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Telling Jewish Time

The most acclaimed Jewish Bible commentary opens with a question. Why, asks Rashi (1040–1105), does the Torah begin with the account of creation, when it should properly have begun with God's revelation of His very first law to Moses on the eve of the Exodus from Egypt: "This month shall be for you the first of months"?  After all, according to rabbinic tradition, this same law, establishing Nissan as the first month of the Jewish ritual year, constituted both a disclosure of the workings of the heavens to the great biblical prophet and an imperative to all Jews forever to "gaze and sanctify" the cycles of the lunar year on which their calendar is based.

Relevant Links
The Jewish Calendar  Joseph Jacobs, Cyrus Adler, Jewish Encyclopedia. An introduction to the history, character, and science of the calendar from biblical to post-talmudic times. (1906)
Saving the Dates  Harriet R. Goren, Jewish Week. In an interview, Elisheva Carlebach offers examples of what she found in the Sifrei Evronot, and explicates the illustration on the jacket of her book. 

In Temple times, the task of establishing those months—and of coordinating them with the solar year in order to ensure that Passover would never commence before the vernal equinox—fell not to all Jews but to the Sanhedrin. Its members alone were empowered to proclaim each new month on the basis of eyewitness testimony to the appearance of the very first sliver—the molad (conjunction with the sun; literally, birth)—of the moon.

After the destruction of the Second Temple and the disbandment of the Sanhedrin, rabbinic authorities saw to it that the calculation of the calendar was rendered an esoteric matter, strictly entrusted to experts like themselves. Calendrical computation became known as sod ha'ibbur (literally, the secret of the pregnancy, complementing the metaphor that analogized the new moon to a birth), around which there developed an aura of mystical concealment. By the Middle Ages, scholars like Saadiah Gaon, Abraham bar Hiyya, and Abraham ibn Ezra were composing specialized guides to the subject, pioneering contributions to the scientific study of Hebrew calendration. In the 12th century, Maimonides opened his own authoritative explication with the deceptively simple formula, "The [Jewish] months are lunar, while the year is solar," followed by nineteen dense and exceedingly intricate chapters.

As the historian Elisheva Carlebach notes in her new book, Palaces of Time: Jewish Calendar and Culture in Early Modern Europe, Maimonides' codification, a crowning achievement of the Middle Ages, hardly put an end to further efforts to explain and rationalize the system. Her book moves quickly from the High Middle Ages to the area of her greatest interest. This is the early modern period in Christian Europe, which saw, in addition to an abundance of printed calendars, a sudden explosion of manuscript handbooks, known as Sifrei Evronot, whose purpose was to instruct Jews in the fulfillment of that very first commandment of the Torah.

Carlebach's book is in the first instance a work of recovery; in her preface, she charmingly describes stumbling upon her rich subject matter when a cart overflowing with Hebrew calendrical tomes was presented to her at the New York Public Library. Although a fair number of modern studies have been written on the history of the calendar, not a single scholarly work has taken as its subject the small pocket works that caught her attention that day, many of them studded with quirky illustrations ranging from the beautiful to the primitive to the deliberately vulgar. In her handsomely  produced book, Carlebach has not only succeeded brilliantly in filling the lacuna but has done so with the help of an array of absolutely stunning illustrations from this almost entirely forgotten genre.

Her book is all the more welcome at a time when the closest most American Jews come to fulfilling the imperative of "calculating the seasons and heavenly signs" for purposes of ritual observance is by downloading the desired information electronically or consulting one of the "Jewish calendars"—that is, Gregorian calendars with notations for Sabbath and holiday observance—given out by banks and funeral homes. By contrast, the quintessentially Jewish calendars studied by Carlebach include a surprising amount of detailed information about Christian holidays and ritual observances, as well as about the solar year. And it is to this "inter-communal" facet of the subject that she devotes the most substantive and original parts of her book.

Describing a manuscript completed in the early 15th century, Carlebach writes:

It contained a complete Christian calendar, including the month names and all the saints' day names in a combination of German and Hebrew, a chart with the best and worst days for bloodletting, a perpetual chart for each year of a 28-year solar cycle. . . . These features . . .  had been rare in earlier surviving ibbur manuscripts, but were becoming more commonplace.

Commonplace, indeed. These ephemeral works contain vast amounts of information about the dates, meanings, and rituals of dozens of Christian holy days, as well as the farming habits and life cycles of Christian society; many of their illustrations also testify to a highly variegated relationship between contemporary Christians and Jews. To a more naïve eye than Carlebach's, the plethora of such information might well elicit wonderment and awe: here, surely, is evidence of an early and hitherto unheralded form of "multiculturalism" being enjoyed by the Jews and Christians of early modern Europe.

But, as Carlebach observes, the reality was far more complex. If the ibbur literature reflects a surprising awareness by Jews of their Christian neighbors' religious festivals and customs, it was an awareness compelled largely by the instinct for self-protection. For Jewish traders, especially, it was crucial to be attuned to Christian holy days, not for the purposes of social interaction or in the name of "cultural diversity" (a purely post-modern invention) but quite the opposite.  Jews who dared ply their trades on these days typically aroused the hostility of Christian celebrants, and at no time more lethally than during the Holy Week culminating in Easter.

Still, that is not the whole story, either. Calendar literature reflects, rather, "the central paradox of Jewish existence" in a Christian world—and the coping mechanisms adopted by Jews in response to that paradox. In Carlebach's view, the calendar literature

embodied the need to understand, internalize, and instruct in the culture of the other. Yet precisely because it acknowledged the calendar of the other in all of its intricacy, the Jewish calendar advanced strategies to counter the power of that culture. Jewish calendars and their literature walked the line between engagement and detachment, between promoting a body of knowledge and simultaneously subverting its message by negating its central teachings and [even] mocking its sacred totems.

Adding further to the twisted relationship between the two religions was the history of confusion, controversy, and bitter polemics that marked the Church's own struggles with the calendar. For just as the etiology of Jewish calendration lay in the requirement to establish the correct date of Passover, the stormy question of the dating of Easter was rooted in the reciprocal requirement that Holy Week correspond, as closely as possible, to the historical date of Jesus' last supper (the seder that immediately preceded his crucifixion) while at the same time not appearing to be reliant on the calendars of the despised Jews.

It is in untangling such complex skeins that Carlebach amply justifies her reputation as one of the most sophisticated intellectual historians of her generation.  

If there is a serious deficiency in this truly illuminating study, it lies in Carlebach's failure to set the religious-historical background by introducing the classical Jewish texts and traditions that precede, and help explain, the riveting story of the early modern Jewish calendar. Had she explicated the relevant sources at the outset, especially the talmudic traditions that relate directly to her most innovative insights, the result would have been a book both richer and more accessible to the uninitiated reader.

I offer but one example. The Talmud (in Tractate Shabbat) comments on an atypically universalistic verse in Deuteronomy (4:6): "Observe therefore and do [the commandments], for this is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of all the nations who, when they hear of all these statutes, shall say: 'Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people'" (emphasis added).  According to the Talmud, this verse "refers to the commandment to calculate the seasons and heavenly constellations."

It would seem, then, that the mitzvah of calendar calculation, which requires contemplating the heavens under whose gaze the destiny of all human lives is decided, was recognized even by the earliest rabbis as an exercise bound to form bonds between Jews and the members of all other religions and nations. Thanks to Elisheva Carlebach, we can appreciate just how subtle and complicated those bonds could become.

Allan Nadler is a professor of religious studies and the director of the program in Jewish studies at Drew University.  He last wrote for Jewish Ideas Daily about Odessa's Jewish history.

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Meems on April 11, 2011 at 9:01 am (Reply)
Great piece
Neil Wells on April 11, 2011 at 8:45 pm (Reply)
Good story on time but dose not answer the question of why the Bible starts with Genesis instead of the Mosaic Law
Der Royter Rov on April 12, 2011 at 3:43 pm (Reply)
Rashi provides the answer: a nice universalist and Zionist answer at the same time. To establish that God owns the entire world, and has given the land of Israel to the Jews.
Jacob Silver on January 2, 2012 at 11:41 am (Reply)
I am a writer, and I wish I had a dollar for every time a reviewer told me what I did not do.
yya on April 19, 2012 at 4:11 pm (Reply)
"After the destruction of the Second Temple and the disbandment of the Sanhedrin, rabbinic authorities saw to it that the calculation of the calendar was rendered an esoteric matter, strictly entrusted to experts like themselves." Surely you jest. You may as well say the Talmud is esoteric material, strictly entrusted to experts like the rabbis; then later commenters wrote long and densely argued treatises on it . . . a conspiracy. The calendar was set by Hillel, and people who had the patience to learn the theoretical aspects did so; later, people tried to write to teach and explain it, just as they wrote other chiuburim explaining and teaching other matters. The Rambam's presentation is dense and exceedingly intricate because the material is dense and exceedingly intricate. That's how its study defaults to scholars.

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