The Creation of Jewish Time

The Jewish “day” begins at sundown. This is something that takes some getting used to, if you don’t grow up with it:  the day begins when the sun dips below the horizon.  The fact that you’ve been up for hours has nothing to do with anything.

Jewish living is like that, tilted 90 or 270 degrees from Western secular life.  The day begins at sundown.  The year begins in the fall.  (Also in the middle of winter and in the springtime.)  Sunday is yom rishon, the first day of the week (and it begins on Saturday night.)  The whole thing is cockeyed.

Why not accommodate?  Why not assimilate?  Why not go with the flow, for crying out loud?

We stick with it because in Judaism, time is sacred.  The traditional story is that the day begins at sundown because Genesis says so.  But we could as well read it the opposite direction:  we have that story to explain, to remind us, to keep stepping to that Jewish drummer:  it was evening, it was morning, it was the first day.  The creation story doesn’t tell us “how the world was made,” it tells us how to look at the world.  It’s easy to say, the day begins when I get up in the morning — then the world revolves around my state of consciousness. It’s easy to say, the day begins at midnight, because the government and mutual agreement say so.  But Genesis says, “It was evening, it was morning,” to throw us off balance, to say, “Stop!  Look!  Think!  PAY ATTENTION!”

Notice the passage of time.

Notice the cycle of seasons.

Notice when the sun goes down and comes up, and that will require you to take your eyes off the computer screen, off the TV, off your own navel, and out to the horizon.  Live out of step with the ordinary, so that you will step lively.  Pay attention!

Pay attention, because as Chaim Stern z”l wrote for Gates of Prayer:

“Days pass and the years vanish, and we walk sightless among miracles.  Lord, fill our eyes with seeing and our minds with knowing; let there be moments when Your Presence, like lightning, illumines the darkness in which we walk.  Help us to see, wherever we gaze, that the bush burns unconsumed.   And we, clay touched by God, will reach out for holiness, and exclaim in wonder:  How filled with awe is this place, and we did not know it!  Blessed is the Eternal One, the holy God!”

Yirat Hashem at the CJM

Recently Linda and I toured the exhibit “Night Begins the Day: Rethinking Space, Time and Beauty” at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, curated by Renny Pritikin and Lily Siegel. The exhibit explores the notion of yirah, awe or fear, which is one of the core concepts of Jewish theology, as it plays out in the work of 27 “artists, scientists, and creative thinkers.”

The concept of yirah is a troublesome one for many modern Jews. “Why would God want us to be afraid?” some ask. Sometimes our personal theologies develop in reaction to antisemitic notions of Judaism, statements that the “Old Testament” message is about fear while other books are messages of love. It’s understandable that in pointing out the ways in which the God of the Hebrew Bible is loving and caring, we down-pedal the fearsome. However, “fear” as a translation for yirah also falls a bit short; there is no tidy English translation for it.

Exodus 9 offers us a lovely juxtaposition to help us understand of the concept of yirah. Before sending the plague of hail upon the Egyptians, God sends Moses to warn Pharaoh and the people of Egypt that the plague is coming, and to get the servants and animals inside before it comes. Then some took heed of the warning, and some did not:

He that feared the word of the Eternal among the servants of Pharaoh made his servants and his cattle flee into the houses, and he that did not pay attention to the word of the Eternal left his servants and his cattle in the field. – Exodus 9:20-21 (translation mine, very literal)

“He that feared” took the warning seriously. But “he that did not pay attention” left his people and animals in the fields to die. The parallel phrases suggest that another way to define yirah is “paying attention.”

Artists and scientists are in the business of paying attention. They see the world in very particular ways, and they call our attention to aspects of the world that we might otherwise miss. That’s what goes on in this remarkable exhibit at the CJM: artists and scientists invite us to see the world in all its grandeur and mystery, and to engage with it in awe.

If you are wondering what the title means, consider that in Jewish time, a calendric day begins at sundown: night begins the day. It is a fundamental Jewish idea, and it is also a way in which Judaism is out of step with most ordinary ways of perceiving time. For more on this idea, read Why is the Jewish Calendar so Weird?

Some of the objects in the exhibition are what you expect when you hear the word “art.” Some of them are not. What they all offer is a trip outside of ordinary reality by way of paying close attention: to the shape of a raindrop, to the sound of a pocket watch, to the idea of time, to the useful fiction of longitude. All, however, also point beyond themselves to the More we commonly call “God.” If you will be in San Francisco area anytime before Sept 20, go see this remarkable show.

Night Begins the Day is at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco until September 20, 2015. 

Four New Years Every Year?!

Happy New YearNew Year’s Day comes only once a year – doesn’t it?

In the Gregorian Calendar and most other calendars, that’s certainly true. But this is yet another way that the Jewish calendar is different. We celebrate FOUR New Year’s:

Rosh Hashanah is translated “the head of the year.” In the fall, on the first of Tishrei, we celebrate the most well-known New Year’s Day in Judaism. This is the day that the number of the year changes (5774 to 5775, etc.) It’s the day we remember the beginning of Jewish time (the Creation) and reflect on the end of Jewish time, as well. It is also the Biblical date for starting the sabbatical and jubilee (shemita) years. For American Jews, this is a day for synagogue and a festive meal.

Tu B’Shevat (the 15th of Shevat) is the New Year of the Trees which falls in midwinter. It began as an accounting device, a “fiscal year” for tithing produce from trees (olives, dates, figs, etc.) In the 16th century, the mystical rabbis of Safed were excited to be living in the land of Israel after their flight from Spain, and they began to observe the day with a seder and mystical symbolism. In the 19th century, Zionists celebrated the day as a celebration of the greening of the land of Israel, and in the 21st century, the day has come to be a day of ecological concern and action.

1st of Nisan in early spring is the first day of the first month of the Biblical year. According to Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 1:1, the first of Nisan is “the new year for kings and for festivals.” The reigns of kings were calculated from this date, and the festival of Passover, which falls later in Nisan, is the festival which begins the history of the Jews as a nation.

1st of Elul in late summer was the beginning of the fiscal year for animal tithes in Israel. When the temple stood, people who raised animals were obligated to give a tithe from their flocks. Nowadays this is the date upon which we begin the process of preparation for the purification of the Days of Awe in the following month.

As a Jew living in the San Francisco Bay Area, I live in a place where we also celebrate the Gregorian New Year on Jan 1, the Chinese New Year in the spring, and the Islamic New Year which travels around the seasons, a feature of their lunar calendar!

Every New Year is a moment of hope in the stream of time, reminding us that our days are limited but that what lies ahead is as yet unwritten. As the great medieval Jewish philosopher Bachya Ibn Pekuda wrote,

“Our days are scrolls. Write in them what you wish to be remembered.”

Welcome to Tevet!

Tevet 5775 began last night at sundown, on the evening of December 21, 2014.

6chanukahWelcome to Tevet! It’s the month that begins in the middle of a holiday. We are celebrating Chanukah, and last night, when we lit six candles, the month of Tevet arrived to join us.

Despite its fancy beginning, Tevet is a quiet little month for Jews. The biggest things to happen in it are not Jewish days at all: Christmas and the Gregorian New Year (January 1) usually fall in the month of Tevet.

The only other official Jewish day of observance in this month is Asara b’Tevet [10th of Tevet] on which some Jews fast to remember the day in 588 BCE when the army of Nebuchadnezzar, emperor of Babylon, laid seige to Jerusalem. In the month of Av, a year and a half later, they would enter the city and destroy Solomon’s Temple, which we refer to as the First Temple.

One of the quirks of the Jewish calendar as we know it today is that it is in some ways a hand-me-down from ancient Babylon. Before the destruction of the first Temple by the Babylonians and the subsequent exile, we know that Jews followed a lunar calendar that began its months on the new moon and that had adjustments to keep the agricultural holidays in their proper seasons. We have a few month names from that calendar in the Torah, but most of the months seem to have been like modern Hebrew days. They went by number, “In the First Month” etc.

But the names of the months we use today came back from Babylon with our ancestors. Tevet in Babylon was Tebetu or something similar. If you are curious about the Babylonian calendar there are a few Internet sites that explore it, including this one.

Enjoy the last remaining nights of Chanukah and don’t forget to add the greeting, Chodesh Tov!  Happy New Month!


Weather and the Jewish Year


A map of the world, centered on Jerusalem, c. 1260 CE.
A map of the world, centered on Jerusalem, c. 1260 CE.

Queentimely wrote in response to a recent post:

I don’t know how many readers you have in the southern hemisphere, but it might interest those in the north to be reminded that it’s actually winter here — cold (in Melbourne terms), blowy and dark early.

Excellent point!

One of the quirks of living in California is that the climate and the seasons match that of Israel pretty closely. That’s very handy for us, because the Jewish calendar is rooted in the seasons of the Land of Israel. I am prone to forget that for most of the world, it isn’t so tidy.

For instance, Jews worldwide begin praying for rain on Shemini Atzeret, the day after the close of Sukkot. In both Israel and California, that day falls at about the earliest date one might reasonably expect some rain. Therefore the weather is perfect for eating and sleeping in the sukkah: not too hot, not too cold, and certainly not too wet. However, if one is celebrating in Minnesota or in Sweden, the sukkah is apt to be downright soggy and cold, because autumn had already arrived weeks before.

The same goes for Passover: it’s a spring holiday, hence the parsley and the egg on the seder plate. However, the 14th of Nisan may be a bit early for spring in some northern climes. In the southern hemisphere, Jews sit around the seder table in the fall.

So why not simply attune the holidays to the local climate? Long ago, when Jews were forced into Diaspora, outside the Land of Israel, we decided to keep our calendars aligned with that of our homeland. So Jews in Spain, Jews in South America, Jews in Australia, and Jews in Finland keep the same calendar, no matter what the weather is doing in their local neighborhoods. Just as we face towards Jerusalem for prayer, we align the Jewish year with that of the Land of Israel, because it is, and always has been, home.

So, readers: if your climate or seasons are radically different from that of Israel, how does it affect your observance of the calendar? If you have celebrated the Jewish Year in the far North or south of the equator, I hope to hear from you.

Sivan Tov!

Happy Rosh Chodesh Sivan!

If you are thinking “What’s Rosh Chodesh?” <– click the link

Sivan is the ninth month of the Jewish Year, counting from Rosh HaShanah in the fall. It’s pronounced “see – VAHN.” In the Bible, though, where the year is counted from the first of Nisan, it is referred to as “the third month” (Exodus 19:1.)

Sivan begins at sundown on May 29 in 2014.

Its name comes from the Akkadian simanu, meaning “season.”

Sivan is the month of Shavuot, the festival on which we celebrate the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai (6 Sivan).

What will you do with your month of Sivan?

Time and Torah


Among the everlasting puzzles of the Torah are its expressions of time. The Book of Numbers is a case in point: it is explicitly not in chronological order.

The Eternal spoke unto Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the tent of meeting, on the first day of the second month, in the second year after they were come out of the land of Egypt. (Numbers 1:1)

Then, in chapter 9, we read:

The Eternal spoke unto Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the first month of the second year after they were come out of the land of Egypt (Numbers 9:1)

There are other instances where the chronology is not so clearly out of order, but where a careful reader will say, “What? Didn’t that already happen?” Genesis has two completely different Creation stories – was the world created twice?

For this reason, our sages concluded long ago that “there is no earlier or later in the Torah.” (Pesachim 6b). In other words, while we may certainly seek insight from the arrangement of events in the Torah, we should not assume that the only way to arrange them in the order in which they appear.

Genesis chapter 5 is full of ages that drive readers crazy. Adam supposedly lived to be 930 years of age. (Genesis 5:4-5) “Did he really live that long?” students ask, and I always reply, “What do you think?”

It does not make any sense that a human being was able to be alive for 930 years. It is somewhat more believable (but still a stretch) that Moses lived to be 120. I think it is more likely that these extreme ages have symbolic meanings, which may or may not be available to us today. Adam’s age is 130 when he sires Seth, the third son who was born after Cain killed Abel. Then Adam lives 800 more years. I am not aware of particular significance of either 130 or 800 — but what if the text is telling us that Adam felt 130 after one son murdered the other? But then the birth of a third child gave him hope, and he was fortunate to live to see that third child grow up and have children of his own?

If you follow up by reading Genesis 5, you’ll see that the chronology of the story of Noah doesn’t really work, since Noah was supposedly 500 when he sired Shem, Ham, and Japeth, and the Flood was 100 years later….!

But remember, “there is no earlier or later in Torah.” So perhaps it makes more sense to say, Adam lived to a good old age and saw his grandchildren. Noah was no spring chicken when he built the ark. Moses was a grown man when he spoke with the burning bush and an old man when he looked out from Mt. Nebo to see the Promised Land.

While we like to think in chronological patterns, life itself is not that simple. Have you ever met a child who was an “old soul?” Met someone in their 80’s with a young heart? Needed to know how a story ended, before you could take in its beginning? Whether Torah is a blueprint of the world, or a mirror of the world, “it is not in the heavens” (Deut. 30:12) but here in our hands, to interpret today.

Image: Gero, “Time,” Some rights reserved under Creative Commons license.