Nothing new under the sun (or moon)

All streams in Jewish life use the same Jewish calendar, with minor adjustments, Elisheva Carlebach points out in her new book.

By STUART GELLER
September 30, 2011 13:45
3 minute read.
Zodiac

Zodiac. (photo credit: Courtesy of the Klau Library Hebrew Union College)

 
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All streams in Jewish life – Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and so on – use the same Jewish calendar, with some minor adjustments, Elisheva Carlebach points out in the epilogue of her new book. This agreement probably stems from the calendar’s being a good example of the junction of science and the Jewish religion; since it is based on the cycles of both the sun and the moon, the calendar’s accuracy is governed by astronomy.

This is not a book about how the calendar works, but how it evolved. Carlebach – the Salo W. Baron professor of Jewish history, culture and society at Columbia University – relates how Jews had to be aware of the Christian religious calendar; Christmas for instance, was called “nittel,” a corruption of dies natale (Latin for “natal day” or “day of birth”). But she found All Saints Day referred to as “kol hakedeshim” (lacking the vav), which she translates as “those given over to unholiness” (Carlebach herself is religiously observant). As Jews began to visit the various fairs of Europe, they had to know long in advance on which days it was not wise to go out.

From early on, the Jewish community considered the calendar so complicated that only the learned – i.e., the rabbis – could master the secret. And in fact, that is the illustration on the cover of her book: Jacob ascending a ladder with an hourglass in his hand to the heavens to receive the secret of the luah (calendar). Other illustrations show Adam and Eve in the garden, also with the calendar.

By the High Middle Ages, European – that is Christian – writers had developed a handbook for making calendars using astronomical calculation. Such a book for Jews was called sefer ibbur or sefer evronot. The root ayin-bet-resh means pregnancy, or intercalation. In years with an extra month, the calendar becomes swollen. The sifrei evronot were much like our modern almanacs including midrashim and minhagim (customs) about the festival or fast day. Carlebach tells the fascinating story of the tekufot, the two equinoxes and the solstices.


The custom was not to drink water on any of those days. It was believed that blood would drip from the heavens at that exact moment. And she gives us a drawing from a 1674 sefer evronot showing a woman holding a plant, and a chart behind her marking off the four Hebrew months – Tishrei, Tevet, Nisan, Tamuz. And each has a story connected with water or blood: Abraham sacrificing Isaac, as blood drips from the knife, Jephthah sacrificing his daughter, also blood dripping, Moses causing the Nile to turn to blood, and finally Moses striking the rock, but blood comes out. For them the precession of the calendar, knowing the exact moment of the tekufa, was a matter of life and death.

What lifts this book above a scholarly account of the development of the calendar is Carlebach’s ability to offer a deeper analysis of what is behind the customs. About the tekufa she says, “Water symbolized the amorphous flow of time between the seasons.”

Jewish life is a story inside a story. The larger story is the story of our life cycles: birth, schooling, bar/bat mitzva, marriage, and hopefully seeing this story repeated in the next generations. Inside the larger story of human life is the cycle of the year, giving purpose and direction to our lives.

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