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The Time Machine

In Tractate Rosh Hashanah, the Talmud takes the time to explain, well, time

Dovid Bashevkin
November 12, 2021
Internet Archive Book Images/Flickr Commons
Internet Archive Book Images/Flickr Commons
Internet Archive Book Images/Flickr Commons
Internet Archive Book Images/Flickr Commons

Here’s a statement that may date me even more than my shock of prematurely white hair: I really, really, really love calendars.

Remember calendars? Not the kind that pop up on your phone, or on an app, but the real-life objects? My favorite had “Far Side” comic strips, one for each day of the year, and as you flipped the pages you were treated to another small dose of cows planning mischief together. It was enough to make the passage of time feel, if not altogether delightful, at least not painful. Which, really, is the point the Talmud’s Tractate Rosh Hashanah is trying to make.

At the heart of this intricate tractate is not the shofar or other ritual objects we usually associate with the holiday but the calendar itself. And not just any calendar, but the Jewish calendar, which is a fairly complex creation, a unique amalgam of both lunar and solar time. This coming together of sun and moon makes for some beautiful symbolism: The solar calendar is based on the rotation of the Earth around the sun which takes a little bit more than 365 days. The lunar calendar is composed of the moon’s monthly rotations around the Earth which occurs approximately every 29 1/2 days. Twelve lunar months comprise 354 days—falling 11 days short of the solar year. In order for the lunar calendar to stay in sync with the solar calendar, ensuring that the Jewish months fall during the correct solar seasons, specifically Passover during the springtime, the Jewish calendar adds a month every few years. This is known as the sod ha’ibbur, literally meaning the secret of pregnancy. Time, it suggests, is full of secrets. And if you’re wondering whether a calendar this complex can survive, consult the Guinness World Records, which verifies that ours remains the oldest calendar still in use.

In part, that’s because Judaism has a curious relationship with time. You’d figure that a religion this interested in doing things at precise intervals—lighting candles at the right hour every Friday evening, say—would have a lot to say about time; but zeman, the Hebrew word for time, does not appear in the Five Books of Moses. Sacha Stern, one of the foremost scholars on the Jewish conception of time, argues that this is because “the concept of time as an entity per se was alien to the ancient Jewish worldview.” And while the first commandment the Jewish people are given is the sanctification of the new moon, both the word and notion of time are conspicuously absent from the Torah. This, to complicate things even further, is in contrast to the oral law, which literally opens up with a question surrounding time: m’eimasai, from when can one recite the Shema? In fact, the six orders of the Mishna—zera’im, mo’ed, nashim, nezikin, kodshim, and taharos—form the acronym zeman nekat, which means to choose time. Explicitly absent from the written Torah and seemingly a continuous theme throughout the oral law—what exactly is the Jewish relationship to time?

It’s a big question to answer, so rather than quote the many famous rabbis or scientists who pondered it, allow me to talk about, well, myself.

When I was a kid, time seemed more or less orderly. Every year, my parents would mark the beginning of the school year by making me stand outside our house, holding a sign indicating which grade I was about to enter. Maybe your parents did the same thing. Time back then flowed neatly and in an orderly fashion: You graduated from first grade and went into second; you finished fifth grade and in walked the sixth.

And then came adulthood, and suddenly time started feeling much more amorphous. Has it really been 10 years since I graduated from high school? Where did the time go? In my 20s, without a significant other and without a career I loved, I found myself meditating on Carlo Rovelli’s observation that there was only one law in all of physics that takes time into account: entropy. A world left to its own devices, he noted, hurtles toward more chaos and disorder. A life left to its own devices, without the guard rails of prescribed moments in time, does the same.

And this is exactly why the Jewish calendar and its commitment to reconcile solar and lunar time are so important. What exactly does the Jewish commitment of reconciling the solar and lunar calendar represent? At some point each day, the sun appears full before our eyes, the moon waxes and wanes. Sunlight governs our seasons, our agricultural productivity, the moonlight is only a reflection, a mirror of sorts measured against the sun’s presence. The sun is about being—productivity, professional achievement, status. The moon is about becoming—uncertainty, growth, development. Becoming anything is a journey through absence. You’re not yet married, you’re not yet in the career you want, you’re not yet in the community you had hoped for. Everyone has periods in life where they feel a bit like the moon—developing, transforming, disappearing and reappearing. In those moments it is easy to doubt the very fabric of who we are. What am I if haven’t yet attained that which I hope to achieve—be it a career, spouse, family, community, status, or image? If we’re not shining, we can feel like we’ve vanished. We reconcile solar and lunar time as a reminder that the ever-evolving nature of our lives—times of presence and times where our very identity seems to fade—can still be integrated with the more static and consistent sense of identity embodied by the sun. In the blessing over a new moon we reaffirm that we, like the moon, “are destined to renew ourselves like it.” Even through absence, we can restore our personal presence.

Time can feel isolating. The essential unknowability of the future makes the present moment feel unhinged from any larger story. Our future is always absent, a part of our identity always obscured. In a world without time, explains Alan Lightman in his book Einstein’s Dreams, we would be unable to speak, “for speech needs a sequence of words, spoken in time.” And this is why, I believe, the concept of time becomes much more pronounced in the oral Torah and is seemingly absent in the written Torah. The continual conversation of the Talmud transcends geography, links generations, and is our collective response to the otherwise isolating and entropic quality of time. Staring into the entropic abyss of time’s future, the “symposium of generations” of time’s past gives us stability and comfort.

When people talk about nomads, those who wander, they are usually describing someone lost in the physical space. Maybe it’s a forest or a desert, or a foreign land, but the nomadic experience usually describes that lonely itinerant searching for a home. Tractate Rosh Hashanah introduced me to the possibility of being a nomad in time, wandering through each year, unmoored from the spiritual opportunity of each moment, untethered from any communal calendar ceremonies. To be a nomad in time means searching for a direction in your life and when you peer ahead for some destination or, at the very least, a signpost for where your life is headed or what narrative you’re a part of and all you see is more disorder and entropy.

Eventually, though, you return home, which, in Judaism, is the meaning of time itself. As Sarit Kattan Gribetz argues in her work Time and Difference in Rabbinic Judaism, our organization of time is how the Jewish people “construct Jewish identity, subjectivity, and theology—indeed, how they constructed their worlds.”

When a new moon was sanctified, the mishna in Rosh Hashanah explains, the beit din would declare it is sanctified, and the entire nation would respond “amen.” Nowhere else in Jewish law are the entire Jewish people described as answering “amen” together collectively. Surely, the Jewish people were not actually all present to even respond as such. But this description underscores the communal nature of the Jewish relationship to timekeeping. Untethered from the Jewish nation, time feels merciless—each generation moving toward an unknown future and detached from a forgotten past. We sanctify time together as a nation because it is only through a sacred time that the Jewish people—the collective body of the Jewish nation through all generations—can be forged. Unmarked time isolates, sanctified time connects.

Calendars are the canvas upon which the Jewish people paint their ever-becoming selves. Both individually and collectively as a nation, calendars provide a narrative overlay to the otherwise entropic, unceasing, and isolating march of time. The calendar, writes professor Elisheva Carlebach in her magisterial work Palaces of Time, “merges personal time (such as birthdays), sacred communal time (holidays), and civic time (independence days) onto a grid that aligns these measures with natural rhythms and a historical framework.” Calendar calculations are called sod ha’ibbur—the secret of pregnancy. Why do we use such fertile terminology to describe a seemingly purely mathematical exercise? It is within the calendar that we birth our selves so to speak, connecting the different periods of our ever-becoming lives into a cohesive self. And it is through the calendar that ultimately the great body of the Jewish people are born—connecting generations past and present into an unending and unfolding story, day by day, month by month, year by year, generation after generation. Until the end time.

הדרן עלך מסכת ראש השנה והדרך עלן

Dovid Bashevkin is the Director of Education at NCSY and author of Sin·a·gogue: Sin and Failure in Jewish Thought. He is the founder of 18Forty, a media site exploring big Jewish questions. His Twitter feed is @DBashIdeas.