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The Sabbath is but one of the Jewish contributions to the science of keeping time

Joshua Cohen
March 17, 2010

Shabbat, that microcosm of God’s seventh-day rest, is the subject of Judith Shulevitz’s graceful, erudite new book, The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time (the subject of this week’s Vox Tablet podcast). But the weekly renewal of candlelighting, winedrinking, and the eating of challah is only the most obvious Jewish contribution to the science and history of Time. The division of primeval void into moons and then those moons into meaningful phases; the sectioning of the week to recapitulate the week of Creation; the days themselves maintained by rulings pertaining to work and play as much as by commandments to the performance of hours of prayer—such are just the beginnings of an immense, horizon-sized scroll that also introduced the world to concepts of eschatology and messianism. What follows is a brief, 12-part clocking of Jewish Time, focusing on theology but also widening to accommodate secular theories from the likes of Einstein, Marx, and Proust.

Extra Days in the Diaspora

The Jewish calendar, which is lunar, is a calendar of witness. The Sanhedrin, Jewry’s Congress, met in Jerusalem toward the end of every month to wait for the new moon. Once the moon was sighted—or, rather, as it was a new moon, once the moon was not sighted—the Sanhedrin’s rabbis would declare the beginning of the new month, and fires would be set outside the city’s walls to alert distant Jewish communities. Often, however, these fires were snuffed or obscured, or their message falsified by neighboring sects, and, since only the Sanhedrin could pronounce the new moon (though the sages were aware, of course, that the moon in their sky was the very same moon in every sky, Jewish Law required witnesses and consensus judgment), Diaspora communities were regularly confused as to when festivals and holidays would fall within the month. Though the Torah ordains single-day observances for Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Shavuot, and Shemini Atzeret, Diasporites began celebrating them for an extra day as a precautionary measure—in order to better ensure that, regardless of any miscommunication as to which was the first of the lunar month’s 29 days, the festivals would be celebrated for at least one correct day.


The Torah ordains every seventh year a Sabbatical Year, as it says in Leviticus 25: “Six years thou shalt sow thy field, and six years thou shalt prune thy vineyard, and gather in the fruit thereof; But in the seventh year shall be a sabbath of rest unto the land, a sabbath for the Lord: thou shalt neither sow thy field, nor prune thy vineyard.” This septennial respite is known as shmita, Hebrew for “release” or “freeing.” After seven of these seven-year cycles, Leviticus declares a Jubilee, a special fallowing during which all debts are forgiven and all slaves must be manumitted—two tenets not currently observed in the State of Israel, though the agricultural component of the shmita year still is.

Joshua at Gibeon

The Canaanite kings were warring against the Gibeonites, who appealed to Joshua ben Nun, successor to Moses, for help. We are told in Chapter 10 of the book that bears his name that Joshua led his army of Israelites to Gibeon to face the Amorites first and routed them. The four armies of four other kings followed, and Joshua’s Israelites fought every one. However the day of the battle was soon ending. Loath to let the day end without complete victory, Joshua asked God to still the sun above Gibeon and the moon above the valley of Ajalon—effectively extending the daylight of this decisive battle “until the people had avenged themselves upon their enemies.”

Hebrew Clock, Jewish Town Hall, Prague

English, unlike Hebrew, is read from left to right—as are clocks. The concepts of clockwise and counterclockwise are universal, irrespective of alphabet. However, Prague’s Židovská radnice or Jewish Town Hall, seat of Bohemian and Moravian Jewry, built in the 16th century and extensively renovated in the 18th in the rococo style, features on its cupola “a Hebrew clock,” whose numbers are represented by Hebrew letters, and whose gears turn the hands counterclockwise. The time of Jewish Prague, then, runs in reverse—into the past. Paul Celan refers to this timepiece in his poem “In Prague,” where he memorializes two lovers, two dreams “tolling / against time, in the squares.”

Hershele Ostropoler

Hershele Ostropoler, Jewish trickster, was perhaps a fictional or composite character associated with the court of Rabbi Baruch of Medzhybizh, grandson of the Baal Shem Tov. It is said that one day, in need of meal money, he pawned his sole possession: a gold pocketwatch. Later that night the pawnbroker was awakened by a noise and went down to his shop to investigate. Hershele had broken in. “Thief!” the man shrieked. Hershele said, “I’m no thief, I just wanted to know what time it was.” “And for this you woke me up?” “I’m sorry,” Hershele said, “but I only trust my own watch.”

Henri Bergson

Henri-Louis Bergson (1859-1941), French-Jewish philosopher, believed that since time was always in motion, the single moment was unknowable. Just as one attempted to grasp an individual moment or thought, it would be gone—not necessarily replaced by another, but lost to the flow of all moments, all thoughts. While physicists of Bergson’s day, which saw the perfection of the microscope and the first experimentation with subatomic particles, observed objects and events in fixed, finite relationships, Bergson invoked a Zeno’s Paradox applied not to spatial or chronologic infinity, but to the mind itself. Bergsonian consciousness, forever eluding mensuration, would instead be characterized by what he called la durée, which has been translated as “Duration,” implying that ceaseless, Heraclitean flux of indivisible experience in which each instant becomes, instantaneously, the stuff of yesterdays, and every yesterday accrues to the account of oblivion. For Bergson it was Intuition (l’intuition), and not any intellection or formula, that would interpret the world, while such interpretation could only be expressed indirectly, symbolically—as memory, or through its practice: reminiscence, or reflection. Bergson’s vertiginous metaphysic, in which nothing is knowable, and in which consciousness can lead only to consciousness-of-consciousness, and so on in a regressus ad infinitum, brings us back to an original garden where memory frolics with fantasy, and where what we know of our pasts is forever being revised by the personalities we are always becoming.

Marcel Proust

In the opening of his vast, sevenfold novel, Marcel Proust (1871-1922), or the narrator “Marcel Proust,” dips a madeleine into his tea, which parlor ritual was a Big Bang for both literature and mind. This dipped biscuit triggers a memory, which in turns triggers another memory, which in turn triggers yet another, until thousands of pages later we realize we have read not only one the great novels of the 20th century but also a grand dramatization of Bergsonian theory (Bergson was Proust’s cousin by marriage). À la Recherche du Temps Perdu explores the world—or merely the memories displaced by the dunking of that teatime treat—through a somnambulistic, or deathly, consciousness, both timeless and without space. One never knows who, where, or when “Marcel Proust” is, what he’s doing or what his life is like while he is telling his story. Childhood experiences are seen through childhood eyes and then, in another paragraph, as if through the eyes of an adult; love is experienced as a teenager experiences love, and then lust is philosophized about in a way befitting a man of experience and wisdom. The gaze of Proust’s masterwork is synoptic, even while the irreducible point at center—the force binding together the novel’s narrator in all his ages and selves, with the writer who, lying abed in Paris, narrates the narrator—remains an insufferable cipher. In Proust, memory becomes modernity’s ultimate and terminal dimension, while the remembrancer himself seems as absent, or as deceased, as God.

Albert Einstein, Hermann Minkowski

For centuries Galilean and Newtonian physics had proved that it was impossible for a body to measure its own motion. By the 19th century Newton’s theories had become Laws implying that no one thing could determine its own velocity or the velocity of another without reference to an exteriority, without comparison. In applying this idea to the entirety of the cosmos, Albert Einstein (1879-1955) insisted that a comparison of velocities could be made with the use of a universal constant, which he would discover in the speed of light, the c—for Latin’s celeritas: a hurtling at 299,792,458 meters per second—of his famous formula that related energy, E, to mass, m: E=mc2. Einstein’s theorizing held that there was no one temporally or spatially stationary perspective in the universe by, or from, which all motion could be judged and that because the universe’s only constant seemed to be the speed of light, it could be theorized that space and time were experienced differently—relatively—by bodies in different states of motion. The very constancy of this lightspeed, when taken in the context of Einstein’s abstract conclusions, illuminated a wholly new field of being, an imperceptible alterity previously unexplored outside of esoteric religion or mysticism—a Fourth Dimension, first postulated by Hermann Minkowski (1864-1909), Einstein’s former mathematics instructor at the Zürich Polytechnic. Inextricably coiled within the three normative dimensions of space, which are length, width, and depth or height, was this new (or oldest) dimension of Time, or the superseding dimension of “Spacetime.” It was Minkowski who transmuted the two strands of Einsteinian thought, the physical and temporal, into a precious amalgam that provided the best setting for the jewel of Relativity.

Émile Durkheim

While the Hebrew root kdsh is traditionally translated as “holy,” it actually means something closer to “separate”—to remove something from the context of the everyday being to specialize it, to render sacred by means of occasion or locale. Wondering what it is that makes us conscious of time, Émile Durkheim (1858-1917), a French Jew and the father of sociology, found himself attracted to the study of differentiation, in particular to the palpable differencing of the religious calendar, which serves to separate mundane time from religious occasion and so structures the unconscious life of the community by mediating between holiness observed privately or parochially and the public workaday. Durkheim, who more than any other thinker quested after the societal effects of time-marking and time-management, concluded that the recurrent calendar was the major force behind religion’s survival and that it was so by dint of being religion’s foremost socializer.

Franz Rosenzweig, Walter Benjamin

Franz Rosenzweig (1887-1929) of Kassel, Germany, believed not in Jewish history but in Jewish ahistory. In Rosenzweig’s prescription, the ideal Jewish life must seem achronologic—as the religious calendar re-embodies Creation, each year can mark only a new cycle of the same rituals and laws in which progress does not, indeed must not, obtain. Rosenzweig understood that each generation of Jewry achieves its own balance of sacred (specific) and secular (universal) times and that, while creation and redemption are the only two fixed points of rupture along the timescale of any religion, revelation of God’s Law had been addressed to the Jews alone and so allowed Jewry to experience elements of creation and redemption in this world, the here and now. Walter Benjamin (1892-1940) of Berlin was an atheist who, toward the end of his life, began experimenting with Jewish belief, perhaps informed as much by his early-century Zionism as by the perils of a war that eventually caused his suicide. One of his later, underdeveloped theories comprised a Marxist approach to Jewish Messianism, or Messianic Time. Benjamin was particularly exercised by memory and nostalgia and considered the past the essential purview of the Jew. Citing Biblical proscriptions against soothsaying, or divining the future, Benjamin instead proposed a sort of permissible foretelling: a before-telling; an inquisition of the past that deprived that hesternal sphere of its historicism, of its entropic sense of momentum and advancement, in favor of asserting time’s eternality and the enduring value of skepticism as a mechanism for redeeming the self. Because the future was so unknowable, or taboo, for the Jew, it acquired, in Benjamin’s thought, an auratic, fetishistic mystery, a fraught potentiality—at any moment the neat, orderly progress of our collective narratives might end, and what Benjamin called the Angel of History, a Messiah previously incapacitated by our political and technological ideas of progress, might finally be actualized, redeeming us from causality.

Karl Marx, Leon Trotsky

Karl Marx (1818-1883) regarded the regulation of time with ambivalence if not suspicion; a position best characterized by his insight that when time becomes decontextualized and so commodified as money, noncommodified time—what we might call personal-time, or family-time—becomes devalued. Marx envisioned a classless future, a mechanized utopia in which historical progress could be measured, and then nullified, only by human equality. The Revolution would come, and all men would be set free in his uniquely profane, but hopefully bloodless, eschatology. But Leon Trotsky (1879-1940) doubted the permanency of Revolution and instead called for “Permanent Revolution.” (Die Revolution in Permanenz was originally Marx’s formulation, though the idea is most closely associated with Trotsky.) Marx thought that a revolutionary class could achieve its emancipation by constantly pursuing its interests through ideological education and occasional resistance, whereas Trotsky believed that one-country socialism was impossible, and that the global proletariat had to seize power over and forcibly dismantle the bourgeoisie, imposing the communist agenda from above in a newer hegemony. Marx’s relationship to Time was traditionally Judeo-Christian: cyclical but redemptive, to be resolved in a future Messianic Era whose inherent egalitarianism would militate against the personality cult of any despotic Messiah; whereas Trotsky’s relationship was one of regular violent Apocalypse as necessary and even salutary.

Death, Afterlife, Messiah

When a person dies he or she is mourned for seven days at shiva (literally, “seven”), usually at the home of the principal mourner, in visits accompanied by food and prayer. For 30 days after the death, the mourner is prohibited from marrying, for 12 months the mourner is prohibited from enjoying public entertainment. Yahrzeit, Yiddish for “time of year,” is the word for an anniversary of a death. One year after burial a gravestone can be “unveiled,” but this is custom only and not a commandment. Jewish bodies must be buried as soon as possible. While the body is being prepared—washed, dried, and dressed—it may never be left unattended. Notions of the Jewish afterlife are disputed. Reincarnation seems a possibility to some, an apostasy to others. In the Talmud, Rabbi Eliezer said the days of the Messiah will last 40 years, Rabbi Eliezer ben Azariah said 70 years; Rabbi Hillel said there will be no Messiah, and Rabbi Joseph asked that Rabbi Hillel be forgiven. The prophet Zechariah—the name means “God has remembered”—speaks of two Messiahs.

Joshua Cohen was born in 1980 in Atlantic City. He has written novels (Book of Numbers), short fiction (Four New Messages), and nonfiction for The New York Times, Harper’s Magazine, London Review of Books, The Forward, n+1, and others. His first essay collection, Attention: Dispatches from a Land of Distraction, will be released in August. In 2017 he was named one of Granta’s Best of Young American Novelists. He lives in New York City.

Joshua Cohen was born in 1980 in Atlantic City. He has written novels (Book of Numbers), short fiction (Four New Messages), and nonfiction for The New York Times, Harper’s Magazine, London Review of Books, The Forward, n+1, and others. He is the recipient of the 2022 Pulitzer Prize in fiction, for The Netanyahus: An Account of a Minor and Ultimately Even Negligible Episode in the History of a Very Famous Family. He lives in New York City.