Posts Tagged ‘sexagesimal’

Shabbat, Mesopotamia, and the number 60…

Sunday, May 2nd, 2010

We know that numbers are important in Judaism, both in terms of "special" numbers (like 7, 40 and 10), as well as the gematria (numerology) that comes from the use of Hebrew letters explicitly as numbers.

Sixty, though, doesn’t seem to be one of the special numbers. Yet it crops up here, and, in an intriguing way, it tells us something very special about Shabbas. Listen:

The Mesopotamian number system is called "sexagesimal:" it is based on the number 60. It is from this system that we get the notion of sixty seconds in a minute, sixty minutes in an hour, and 360 degrees in a circle, to name the most famously persistent influences.

Sixty, however, was derived from the combination of two more fundamental numbers: six and ten. Six had a primary application: it was the number of days in the Mesopotamian week. (Weeks attempted to approximate the lunar month, and 30 – half of 60, and a multiple of 6 – is a slightly better approximation than 28, a multiple of our 7).

The spiritual magic of our seven-day week fully emerges in the context of the Mesopotamian week. The seventh day – Shabbat – is an extra day, literally a day out of time. We took the secular week practiced by everyone around us – six days – and added a seventh, making it devoted to G!d.

Doing so immediately set us out of synch with the world around us: our weekdays would only align every 42 days! In so doing, we literally made ourselves a people apart, not just because we spent a day differently, but because we had an entirely different structure of time!

In this light, Ahad Ha’am’s famous statement – "More than Israel has kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept Israel" takes on a new depth. Even more spectacular is the fact that the seven-day week survives as the foundation of modern calendars, despite the pressure for six that must have been exerted by the pervasive secular world.