Archive for the ‘science’ Category

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.

Learning and Motivation

Friday, June 26th, 2009

Summarized from “How We Decide,” by Jonah Lehrer, 2009:

In the 1990’s, research was conducted on over 400 fifth grade students in a dozen NYC schools. Each student was given a very simple set of puzzles to solve, and then told (no matter what the outcome) one of two things: “You’re really smart at this,” or “I can see you worked very hard at this.”

Each student was then given the choice of working with a hard puzzle or an easy puzzle. 90% of the ones praised for their efforts took the hard puzzle; most of the ones praised for their success took the easy one.

Then each student was given a very difficult puzzle, and was told that it was a hard puzzle, but that they would learn a lot from working at it. Those who had been praised for their efforts worked long and hard at it, and most declared that it was the best puzzle so far. Most of those praised for their success gave up quickly.

Finally, each student was given the original puzzles to solve. Those who had been praised for their success suffered a 20% reduction in their performance.

This has implications for our secular and spiritual lives.

Do we seek success or struggle? Do we expect G!d to answer our prayers, or wrestle with us? Do we ask our colleagues to play it safe, or stretch themselves – and us?

To rephrase Ahnold: “Come with me, if you want to wrestle!”

A Stroke of Insight

Sunday, May 17th, 2009

Today I heard a re-broadcast of Jill Bolte Taylor on Terry Gross’ “Fresh Aire.” It led me to discover her presentation on “TED,” which you can find here. The link to the Terry Gross interview is here.

Dr. Taylor is a neuro-anatomist who had a massive stroke, and watched as her brain functions – motion, speech, self-awareness – shut down one by one. In the TED interview, she describes not merely the stroke, but the powerful and moving insight it gave her into spirituality and the human condition.

I have not been moved so significantly in many, many years. Watch the TED video – please.