1 Tishrei
Autumn Equinox
Rosh HaShanah

11 Cheshvan
Rachel's Death

1 Tevet
Winter Solstice

15 Shevat
Festival of Trees

1 Nisan
Spring Equinox

18 Iyar
Lag B'Omer
Torah and Manna

1 Tammuz
Summer Solstice
Mourning Jerusalem

15 Av
Tu B'Av
Harvest Dancing

The Root

The 11th of the month of Cheshvan comes in October or early November, at the height of autumn, when leaves fall, rain pours, and animals and plants slow down for the winter. It is a time when the world appears to die, yet the root of life remains, ready to sprout forth when the spring comes again. In Jewish legend, this date marks the death of Rachel, the mother of Israel—Rachel dies in childbirth as her son Benjamin is born. Mystically, Rachel represents the Shekhinah—the motherly presence of God that exists within all things.1 Rachel’s death symbolizes the descent2 of the Shekhinah into the underworld—the deep internal places of the spirit. Yet in the book of Jeremiah, Rachel is the loving mother who, buried in her tomb, waits for her children, the Israelite people, to return from exile, so that she may be reborn in them.3 Rachel is the root from which new saplings will spring. The 11th of Cheshvan marks the new growth in the Divine root within us even in times of loss and destruction, just as Rachel is the root of her exiled children. It is the seed of Tishrei growing underground: we cannot see it, but we know it is there.

Cheshvan photo

“There is hope for a tree:
if she is cut down, she will renew herself,
and her new shoots shall not cease,
though her roots are old in the earth
and her stump dies in the ground…”
—Job 14:7-8

Element: Gateway between Earth and Fire
Direction: North-West
Angel: Katriel
Sefirah: Keter (crown/the root of the Tree of Life)4
World: Assiyah (Body)/Atzilut (Spirit)

The Story of the Season


Rachel, the biblical matriarch, was one of four wives of the patriarch Jacob, and was Jacob’s most beloved wife. Jacob served her father Laban5 for seven years in order to win her hand. At the end of the seven years, Laban tricked Jacob and gave him the eldest daughter, Leah, instead. Jacob consented to work another seven years for Rachel. Yet Rachel remained barren for years, while Leah bore child after child.6 Finally, Rachel gave birth to two sons, Joseph and Benjamin.7 Rachel died while giving birth to Benjamin. The story of her life shows how death and life, barrenness and growth, are inextricably linked. Like the goddess Inanna of Mesopotamian legend, who descends to her sister Ereshkigal who rules the dead,8 Rachel must descend to the underworld in order to bring new life. Jacob too must be exiled from his beloved Rachel for seven years—another kind of journey into darkness, in the service of life and union. Jacob becomes the root of the twelve tribes of Israel. So too, the Shekhinah goes into exile—into the places of our pain and suffering—in order to enliven us again. This is the theme of autumn—death in the service of new life.

"Our mother Rachel broke forth in speech and said before the Holy One; master of the universe, it is revealed and known before You that Your servant Jacob cherished a great love for me. Because of me, he worked for my father seven years. When the time for the marriage to my husband arrived, my father conspired to substitute my sister for me. Yet I was not jealous of my sister and did not expose her to shame. Now if I, who am flesh and blood, dust and ashes, was not jealous of my rival, then why should You—the living, merciful, and enduring king—be jealous of idols with no ultimate reality, and banish my children because of them?

"At once the mercy of the Holy One crested, and he said: 'for your sake, O Rachel, I will restore Israel to their place.'" —Lamentations Rabbah 24

A rabbinic legend tells that when God exiled Israel from its land for the sin of worshipping other gods, all the patriarchs tried to convince God to relent, without success. Yet Rachel pleaded before God that she had not been jealous of her sister when Leah married Jacob.9 If Rachel could manage not to be jealous of her flesh and blood sister, Rachel argued, why should God be jealous of statues and pillars, which did not threaten God in any way? God redeemed the people because of Rachel’s plea.10 Rachel represents the truth that the Divine within us is loving, compassionate and unselfish. She transforms severity into compassion and despair into hope. So too, Chassidic tradition teaches that through acts of love, the Shekhinah will rise from her exile and “shake off the dust”—through kindness, the root of creation ceases to be hidden.11


For centuries, Jews have celebrated the 11th of Cheshvan with pilgrimages to Rachel’s tomb in Bethlehem. In modern times, women go to Rachel’s tomb in Bethlehem to pray for relief of barrenness or for safe childbirth. They wind red threads around the stone that is Rachel’s grave marker, and bring them home to wear or tie around the belly, as a charm. The red threads associated with Rachel are symbolic of the thread of life.

Schoolchildren in Israel celebrate the 11th of Cheshvan as a kind of Mother’s Day, celebrating their own mothers as they honor Rachel, the mother of Israel. In fact, the 11th of Cheshvan falls forty-one days after Rosh haShanah (the new year)—in Hebrew, the letters that add up to forty-one (aleph and mem) spell out “eim” or mother.12 If the new year in Tishrei is the seed, the 11th of Cheshvan is the root, the mother, from which the new plant will grow.

"Let us see the light in others and honor that light.
remember the dead who paid our way here dearly, dearly and remember the unborn for whom we build our houses.

—Marge Piercy, "Amidah: On Our Feet We Speak to You" in Mars and Her Children (Knopf, 1982), p. 153-155.

Steps of the Season


In Israel, Cheshvan is the rainy season, and the months of Cheshvan and Kislev are associated with the story of the Flood. This story from Genesis tells of how God decided to destroy the world by flood because the humans upon it were corrupt and violent. God chose to save one man, Noah, and his family, by hiding them in an ark—a wooden box that floated on the waters.13 Many Near Eastern myths share the notion of a great flood. According to Jewish legend, it was on the 27th of Cheshvan that Noah, Naamah, and their children exited the ark—another kind of emergence from the underworld.14 The first of Kislev, according to some, is the day when the rainbow appeared as a sign, to announce that God would never again destroy the world. (In the Zohar, the rainbow indicates the sefirah called yesod—the realm of God that is about generativity, and foundation.) Noah’s family hide sin the ark in order to replant and repopulate the world, just as this season is a time of cold and retreat, but leads to new life in the spring. According to Rashi, the forty days of rain that cause Noah’s flood finish on the 28th of Kislev—just in time for the days to begin growing longer again.15

The 25th of Kislev marks the first day of Chanukah and the beginning of the festival of lights. Chanukah marks the rededication of the Temple after a civil war—an emergence from a dark time. In its essence, Chanukah is a festival celebrating the triumph of light over darkness. It is the emergence of the root from the ground. The 25th of Kislev also marks the time when the Israelites in the wilderness finished building the pieces of the mishkan, the dwelling place of the Shekhinah, but did not yet set it up as a single structure. So too, we piece ourselves together in the darkness, in preparation for the hard work of planting and harvesting that will come later.

In the evening your vision widens
looks out beyond midnight—
twofold I stand before you—
green bud rising out of dried-up sepal,
in the room where we are of two worlds...
—Nelly Sachs

Other Paths


Rachel’s yahrtzeit (death-anniversary) frequently falls near the Celtic or Wiccan holiday of Samhain, the day when the dead and the living can speak to one another.16 This same day is the Day of the Dead in Mexico, where people go to visit their loved ones in cemeteries, picknicking and celebrating with them. In Scandinavia, this day is the day of Hella, goddess of the underworld, when the living pray for Hella to open her halls so that they may see their loved ones. Catholicism refers to this day as All Soul’s Day, a time for remembering the deceased and praying for them. Like the 11th of Cheshvan, these are all festivals of connection with dead ancestors—with our roots. Crone-goddesses of death and rebirth, like the Welsh Cerridwen and Nicneven of Scotland,17 are honored at this time of year. Like these other festivals, the 11th of Cheshvan connects Jews to an ancestor-figure, Rachel, who embodies both death and the return to new life.


Ideas for Celebration


One way to celebrate Rachel’s yahrtzeit in an earth-based fashion is by visiting graves of our ancestors or making pilgrimages to sacred sites. We can visit elders and ask them to tell us stories, or we can tell stories of those we remember who have died. Another ritual might be gathering together to weave a web of red thread. Each celebrant takes the thread, says her or his name, and then tosses the thread to another woman while continuing to hold her or his section, so that a web is created. Then, while the group still holds the thread, the web is cut into equal pieces so that each person has a red thread to keep throughout the year as a sacred sign of life. We can also make this a time to tell Rachel’s story of childbirth and death, compassion and transformation to one another through dance, drama, or art. We can also go out and gather red autumn leaves, and make a collage or wreath honoring Rachel and the Shekhinah.

Another way to mark this sacred time is to light a yahrtzeit candle, representing the soul of Rachel, and to light the way of the exiled Shekhinah as she wanders in darkness. One can also go out on the 11th of Cheshvan and welcome the growing moon, using the ceremony of Kiddush Levanah, the sanctification of the moon (the 11th always falls as the right time in Cheshvan to do this), for it is written in the Talmud that “All who greet the new moon in its time are as if they greeted the face of the Shekhinah.”18 In the Zohar and elsewhere, the moon is the symbol of the Divine feminine, so greeting the growing moon is like welcoming the Goddess back from the realm of death and exile into the realm of light.

Jill Hammer




[1] I Zohar, 153b-154a. Back to [1]

[2] In Jewish terms, I imagine this as an ascent to the realm of keter or atzilut, the realm of the spirit. The beginning of the winter season returns us to the world of fire, the world of inner spirit. Back to [2]

[3] Jeremiah 31:14-16: “A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping. It is Rachel weeping for her children, refusing to be comforted for her children, for they are no more. God said: refrain your voice from weeping…for there is hope for your future, and your children shall return to their borders.” Back to [3]

[4] While Rachel traditionally symbolizes the realm of malkhut or Shekhinah, in this essay the 11th of Cheshvan marks the sefirah of keter, which is the root connecting the “tree of life”—the divine presence in the world—to the eternity of the Divine, and also is the mirror of malkhut (one is at one end of the mystical tree and the other at the other end). Back to [4]

[5] Laban means “the white one” or ‘the moon”—Rachel is “the child of the moon,” associated with the Shekhinah who is also called moon. Back to [5]

[6] Genesis 29-30. Back to [6]

[7] Genesis 32. Back to [7]

[8] Wolkstein, Diane and Kramer, Samuel Noah. Inanna: Queen of Heaven and Earth: Her Stories and Legends from Sumer (Harper and Row). Back to [8]

[9] Though Rachel’s father Laban had promised Jacob that he would have Rachel as a wife, Laban secretly replaced Rachel with her older sister Leah when it came time for the wedding. Jacob had to promise another seven years’ labor in order to marry Rachel as well. Back to [9]

[10] This tale comes from Lamentations Rabbah, Prologue, 24. Back to [10]

[11] Iggeret haKodesh 21. Back to [11]

[12] See material from the Gal Einai Institute, inner.org/times/cheshvan/rachel58.htm. Back to [12]

[13] In midrash, Noah’s wife is called Naamah and, in some traditions, is believed to have been a musician (Genesis Rabbah 23:3).. Back to [13]

[14] Seder Olam 4. Back to [14]

[15] Rashi on Genesis 7:12. Back to [15]

[16] This day, Oct. 31, is called a cross-quarter day (a day halfway between an equinox and a solstice, which draws its power from being a doorway between seasons). The 11th of Cheshvan is also a kind of cross-quarter day, falling almost exactly halfway between the Jewish calendar’s first day of autumn and first day of winter. Back to [16]

[17] Telesco, Patricia. 365 Goddess: A Daily Guide to the Magic and Inspiration of the Goddess (HarperSanFrancisco, 1998). Back to [17]

[18] Sanhedrin 42a. Back to [18]

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