Judaism is the religious, ethnic, and cultural heritage derived from the ancient people of Israel and the Hebrew scriptures. While the practice of Judaism is centered around the books of the Hebrew Bible, and among those primarily the five books of the Torah, its developed form, often referred to as a civilization, represents the accumulation of custom and tradition over centuries of thought and writing.
Intriguingly, many of the most central aspects of Judaism are connected to unique ways of measuring time and marking its passage. Judaism follows a nuanced calendar that prioritizes the cycles of the moon over the revolution of the earth around the sun. Within this calendar, the Jewish year is given distinct color and texture by numerous holidays and festivals that make up the liturgical schedule for worship. Through this continuous liturgical cycle that celebrates milestones of national and historical significance, Judaism captures both the cyclical and linear elements of time. Each year moves forward into history but also repeats the same journey as those before it—for example, the complete reading of the Torah, the celebration of special days like Pesach, Shavuot, or Sukkoth, and the blast of the shofar to greet the new year on Rosh Hashanah. Throughout its long history, Judaism has also contributed significantly to the discussion and philosophy of time. The ancient Hebrews solidified their religious and cultural identity in part by their beliefs concerning the beginning of time and the creator God who moved it forward through history. Centuries later, medieval Jewish thinkers grappled with influential philosophies of time originating outside their tradition and tested their compatibility with Jewish theology. In the European Age of Enlightenment, with the relaxation of strictures forbidding Jews from participating in civic culture, Jewish thinkers and philosophers engaged more freely in dialogue and debate with their Christian counterparts. Today, as full participants in secular society, observant Jews still preserve ancient customs revolving around the Jewish calendar and religious year.
Jewish Calendars and Chronology
Throughout most of its history, Judaism has used a calendar based primarily on a lunar year with necessary intercalations made to avoid excessive divergence from the solar year. This year is divided into twelve lunar months: Nisan, Iyyar, Sivan, Tammuz, Av, Elul, Tishri, Heshvan, Kislev, Tevet, Shevat, and Adar. In leap years, an extra intercalary month called Adar II is added. The names of these Jewish months closely resemble Babylonian month names, a probable result of the 6th century BCE exile of the Hebrew people in Babylon.
Each month begins at the new moon, or molad (“birth” in Hebrew). Since the average lunar month is approximately 29.5 days, the Jewish months alternate between 30 and 29 days in length. This results in a typical year of around 354 days and a leap year of around 384 days. The present system of leap years is based on a 19-year cycle in which the 3rd, 6th, 8th, 11th, 14th, 17th, and 19th years are intercalated with a 13th month. Originally, the commencement of new months and insertion of leap months were physically observed rather than calculated. New moons were observed and announced to Jewish communities by the religious leadership, and leap months were inserted when it was observed that the calendar and festival cycle were deviating too much from the agricultural season. In the 4th century CE, patriarch Hillel II formulated a new mathematical foundation for the calendar that introduced the 19-year cycle of leap years and diminished the need for physical observation. His calendar method was refined for the remainder of the 1st millennium and has remained essentially unchanged since that time.
For Judaism, the day begins and ends at dusk, rather than midnight. Thus, the Sabbath begins at sundown on Friday of the secular calendar and ends 24 hours later. For the reckoning of times for daily prayers and observances, 24 uneven hours (proportionate divisions of the daytime and the night) are used, while 24 even hours are used for most other purposes. Rather than minutes and seconds, Jewish custom divides the hour into 1080 halakim, which equal about 3.5 seconds each.
A potentially confusing aspect of the Jewish calendar is the starting point of a new year. Originally, Nisan corresponded to the “1st month,” as was the case in the Babylonian ordering of the months. Likewise, it is between Adar and Nisan that the leap month Adar II is inserted. Despite this fact, the 1st day of Tishri is actually considered the start of the new year, called Rosh Hashanah, approximately corresponding with the autumnal equinox. Though Rosh Hashanah is the 1st day of the month of Tishri, it does not always occur on the day of the molad. In the interest of avoiding certain scenarios, such as Yom Kippur being a Friday or Sunday, Rosh Hashanah is sometimes delayed by one or two days. Because of this, the year always begins on a Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, or Saturday. An individual year is succinctly described by three facts that determine liturgical schedules: the day of the week of Rosh Hashanah, the number of days in the year (353, 354, or 355 for regular years; 383, 384, or 385 for leap years), and the day of the week on which Passover begins.
Standard Jewish chronology numbers the years from the supposed date of the Creation of the world, sometimes indicated by the abbreviation AM for anno mundi, “year of the world.” Though various calculations have been made by Jews and Christians based on biblical genealogies and histories, Jewish dating accepts the conclusion attributed to 2nd century rabbi Jose ben Halafta that the Creation occurred in the year 3761 BCE. By this chronology, the year 5768 corresponds with 2007-2008 CE.
While the calendar system described above reflects the mainstream of Jewish tradition throughout its history, there have been dissidents. Most noteworthy is a group of solar calendars described in the 2nd century BCE book of Jubilees and in multiple versions of the book of Enoch. The main calendar of this type was distinctively solar, describing the year as 364 days or exactly 52 weeks. These calendars are generally regarded as sectarian within the Judaism of their time, and there is little evidence to determine the extent of their observance. Materials referring to such calendars have been discovered at Qumran, but references to other systems make it unclear exactly what calendar the Qumran sect observed. Clearly, the 364-day calendar would drift from the actual 365.5-day solar year at a steady pace, but no intercalation method is mentioned in literature connected to these calendars, a fact that causes some to doubt their sustained observance.
Throughout history, a primary distinguishing characteristic of Judaism has been the observance of the Sabbath (or Shabbat), a day of rest observed on the seventh and final day of each week. The Sabbath has been central to Jewish identity since ancient Israel, and it figures prominently throughout the Hebrew Bible. Biblical passages connect the institution of the Sabbath with God’s 7-day Creation of the world, the Israelite wanderings in the wilderness, and the Decalogue. Prophetic texts sternly rebuke neglect of the Sabbath in Israel, while later rabbinic writers further delineate what would be acceptable and unacceptable on the Sabbath. Jews observe the Sabbath (which actually runs from Friday evening until Saturday evening) as a time of relaxation, prayer, and worship. Food is prepared ahead of time, and most activities classified as “work” are prohibited. Most of the Sabbath is spent together by families at home, but synagogue services are typically held on Saturday morning.
While the concept of a 7-day week is taken for granted in modern culture, in the ancient world it was a cultural novelty of Judaism. Because it does not directly follow any natural phenomenon (as days, months, and years all do), the week is one of the more puzzling chronological developments in human civilization. While the Jewish week appears to have been a unique development, there are interesting parallels from the ancient Near East, such as Assyrian “unlucky days,” which occurred on the 7th, 14th, 19th , 21st, and 28th days of the month (the 19th is understood to equal seven cycles of seven from the start of the previous month). The 7-day week in its modern form is a combination of the Sabbath-based week of Judaism and the Roman planetary week, which emerged around the turn of the common era. A further development was a Christian adoption of the 1st day of the week, Sunday, as its day of worship and rest after the day of Jesus’ resurrection, contributing to the development of the 2-day weekend now widely observed.
The Jewish year is given shape by a number of festivals and holidays that are central to Jewish religious life. These observances provide a liturgical cycle of worship, a continuous revolution that commemorates annual occurrences and special events from Jewish history. Because of the original uncertainty or delayed information concerning the fixing of new years and months, especially for diaspora Judaism, a second day was added to most festival days, a convention that is still maintained despite more precise methods of calculation.
Of special importance for Judaism are the 3-week-long pilgrimage festivals (Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkoth), which are each tied both to events from the biblical history of Israel and to agricultural seasons. Passover (or Pesach), beginning on Nisan 15, is connected with the Israelite exodus from Egypt and the beginning of the spring harvest. The most widely celebrated Jewish holiday, Passover, is commemorated with a special seder meal. Shavuot (the Feast of Weeks or Pentecost) follows Passover by 7 weeks and celebrates the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, as well as the end of the barley harvest and the beginning of the wheat harvest. On the 15th of Tishri, Sukkoth (the Feast of Booths or Tabernacles) recalls the Israelite wilderness wandering and celebrates the ingathering of grain from the fields into barns. Observers of Sukkoth construct a suk- kah, a simple booth, in which they are to dwell during the 7 days of the festival.
In addition to the three central festivals, many other special days mark the Jewish year. As explained above, Rosh Hashanah (“head of the year”) occurs at the beginning of Tishri, in autumn. The Jewish new year is ushered in with the blasts of a shofar, a ram’s horn, and marked with a day of introspection and special synagogue worship. Shortly after the start of the new year on Tishri 10, Jews observe Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. This is the most somber of Jewish holidays, marked by fasting, abstinence from work, and lengthy synagogue services of confession and repentance. Other significant occasions include Shemini Atzeret (“assembly of the eighth day”) and Simhat Torah (“joy of the Torah”). These immediately follow the 7 days of Sukkoth in Tishri, and Simhat Torah marks the completion of the annual cycle of readings through the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible. Purim is a celebration of Jewish survival from Persian oppression, revealed in the book of Esther, and is held on Adar 14 or Adar II 14 in leap years. Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights or of Dedication, is well known for its proximity to the Christian Christmas holiday and commemorates the miraculous burning of a menorah lamp for 8 days at the rededication of the Jerusalem temple in the 2nd century BCE. This holiday is celebrated for 8 days, beginning on Kislev 25 with the lighting of candles in a menorah.
Time in Jewish Thought and Literature
Though the ancient people of the Hebrews do not seem to have developed any extensive philosophies of time, among ancient civilizations they were pioneers of the concept of historical identity. In some sense, the entire development of the Hebrew Bible and subsequent Jewish tradition centered around the conviction that historical events that made up the progression of time had meaning and purpose. It was the activity of humanity (guided by the hand of God) that made up history or time for the ancient Hebrews rather than purely abstract measurements or theories. Modern scholarship does assert that the Hebrew scriptures are not “historical” in the modern sense; they represent a mixing of mythology, historical reality, and theological-historical interpretation. Still, it is precisely through these mediums that they communicated the narratives that formed the Hebrew identity and gave meaning to the progression of time. This begins with the very first passage of the Hebrew Bible, which asserts that time began with the Creation of “the heavens and the earth” by God. This affirmation became, for both Jewish and Christian thinkers, a frequent point of contrast with Greek philosophies, which often argued for the eternality of matter and a cyclical nature of history.
In addition to prescribing a beginning of time at Creation, the ancient Hebrews developed beliefs concerning the end or consummation of time, generally classified as “eschatology.” The seeds of Jewish eschatology are present even in the Torah, as the concept of Israel as God’s chosen people becomes fully developed, but it is the prophetic writings that contain the bulk of Jewish eschatological language. As the course of Israelite history grew darker and the prophets struggled with what they considered unfaithfulness to God among the Israelites, the focus turned increasingly toward concepts of future divine judgment. Terms such as “that day” and “the day of the Lord” became common indicators of a coming time when God would intervene on a universal scale, judging all peoples and setting right the injustices of the world. Within this realm of thought, the concepts of a messiah and of life after death developed and grew, particularly in late prophetic and intertestamental literature. Increasingly, the hope of resolution of injustice in the world was pushed to a future time, when all people would be resurrected and face judgment.
By the medieval period, many Jewish philosophers interacted with classical Greek traditions about the subject of time. Moses Maimonides accepted a primarily Aristotelian concept of time, in which time was an “accident” of the motion of physical bodies. Hasdai Crescas, on the other hand, rejected the Aristotelian conception and connected time to the consciousness of the mind, not motion, a concept more akin to that of Plotinus. For these and other philosophers, numerous questions of God’s relationship to time became pressing: Does God exist within time or outside of it? Was there time before Creation? If so, what was God doing during that time? Can “eternity” be understood in the normal sense of time? Such questions were discussed among Jewish thinkers as well as theologians of the Christian and Islamic traditions with diverse and varying answers. For both monotheistic faiths, the philosophical questions of time, eternity, and cosmogony have been a constant component of theological discussion.
Judaism in the modern world is very diverse and difficult to characterize as a whole. For many, Judaism is more a cultural than religious identifier. Despite this, observing time by the traditional calendar and customs of Judaism remains a central aspect of faith for many. Keeping the sabbath is fundamental to being a Torah observer, and the Jewish calendar system is still the framework of worship. The richness of Jewish customs regarding time and their persistence throughout history, even in the face of modern secular assimilation, testifies to the remarkable character of Judaism as a religious, cultural, and ethnic entity that has preserved a genuinely unique identity.
Adam L. Bean
See also Adam, Creation of; Bible and Time; Creation, Myths of; Genesis, Book of; Moses; Noah
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