Time plays an enormous role in Judaism. The first thing that God declared holy was a day — Shabbat — at the conclusion of creation. The first mitzvah given to the Jewish people as a whole, prior to the Exodus, was the command to sanctify time, by determining and applying the Jewish calendar (Ex. 12:1-2).
The prophets were the first people to see God in history, seeing time itself as the arena of the Divine-human encounter. Virtually every other religion and civilization before and since has identified God, reality and truth with timelessness.
Isaiah Berlin used to quote Alexander Herzen, who said about the Slavs that they had no history, only geography. The Jews, he said, had the reverse: a great deal of history but all too little geography. Much time, but little space.
Time in Judaism is an essential medium of the spiritual life. But there is one feature of the Jewish approach to time that has received less attention than it should: the duality that runs through Judaism’s entire temporal structure.
Take, for instance, the calendar as a whole. Christianity uses a solar calendar, Islam a lunar one. Judaism uses both. We count time both by the monthly cycle of the moon, and by the seasonal cycle of the sun.
Then consider the day. Days normally have one identifiable beginning, whether this is at nightfall or daybreak, or — as in the West — somewhere between. For calendar purposes, the Jewish day begins at nightfall (“And it was evening and it was morning, one day”). But if we look at the structure of the prayers — the morning prayer instituted by Abraham, afternoon by Isaac, evening by Jacob — there is a sense that the day starts in the morning, not the night before.
Years, too, usually have one fixed beginning. In Judaism, according to the Mishnah (Rosh Hashanah 1:1), there are no less than four new years. The first of Ellul is the new year for the tithing of animals. The fifteenth of Shevat (the first according to Bet Shammai) is the new year for trees. These are specific and subsidiary dates, but the other two are more fundamental.
According to the Torah, the first month of the year is Nissan. This was the day that the Earth became dry after the Flood (Gen. 8:13). And it was the day that the Israelites received their first command as a people (Ex. 12:2). Furthermore, one year later, it was the day that the Tabernacle was dedicated and the service of the priests was inaugurated (Ex. 40:2). But the festival we call the New Year, Rosh Hashanah, falls six months later.
Holy time itself comes in two forms, as Emor makes clear. There is Shabbat, and there are the festivals — and the two are announced separately. Shabbat was sanctified by God at the beginning of time for all time. The festivals are sanctified by the Jewish people to whom was given the authority and responsibility for fixing the calendar.
Hence the difference in the blessings we say. On Shabbat we praise God who “sanctifies Shabbat.” On the festivals, we praise God who sanctifies “Israel and the holy times” — meaning that it is God who sanctifies Israel but Israel which sanctifies the holy times, determining on which days the festivals fall.
Even within the festivals, there is a dual cycle. One is formed by the three pilgrimage festivals: Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot. These are days that represent the key historic moments at the dawn of Jewish time. They are festivals of history.
The other cycle is formed by the number seven, and the concept of holiness: the seventh day, Shabbat; the seventh month, Tishri, with its three festivals of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot; the seventh year, Shemitah; and the Jubilee marking the completion of seven seven-year cycles.
These times (with the exception of Sukkot, which belongs to both cycles) have less to do with history than with what — for want of a better word — we might call metaphysics and jurisprudence: ultimate truths about the universe, the human condition and the laws, both natural and moral, under which we live.
Each is about creation (Shabbat, a reminder of it, Rosh Hashanah the anniversary of it), divine sovereignty, and justice and judgment, together with the human condition of life, death and mortality.
On Yom Kippur, we face justice and judgment. On Sukkot and Shmini Atzeret, we pray for rain, celebrate nature and read the book of Kohelet, the Tanakh’s most profound meditation on mortality.
In the seventh and Jubilee years, we acknowledge God’s ultimate ownership of the land of Israel and the children of Israel. Hence we let slaves go free, release debts, let the land rest and restore most property to its original owners. All of these aren’t related to God’s interventions into history, but with his role as Creator and owner of the universe.
One way of seeing the difference between the first cycle and the second is to compare the prayers on Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot with those of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The Amidah of Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot begins with the phrase “You chose us from all the peoples.” The emphasis is on Jewish particularity.
By contrast, the Amidah for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur begins by speaking of “all You have made, all You have created.” The emphasis is on universality — the judgment that affects all of creation, everything that lives.
Even Sukkot has a marked universalist thrust with its seventy sacrificial bulls representing the “seventy nations.”
So why the duality? Because God is both the God of nature and of culture. He is the God of everyone in general, and of the people of the covenant in particular. He is the author of both scientific law (cause) and religious-ethical law (command).
We encounter God in both cyclical time, which represents the movement of the planets, and linear-historical time, which represents the events and evolution of the nation of which we are a part. This very duality gives rise to two kinds of religious leaders: the prophet and the priest.
Since the ancient Greeks, people have searched for a single principle that would explain everything, or the single point Archimedes sought at which to move the world.
Judaism tells us that there is no such point. Reality is more complicated than that. There is not even a single concept of time. At the very least, we need two perspectives to be able to see reality in three dimensions, and that applies to time as well as space. Jewish time has two rhythms at once.
Judaism is to the spirit what Niels Bohr’s complementarity theory is to quantum physics. In physics, light is both a wave and a particle. In Judaism time is both historical and natural. This is unexpected and counter-intuitive, certainly, but also glorious in its refusal to simplify the rich complexity of time.