About Time: How Early Modern European Calendars Changed Jewish Conceptions of Time
A vivid new scholarly book illuminates how the calendars of early modern Europe—playful, alive, and beautifully designed—reflected and transformed Jewish conceptions of time
The calendars illuminate rituals as well as feelings. In order to establish the astronomical basis of the Jewish year, ibburim explained how to compute the exact times of the tequfot (equinoxes and solstices, the turning points of the sun). Often writers glossed the computations with elaborate warning statements. Water and other liquids must not be left uncovered at the moments when the sun passed the equator or the tropic of Cancer or Capricorn, since they would become corrupt or even turn to blood. Fortunately, covering them—and placing a nail or other piece of iron in them—would prevent harm.
Though these beliefs and practices came into existence by the time of the Geonim, in the second half of the first millennium CE, they never won universal acceptance. Ibn Ezra denounced them as mere superstition. After all, he argued, Jews had not yet mastered the Muslim methods that would let them determine when the equinox actually took place. How then could they possibly predict its effects on beverages? As late as the 18th century, though, Jewish converts to Christianity told stories of the blood that had appeared in uncovered goose fat at the tequfah and of the old woman who drank sweet milk infected at the tequfah with blood, not all of which she managed to skim off, and died, hideously swollen, her flesh falling from her body. These accounts, Carlebach argues, show that covering liquids at the tequfah was women’s work, carried out with real urgency and sometimes—if the reports deserve belief—accompanied by strikingly high anxiety.
Calendars and calendar treatises often crossed borders. From early in the common era, after all, Jews and Christians established their distinctive ways of infusing time with sacred meaning: the Jewish Sabbath and the Christian Sunday, Passover and Easter. But the only way to ensure that one had avoided serious errors in ritual was to know the enemy, or at least the enemy’s way of ordering time. From the Venerable Bede on, Christian experts on the ecclesiastical calendar took care to learn about the Jewish holidays as well. Otherwise, they explained, one might find oneself celebrating Easter at the wrong time, while the Jews mocked.
The first ibbur to reach print was edited, in Hebrew and partial Latin translation, by a Franciscan expert on calendars, Sebastian Münster. One of the most visually striking features of Münster’s edition is a standard Catholic calendar in Latin, bristling with saints’ days—and with the names of the Jewish months, printed in Hebrew, each of them entered in the margin at the day where it began. No philo-Semite, Münster took care to explain that he presented this material to the Christian reader “not because I wish to instill Christian minds with Jewish rituals, but because I know that knowledge of them is vital for the Old Testament and Hebrew commentaries.” Without such knowledge no one could hope to read the rabbis, who frequently mentioned Jewish festivals. Later Protestant calendars drawn up by the Wittenberg astronomer Paul Eber omitted the saints’ days but entered the names of the Jewish months, which they treated as identical to the Christian ones, and identified Jewish holidays and great events in the history of the ancient Jews—as well as the Greeks and Romans—that had fallen on each day through the year. Not all Christian calendars, but many Protestant ones, were partially Judaized.
Jewish calendars also offered information about their Christian counterparts. Jews often knew the rhythms of Christian time better than they wanted to, since holy days provided the occasion for hostile acts that ranged from mocking plays to ritual slapping or stoning. Rabbinic tradition, moreover, forbade Jews to trade with Christians for three days before or after a Christian feast—or at least on the feast days themselves. But Christian market fairs often took place on or near holy days. And Jews who engaged in trade had to know when the fairs would be held in order to attend them—and, if all went well, to enjoy the fragile, temporary freedom and openness in dealing with others, Jewish and Christian alike, unknown in their ordinary lives at home, that the liminal world of the fair might allow. Jewish calendars that marked Christian holy days could be signaling the possibility of danger. But they might also be pointing to something very different, Carlebach writes: “If Jewish life in premodern times sometimes felt like a stifling enclosure, markets and fairs served as windows, allowing fresh ideas and impressions in, and allowing non-Jews to look in at the Jewish culture through a lens that was far less distorting.”
Calendars—as Carlebach makes clear—offered information not only about the passage of time through the year but also about time in the long term—historical time. Feasts, fasts, and particular dates recalled events that ranged from biblical times to the recent past and from cosmic to purely local importance. Calendars were as likely to remind readers of the day when Noah first saw the peaks of the mountains rise above the waters of the Flood as of the day when the Jews of Frankfurt were expelled from the city. Short chronicles—Carlebach calls them “chronographs”—often appeared with sifre evronot, listing the intervals of years from the Creation to the great events of biblical history and then down to more recent times, and noting sabbatical and Jubilee years. Fixed and uniform in their vision of the ancient past, chronographs were flexible and expansive where more recent times were concerned. Calendars not only guided Jews through the year but also fixed—and then revised—their shared, distinctive visions of history.
These visions were often charged with secret and powerful messages. In antiquity, the Jews, like other Near Eastern peoples, had devised a form of history capable of tracing time from its beginning and revealing the deeper, theological meaning of events. Prophetic writers searched the past for patterns that could reveal the course of history as a whole, the future as well as the past. Apocalyptic texts often contained chronologies that revealed—in, for example, the book of Daniel—when the Messiah would come. The chronographs in Renaissance calendars reflect these visions of time and its course. Christian calendars sometimes predicted great events and disasters on the basis of conjunctions of the planets: for example, the great conjunction in Pisces in 1524, which many thought heralded a second universal Flood. Jewish calendars, by contrast, highlighted numerical patterns that seemed to reveal the divine plan, Carlebach explains: “A calendar for 1738-1739 used an eschatological chronogram for the anno mundi year 499: yifdeh (He will redeem).” Calendars from the mid-17th century, when many accepted the messianic claims of Sabbatai Zevi, connected the year 5426 (1665-1666) with the prophetic words “Behold I will save [Hebrew: moshi’a],” since the numerical value of moshi’a is 5426. Even the most modest little calendar might offer the secrets of life, the universe, and everything—or at last the date when time itself would run out.
Palaces of Time finds its ending in the age of emancipation and the 19th-century Wissenschaft des Judentums, when influential Jews like Leopold Zunz, a founder of the Wissenschaft, began to date events by the Gregorian calendar and when actual calendars were reduced to technical appendixes in almanacs that featured all sorts of other useful information. In a way, this is a pity. A final chapter on Jewish time in the varied social worlds of contemporary Israel, from Mea Shearim to the Technion, could have revealed a great deal about the afterlife of the structures that Carlebach rebuilds here with such scholarly craftsmanship.
Carlebach could also have asked at least one more comparative question. In On Time, Punctuality, and Discipline in Early Modern Calvinism, the Swiss scholar Max Engammare argued that the calendars produced by Reformed scholars, which encouraged readers to plan their days and their weeks, helped to instill in the Swiss their legendary regard for punctuality. What impact, if any, did Jewish calendars have on the day-to-day behavior of their owners? In virtually every other respect, though, the book is exemplary. Palaces of Time is cultural history at its finest: a minutely observant, vivid, and passionately enthusiastic guide book to a world of experience that we—or at least most of us—have lost.
Anthony Grafton, the author of, among other books, Leon Battista Alberti: Master Builder of the Italian Renaissance, is the Henry Putnam University Professor of History at Princeton.
Hannah Rosenthal, the State Department’s anti-Semitism envoy, must defend Israel from delegitimization while confronting a growing wave of anti-Jewish rhetoric among European elites