Time Out of Joint (Extract)

Extract of article in Issue 24, March 18, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. "The time is out of joint," says Hamlet, and the same can be said of our moment in the Jewish calendar. Here we are, in a sabbatical year, confronted with the issues that arise inexorably, every seven years, like clockwork. Like the seventh day of the weekly cycle, the seventh year declares that time is out of our hands. Time belongs to God. But this year, we are also observing a leap year, the product of human tinkering with the calendar to make it come out the way we need it to. Time, it turns out, is not absolutely fixed. It is flexible and amenable to manipulation. It should never have come to this. The Talmud states: "One does not institute a leap year during a sabbatical year." Of course, once the rabbis were assured of their divinely granted right to adjust the calendar, their decision to abstain from intercalating a year (making it a leap year) during shmita, was still a kind of calendrical adjustment done because they refused to prolong the deprivation caused by shmita for the inhabitants of the land. Yet, here we are, with a leap year and shmita. The Talmud itself provides the explanation: "Said Rabbi Mana, 'That rule only applied originally, when the years were as they should be. But now, when they are no longer as they should be, the seventh year is just like any other year." (Yerushalmi Shqalim 1:2[4]) So, says Rabbi Mana, our approach to how we handle time depends on - the times. When all is temporally OK, we allow the shmita year to runs its official course. But when the times are out of joint, we must adjust. The Talmudic commentator R. David Fraenkel elucidates Rabbi Mana's remarks: "When times were as they should be … Israel dwells in its land and the Temple stands. But nowadays, when the Temple does not exist and the land is in the hands of gentiles, there is no difference between the seventh year and all other years…" (Qorban Ha-Edah). Apparently, the Biblical injunction to observe shmita had lost its original force. Since the impact of prolonging a sabbatical year by adding a leap-month would not have caused undue suffering to farmers, it was permitted to lengthen the year. But this neat solution has not survived the vagaries of time - history, that is. While the observance of shmita ceased to be a live issue for centuries, this changed after the First Aliyah in 1881. The very next year was a sabbatical year and the question has been vexing ever since: Without the Temple, but with some Jews in possession of some of the land, are times still out of joint? There is a great irony here. For the problem of how to observe a law that declares that we do not own time was created by those rebellious Jews who decided to stop waiting for God to enter history and redeem Israel. "No," they decided, "let's take ownership of time, ourselves." The paradoxical situation has emerged in which we have reclaimed shmita but have betrayed the teaching against prolonging the year. The result of the Zionist revolution has been to create a religious atmosphere that is confused about the times and abut how to intervene in them. David Greenstein is rabbinic dean at the Academy for Jewish Religion, New York. He is also a faculty member of the Skirball Center for Adult Jewish Learning at New York's Temple Emanu-El. Extract of article in Issue 24, March 18, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.