Monday, September 5, 2011

Babylonian names = Jewish insight?!

Babylonian Calendar

It’s that time of year again. It’s Ellul, and I’ve been bombarded with vertlach that darshan the name of the month to produce cute riffs on the theme of teshuva and closeness to Hashem. This is despite the undisputed (pagan) Babylonian origin of the names of the months of the Jewish calendar, and that most of the d’vrei torahs’ wordplays only work in Hebrew.

Now, I would have no complaints if these divrei torah were presented as clever mnemonic devices or inspirational quips meant merely to remind us of the significance of the month. Instead, they are presented with the unstated assumption that the intrinsic flavor of the time of year is reflected in the name of the month.

The last time I mentioned this phenomenon, I did a Google search for “Ellul” and found a Mesopotamian god named Enlil/Elil, whose name I assumed was the origin of “Ellul.” Since then I’ve learned a bit more about mythology and have done a bit more research into month-names, and it turns out I was wrong.

The names of the months on the Jewish calendar come from the Babylonian names by way of Akkadian. Akkadian was the common language of the Ancient Near East, and Babylonian was actually a variant of Akkadian. Akkadian was used in the ANE for some two thousand years, until it was replaced as the common language by Aramaic with the rise of the Persian Empire about three thousand years ago.

“Ellul” was originally “Ululu” in Babylonian and “Elulu” in Akkadian. It comes from a root meaning “harvest” and also refers to the “mission” of the reigning deity of the month, Ishtar. Ishtar was the Babylonian fertility goddess, and shared a similar-sounding name and near-identical story and powers with the Egyptian goddess Isis and the Semitic Astarte. So, using "Ellul" as a the basis for vertlach is not quite as damning as creating divrei torah directly from the name of a Mesopotamian god, but certainly it is a word that has nothing to do with repentance and closeness to God. “Ellul” is at best a straightforward name for the time of year – “harvest time” – and is at worst a reference to the role the Babylonian fertility goddess was believed to play in the annual agrarian cycle.

The other month names have similar origins:

Babylonian: Nisanu – First, refers both to the month as the first month of the year and to the presiding god, Bel.

The first week of this month was the Babylonian New Year’s celebration. This is speculation on my part, but it seems likely that this is where the idea of Nissan as the beginning of the year comes from. Pre-Babylonian exile, the months of the Jewish year were numbered rather than named, and the numbering started in the spring. Yet now Nissan is called the new year for the months, and Tishrei in the new year for the year. In the Babylonian calendar, Nissan is the beginning of the year and of the first half-year, and Tishrei was that beginning of the second half-year. That these months are both considered new years in the Jewish calendar is too much of a coincidence.

Bel, known as Baal in Israel, is not really a name but a title. It means “lord” and refers to Marduk, first amongst the gods in the Babylonian, and later Persian, pantheon. Bel Marduk has the distinction of being both the most vilified god in tanach and of being Mordechai HaTzadik’s namesake.

Babylonian: Āru / Ayaru - Bull or Herd, Prosperity. Presided over by Ea, the Babylonian name for the (earlier) Sumerian god Enki, the god of life. Originally the god of water, Enki is often depicted with the Tigris and Euphrates rivers flowing from his shoulders.

Babylonian: Simanu - Brick-making. Presided over by Sin, the god of the moon, after the conflation of the Semitic god Sin with the Sumerian god Nanna. Interestingly, the main centers of Sin worship were Ur and Haran, both cities which figure prominently in Avraham’s story: the first as his birthplace and the second as his long-time adopted home.

Babylonian: Dumuzu – Babylonian name of the god known in Hebrew as Tammuz. The only month to share its name with a god. Originally the god of vegetation and later of the sun, Tammuz must spend six months a year in the underworld, a mythical explanation for winter. According to the myth, his wife, Inanna, descended to the underworld to visit her sister, Ereshkigal. Once there, Inanna sat on her sister’s throne, and immediately became a corpse. To return to the world of the living, Inanna had to find someone to take her place in the underworld. Tammuz agreed to exchange himself for her, but had second thoughts and was hidden by his sister, Geshtinana. Demons were sent to find him and drag him to the underworld. Eventually an arrangement was agreed to where Tammuz and Geshtinana each spend six months in the underworld.

The month of Tammuz, during which the summer solstice fell and the days began to get shorter, marked Tammuz’s annual death and descent to the underworld. It was a time of ritualistic mourning in the ANE. Tammuz’s annual funeral was a week-long Babylonian holiday.

According to Chazal, the name Tammuz was kept despite being the name of a pagan god deliberately to remind us of the bad things that happen as a result of avoda zara – as attested to by the breach of Yerushalayim’s walls on the 9th of Tammuz, the disruption of the avoda in the Beis HaMikdash on the 17th, and the annual “three weeks” period, starting on sheva assur b’Tammuz, during which we observe mourning rituals and there is supposedly an increased danger of bad things happening.

Is it a coincidence, though, that there was a widespread tradition of mourning during Tammuz, and that the Jewish people just happen to have their own, independent reason for mourning at the exact same time? Or is it more likely that we today are observing during sheva assur b’Tammuz and the three weeks the last vestiges of the ancient mourning rites for the annual death of Tammuz?

Babylonian: Abu – Fire.

Discussed above.

Babylonian: Tashritu – Beginning. The beginning of the second half-year of the Babylonian calendar. Presided over by Shamash, the Mesopotamian god of the sun and the likely origin of the Hebrew word “shemesh.”

Babylonian: Arachsamna - Eighth month. Presided over by Marduk, here going by his name rather than his title.

Babylonian: Kislimu (meaning uncertain). Presided over by Nergal, a god of the sun as it appears during specific times of day and of the year.

Babylonian: Tebetu – Violent rain. Presided over by Papsukkal, the messenger god.

Babylonian: Shabatu – Rain.

Babylonian: Adaru – Threshing time. Presided over by Erra, an Akkadian plague god, also responsible for political confusion (perhaps like that found in the Purim story?).


  1. Yah, I remember rabbi in our shul telling over a nice drasha using the names of the months for all kinds of nistar purposes. Afterwards I mentioned that all of these names were Babylonian in origin and he basically responded that it shows how it was part of a divine plan that Jews would adopt these as months so that they could eventually uncover the deep meanings that underlie the names.

    'Course, he is also a super fundamentalist and Biblical- and often midrashic- literalist.

  2. > he basically responded that it shows how it was part of a divine plan that Jews would adopt these as months so that they could eventually uncover the deep meanings that underlie the names.

    Wow. Just, wow.

    It’s a different world.

  3. Very interesting. I love this sort of stuff, btw. I find ANE mythology just fascinating.

    The Tammuz thing reminds me of how Christianity turned the Saturnalia festival into Christmas. It seems like a similar thing in that the Jews took a Babylonian period of mourning and attached a Jewish meaning to it.

    That seems to be what has happened and what is currently happening with the attribution of Jewish/Hebrew meanings behind words that were originally Babylonian which were almost certainly not created with the intent with which they are presented today.

    All it does is point to me the arbitrariness of such teachings stemming from the acronyms "found" or the gematrias of words (especially since gematria still works if off by a number or two, for some reason). It wouldn't be a problem though if it was admittedly arbitrary and only used as a way to put forth an idea or lesson that stems not from the words themselves, but from the creative mind of the Rabbi.

  4. > Why wow?

    Because it’s kinder than calling the rabbi and idiot. Which he probably isn’t. His worldview forces the ridiculous notion that the Babalonian names were all part of agrand scheme, and put in place with the foreknowledge that the Jews in galus Bavel would adept the Babylonian calendar (but with the Akkadian names) so that the eventual corrupted Hebracised version of the names could be used to learn deep secrets about the months. Given a certain epistemology, it makes perfect sense, and I can understand how an intelligent person could hold such a position, but from any other point of view… it makes me want to beat my head against a wall.

    > The Tammuz thing reminds me of how Christianity turned the Saturnalia festival into Christmas.

    It’s a good analogy, and the end result is very much the same. One major difference is that turning Saturnalia into Christmas was done deliberately, and there are records of when and ho it happened, while Tammuz seems to be one of the cultural accretions Judaism has picked up over the millennia.

  5. you start by saying you were wrong earlier
    and now for the correction,
    you are still not giving your sources!
    Shevat and Av are not Presided over by any god?
    why is that? who's claiming that?

  6. Doing a tikkun of these names is not predicated on adopting them!

  7. what if the names preceed the "gods" in question. What if the "deities" were just the names personified to allow people to understand the attributes of the seasons? I could be way off, but in my studies of Ancient History period, it seems like there's too much emphasis on the "god" they did or supposedly worshipped and not the figurative meaning behind the stories.