest. G-d told Moses that henceforth, the month of the Exodus, despite being six months after the beginning of the year, would become the first month.
This dramatic calendar change was designed to pay homage to the miracle of Exodus and by this time G-d had already set precedent for use of the calendar to pay homage to holy occasions.
Common practice is to name the weekdays after the planets. Sunday pays homage to the sun, Monday pays homage to the moon through to Saturday, which pays homage to Saturn.
Yet in the Torah, the weekdays have no names. Sunday is simply the first day and Monday is the second day. The idea here is to pay homage to Shabbat. Sunday is the first day until Shabbat, Monday is the second day until Shabbat. Rather than paying homage to the planets, the days of the week pay homage to Shabbat.
The days of the week commemorate the miracle of creation, which is celebrated on Shabbat. After the Exodus, G-d chose to commemorate the Exodus miracle in the calendar. He thus changed the order of the months and rendered the month of Exodus, first month of the year.
Up to this point, the first month was at the time of harvest – the beginning of the year, where it belonged. Hence when the Torah spoke of the flood, an event that occurred before the Exodus, it was dated to the second month after the harvest – the second month of the year.
However, the book of Numbers was written after the Exodus and by that time the calendric change had been instituted. By now the Exodus, rather than the harvest, was the first month. Thus, when the Torah speaks of the second month in the book of Numbers it refers to the month after Passover. The same is true when the Torah dates Passover to the first month and Rosh Hashanah to the seventh.
This creates a rather complicated system. We have two cycles, one for months and one for years and they are incompatible. The year begins at the time of Harvest, yet by that time we are in the seventh month. The cycle of months begins in the Spring, yet by that time we are in the middle of the year.
This is why the Torah specifies twice that the calendar change is only for Jews. “This month shall be for you the head of the months, it is the first for you of the months of the year.” It is not a true calendric change, it only complicates the calendar, the change is only for us. Every time we refer to a month, be it first or last, we trace it back to the Exodus and thus commemorate our liberation from Egypt.
This leaves us to explain when and why Persian names were adopted into the Jewish calendar.
Shortly after the Jewish exile to Babylon, Jeremiah prophesied that upon redemption, praise of G-d for our exodus from Babylon would exceed praise of G-d for our exodus from Egypt.
Accordingly, after the Babylonian exile, Jewish prophets adopted Persian names for the lunar Hebrew months to switch from commemorating the exodus from Egypt to commemorating the Exodus from Babylon. They switched to Persian rather than Babylonians names because by then Persia had conquered Babylon in war.
When we examine the appearance of these Persian names in the Torah we find their first mention in the book of Zachariah. They are mentioned again in Ezra, Nehemiah and in the book of Esther. These books were written after our return from Persia. The Persian names are especially prominent in the book of Esther which was written to describe events that occurred in Persia.
In this book, Biblical numbers and Persian names are both employed. For example in chapter three we read that Haman drew lots, “in the first month – that is Nissan.” It is clear that the Persian names were still a novelty to Jews at that time. Esther employed both names to help her readers identify the month and perhaps also to promote the new custom.
Judaism is not just a religion, it is a way of life. Torah ideas and ideals are incorporated into the fabric and nuances of our every day. This way the Torah is ingrained in our very thought patterns and life styles. It is not just a ritual to observe or a date to commemorate. As we make our way through the mundane activities of our day we are constantly and brilliantly reminded of G-d.
When we shop it must be kosher. Before eating we chant a blessing. When we refer to the day of the week, we remember Shabbat. When we check the calendar we commemorate our dual liberations.
At every turn there is a reminder – Judaism is a constant vibrant hum. We wait with baited breath to learn what ingenious method G-d will employ to commemorate our upcoming liberation, the Exodus from our current exile, with the coming of Moshiach speedily in our times. Amen.
 Genesis 7: 11.
 Numbers 1: 1.
 Exodus 12: 2. This essay is based on Ramban’s commentary ibid. And his published Sermon for Rosh Hashanah.
 Exodus 24: 16 & 34: 22. Deuteronomy 16:13.
 Exodus 4: 13. Also compare Leviticus 23: 4 to 23: 34 and see Deuteronomy 16: 1. Reference Mechilta 12: 1.
 Leviticus chapter 23 and Numbers chapter 28.
 Jeremiah 16: 14-15. This was not only consistent with Jeremiah, but also with G-d’s instruction to Moses in Egypt.
 Jerusalem Talmud, Rosh Hashana 1a. Berereishis Rabbah 48: 9.
 Zachariah 1: 7. Ezra 6: 5 and Nehemiah 1: 1. Esther 3: 7, 8: 9. 9: 15 & 19.
 Similar to the way the book of Esther (3: 7) translates the Persian word Pur as Goral, Hebrew for lots.
 It is noteworthy that the book of Daniel does not make mention of the Persian names despite being written in Babylon. The reason is twofold. First, Daniel’s book describes events that occurred before the Persian victory over Babylon thus the Persian names might not have been popular yet in Jewish circles. Second, the adoption of the Persian names into our culture was specifically to commemorate our Exodus from Persia thus Daniel, whose book was written before the Exodus did not make use of the Persian names.
Rabbi Lazer Gurkow
Rabbi Eliezer (Lazer) Gurkow, currently serving as rabbi of congregation Beth Tefilah in London, Ontario, is a well-known speaker and writer on Torah issues and current affairs.