Message from Rabbi Berman
What Do You Say?
The High Holidays are over. Sukkot is finished. Shmini Atzeret is finito. Stick a fork in Simchat Torah—it’s done. We don’t say “Chag Sameach” again until Pesach! It’s not that there aren’t any dates on the calendar to celebrate between then and now; they’re just not technically “chagim,” pilgrimage holidays mentioned in the Torah when, in Temple times people would bring their sacrifices to Jerusalem to offer in the Temple.
Let’s take a look at this:
This year, October and the Hebrew month of Cheshvan, also known as MarCheshvan pretty much overlap. “Mar,” as you may know, means “bitter.” It’s called MarCheshvan because there are no holidays, even “minor” ones, during this month. The way this is expressed in the liturgy is that we say Tachanun, a brief, mildly mournful section of prayer at Shacharit (morning prayer) and Mincha (afternoon prayer) every single day of Cheshvan. No exceptions other than Shabbat. It is omitted on festive or sad days alike. It is also where we ask God for a little extra help. As a friend of mine used to say, “Who couldn’t use a little more help?” In the supplications of Tachanun, we humble ourselves.
They tell me humility is good for the soul. It reminds me of the quote by Winston Churchill about British Prime Minister Clement Atlee, “He’s a modest man, and he has a lot to be modest about.” (A similar sentiment is attributed to Louis B. Mayer about a studio writer.)
The list of the days when we don’t say Tachanun include not only Shabbat, but High Holidays, and pilgrimage holidays and festivals, Rosh Chodesh (the new moon), Chanukah, and Purim. None of those days are in MarCheshvan, whereas pretty much every other month has something, unless it’s a leap year. Following MarCheshvan is Kislev, in which, of course, Chanukah begins, ending in the following month, Tevet. On the heels of Tevet is Shvat, in which we find Tu B’Shvat, the new year’s day for the trees. Then there’s Adar, when we “increase our happiness,” and one way we do that is by celebrating Purim. True, in a Hebrew calendar leap year, when we add a second Adar, that’s when Purim is. That leaves the first Adar Tachanun-free, but nobody says “MarAdar. I guess it just sounds too goofy. Then comes Pesach in Nissan, and that is a bona fide chag. In fact, we don’t say Tachanun the entire month of Nissan! The next month, Iyyar, has Yom HaZikaron, Yom HaAtzmaut and L”ag B’Omer. We don’t say Tachanun from the beginning of the month of Sivan through the end of Shavuot a few days later. Then comes Av, with two days we omit the supplication, Tisha B’Av and Tu B’Av. Elul almost has no days without Tachanun, but we do skip it at the very end of the month, on Erev Rosh HaShanah. Then we’re back to the Hit Parade of Tishrei we just ended.
So while you do hear “Chag Sameach” on Chanukah (for example), in order to properly keep the distinction between the pilgrimage holidays and the later ones, we say “Chanukah Sameach,” or “Chag Urim Sameach” (Happy Holiday of Lights). We say “Tu B’Shvat Sameach” and “Purim Sameach,” etc. We do say Chag Sameach on the three pilgrimage holidays, Pesach, Shavu’ot and Sukkot. “Sameach” is from the same Hebrew root as Simchah, a joyous occasion we celebrate with others.
But why limit happy events to a few calendar days? There are always reasons to celebrate with the community. We say “Mazal Tov” (maybe I’ll write about that next month) to everyone at a wedding or other freilach events.
Now, the word for a day that’s not a holiday is “chol,” the same word used for the most common substance, sand. It’s ordinary. A “Yom Chol” is an ordinary day. So if you are the kind of person who celebrates every day as a miracle, try this: “Chol Sameach!” That’s what I’ve taken to saying to people. Especially after Tishrei, and its cavalcade of chaggim.
See you in shul,