The month of Heshvan is facetiously (or maybe not so facetiously…) referred to as every rabbi’s favorite month – the tradition is that we refer to it as Mar Heshvan, Bitter Heshvan, because it is vacant of any holidays (the truth is actually something different, and it probably means either Rainy Season or Eighth Month). Whatever the origin of the name, the truth is that the month of Heshvan gives us a space to breathe and to allow for the hard spiritual work endeavored during the months of Elul and Tishrei to sink in and settle. It also happens to give us some nice breathing room, as Americans, to prepare Thanksgiving dinners. Could you imagine if Rosh Hashanah and Thanksgiving happened closer together?
Seriously, though, having a cool-down period is essential for our spiritual well-being after a concerted effort of exertion, just as it is essential to our physical well-being after exerting our bodies, and just as it is essential to our intellectual well-being after exerting our minds. Whether intentional and pre-meditated or merely a circumstance of the calendar cycle, it presents an opportunity of which we can take advantage. The opportunity to breathe.
Long, steady breathing has been shown to quickly reduce stress and increase calm. Breathing aids digestion, can increase concentration, and even increases optimism and positive emotions. It is by no coincidence that one of the Hebrew words for soul, neshamah, is also a word for breath. Perhaps our Sages of Blessed Memory were keenly aware of the benefits of healthy breathing when they constructed the gratitude affirmation a Jew is to say during our morning prayers: …any time in which breath is within me I will offer gratitude to You, my God and God of my ancestors, master of all worlds and connective-force of all breaths…
Since we have a break from the obligations and limitations which holiday observance places upon us, the month of Heshvan gives us the opportunity to utilize the power of breath to continue the spiritual trajectory which we cultivated during the High Holy Day Season. As an added bonus, the month of Heshvan just so happens to conclude this year the week before Thanksgiving.
While preparing, hosting, and gathering at a time like Thanksgiving can be a source of stress for some, we can also take the opportunity of this month of breathing-space to find ways to increase our gratitude and thanks before we sit down to celebrate the abundance. Here is a brief, easy to follow Gratitude Breathing exercise which will help anyone cultivate a greater sense of gratitude while also benefiting physically, emotionally and spiritually from everything which healthy breathing contributes to our lives.