May is my favourite month of the year: the confidence that spring has finally sprung enhanced by the hope of summer just around the corner… And then there are the flowering trees. Of these, I most love the horse-chestnut. When I was young, its blooms seemed to me like ice-cream cones. I wasn’t aware then of the English name. My parents used the German, which I still think captures their majestic beauty perfectly: kastanien.
Of course, I am a bit biased when it comes to May. I was born on the 3rd of the month – and very delighted when I discovered that I share the same birthday as one of my favourite poets, Yehudah Amicai. In fact, on May 3rd this year it will be the 90th anniversary of his birth (in 1924). And then, two of the heroes of my Socialist youth, came into the world on May 5th: Karl Marx in 1818; Sylvia Pankhurst in 1882 – just a year before Marx died.
May has also proved to be a very significant month in the life of the Jewish people. It was on May 14th 1948 that the modern State of Israel was established, immediately following the end of the ‘British Mandate in Palestine.’ The Hebrew date is the 5th of Iyyar. Babylonian in origin, Iyyar comes from the Akkadian, ayyaru, meaning, ‘rosette’, ‘blossom’ – so the perfect name for the month of blooms. Before the Babylonian exile (following the destruction of the first Temple in 586 BCE), the month was known by its Hebrew name, Ziv (I Kings 6:1; 37), meaning, ‘bright’, ‘light’ or ‘glow’ (see Daniel 2:31).
Sadly, there is a sorrowful counterpoint to the glorious abundance of Iyyar. Iyyar falls within the seven-week period of the counting of the Omer (originally a sheaf of grain waived daily by the priests in Temple times), from the 2nd day of Pesach to the day before Festival of Shavuot. In rabbinic times the weeks of the Omer became a time of mourning, following the crushing of the Bar Kochba revolt by the Romans in 135 CE, which included the execution of Rabbi Akiva and his disciples. According to rabbinic legend, one of these disciples, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, escaped and lived in a cave for 13 years, where he wrote the Zohar, the mystical interpretation of the Torah. He died on Iyyar 18th, corresponding to the 33rd day of the Omer, and so, in honour of his memory, Lag Ba-Omer [L = 30; g = 3] interrupts the mourning period and is celebrated as a holiday. This year Lag Ba-Omer is on May 17th (eve) / 18th.
But we are running ahead of ourselves. Before May/Iyyar: April/Nisan (another Babylonian name) – called Aviv, ‘spring’, in the Torah (Exodus 13:4) – and the celebration of the Festival of Pesach for seven days from Nisan 15th. This year, Pesach begins on the evening of April 14th. May ‘the season of our liberation’, that recalls the Exodus from Egypt, mark a time of renewal in all our lives. Chag Samei’ach!