Posts Tagged ‘calendar’

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.

Different Times

Sunday, January 17th, 2010

Bo - Different Times

Art by Maggidah Shoshannah Brombacher, Ph.D.
Visit her gallery
Contact her at – originals from this series are available.

"This month shall be unto you…" (Parasha Bo: Exodus 12:2)

As we approach the climax of the recounting of the plagues – the final, horrific tenth plague is about to be unleashed – the text suddenly moves to the commandments for Pesach (Passover), and its position as the first of the months. Why this sudden shift in narrative? There must be something especially relevant about the placement; otherwise, it would follow more logically a bit later, after the first Pesach, as a method to keep the memory of that first Passover solid in our people’s history. So what do the Sages say?

The moon was created on account of the festivals, and Israel increases and diminishes just as the moon does; and this does not harm it, since it is for the sake of the festivals. For all who count time, count it by the sun, according to the date of the world and according to men’s ages, and it is that which makes known man’s term, viz. how many years he has seen the sun. Have you a right to say that He made the moon because of the festivals? Hence David arose and explained ‘Who appointed the moon for seasons.’ They said to David: ‘While we were yet in Egypt, we received the month of the moon.’ This explains: This month shall be unto you.

Midrash Rabbah – Exodus XV:22

It is not only the first "month," but the first festival that is created in this part of Torah. In so doing, we establish two simultaneous calendars, calendars that in fact are never quite in sync (despite the laudable efforts of those who follow). One is solar, and it is reserved for secular life; the other is lunar, and it is reserved for the holy.

These two calendars are much like the rational and irrational number systems: they weave together, but ultimately live in different worlds. We are either in the rational / solar / secular universe, or the irrational / lunar / holy one.

And is not holiness irrational? Which is not to say crazy, but of a different world than the rational, intellectual one? Indeed, just as the Hebrew for "holy" – kadosh – actually means "separate," so that world is outside the secular. How do we enter that different world? With rituals and awareness, and with kavannah – intent.

There are many other, deeper meanings within this midrash. Consider its first sentence: how the fortunes of Israel wax and wane, and how our own attentiveness to the life of Spirit does the same.

Also consider that the lunar cycle is the cycle of women: what does that say about the nature of holiness, festivals, and the relationship between Israel / humanity and G!d?

Share your thoughts with me, and I will pass them along!

May this new month of Shevat be a blessed one for you!