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The Politics Of Jewish Calendars

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Palaces of Time: Jewish Calendar and Culture in Early Modern Europe

By Elisheva Carlebach

304 pages, $35, Harvard University Press, April 2011



Although jokes abound about how punctual German Jews (Yekes) are, the concept of “Jewish Standard Time,” presumably mocking the non-Germanic segments of the Jewish population, has earned an entry in Urban Dictionary for “15 minutes late to everything” or “being late to an important event.”


Whether or not the jokes have a foundation, Elisheva Carlebach’s new book, Palaces of Time: Jewish Calendar and Culture in Early Modern Europe, shows that Jews developed some of the most important theories and discovered some of the most fundamental mathematical underpinnings of early calendar setting. They did this often to the chagrin of Christian leaders, who sought to liberate their calendar from its ties to Judaism, primarily the Passover meal that was their Last Supper.



Angel giving calendar secrets to Issachar. Sefer Evronot, 1716.

National Library of Israel. Ms Heb 8 2380, fol. 104.



The story that Carlebach, Salo Wittmayer Baron Professor of Jewish History, Culture and Society at Columbia University, tells focuses on the calendar as a “living” document rather than a static one. Instead of simply documenting the march of time at a set rate, calendars were often created in the image of their makers, who often embedded propaganda inside them, Carlebach explains.


Surely, most calendar users today take the medium for granted because it is so pervasive. In the age of Google, calendars can be embedded into websites, layered on top of one another and shared among users. If you position your mouse appropriately, your computer’s calendar will pop up, and many readers probably have calendars attached to their work email clients, or Outlook programs. If you’ve got a smart phone or a tablet computer, chances are you program your appointments right into that device.


The most low-tech calendars we might encounter are giveaways from supermarkets or from charities we donate to. When I interviewed Marc Winkelman, president of the Austin, Texes-based company Calendar Holdings, in August 2010, he differentiated between calendars that feature images specifically created for the calendars, and others which have artworks that “perhaps better satisfy the sensibilities of art historians.” Both fulfill needs, he said, though “There will always be art snobs.”




Rabbi (Simon ben) Gamliel receives Jewish calendar formulae. Sefer Evronot, 1552.

Library of the Jewish Theological Seminary. Ms 9487, fol. 3r.



The calendars Winkelman’s company sells are a far cry from the manuscripts and early printed calendars Carlebach explores, so it’s not surprising that medieval and early renaissance calendar users and makers were more passionate about all things calendar-related. The religious and political elite ensured that calendars were as much tools for controlling the masses, as they were an effort to organize an individual’s life.


One particularly fierce debate played out in the 17th century, when the calendar was “at the center of the struggle for the soul of England,” Carlebach writes. After the Reformation, England grew isolated from Denmark, Protestant German states and the Netherlands when it clung to the Julian calendar, while the latter states used the Gregorian calendar. An 11-day gap existed between the two calendars.


As early as the 12th century, calendars had a way of teasing out insolence. Abraham bar Hiyya Savasorda (1065-1136), who lived in Christian Spain, argued that only Muslims and Jews had a lunar calendar that wasn’t impacted by solar measurements. “We say that in the kingdom of the Ishmaelites they began this computing from the beginning of the sin of the mad evildoer who misled them,” he wrote.


Bar Hiyya had no more compassion for the calendar of the “pagan nations,” by which he meant Christians. “The entire evil kingdom of Edom, who count according to the hanged one, compute most of their civil matters according to the solar calendar like the Greeks,” he wrote, “however they are forced to compute according to the moon along with the sun to set their fasts and some of their feast days, because they liken themselves to Israel in this counting.”



Sefer Evronot. 1779. Cincinnati, Klau Library,

Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. ms 902. Fol. 1r.



The Jewish calendar, meanwhile, was a divinely inspired enterprise. A 1779 Sefer Evronot (a book of high-level calendar formulation) shows the divine hand in the top left corner pointing at a moon in the opposite corner of the page. On the ground level stand Moshe and Aharon – identified by their light-filled horns and tablets of the law on the one hand, and priestly garb and incense on the other – and Moshe himself points up at the moon. A banner – which somewhat bizarrely takes particular pains not to mask letters except in the final word – displays the text from Exodus 12 that first outlines the biblical commandment to set Nissan as the “head of the months.”


The central text in the 1779 book identifies the calendar tradition as one tied to mystical secrets – a theme which also surfaces in a 1716 Sefer Evronot, which shows an angel instructing Yissachar who is about to ascend a ladder to the heavens, where he will learn of the secrets of the calendar. The ladder derives from Yaakov’s vision, but the figure is his son Yissachar, due to the description in Divrei Hayamim112:33 that the sons of Yissachar “have knowledge of time.”



Elephant. (Hebrew pil is a pun for the Hebrew root “to fall,” like a holiday falling on a certain date). Sefer Evronot, 1627. Library of the Jewish Theological Seminary. Ms 2662, fol. 21v.



When considered in light of the 1716 illustration, Carlebach’s title, Palaces of Time, makes a lot of sense. Jewish artists – or at least the Jewish patrons who commissioned the works – envisioned the calendar, which embodied time, as a palatial structure. Devarim 30:12-13 declares that the Torah isn’t in the heaven, such that one needs to ascend skyward to retrieve it, nor is it across the sea, such that one must traverse the sea to acquire it. When one considers Sifrei Evronot, though, one gets the impression that a celestial journey or odyssey of some sort is necessary to grasp the inner workings of the calendar. One might even say early Jewish calendars were more ambitious than even their most technologically savvy descendants are today.



Menachem Wecker, who blogs on faith and art for the Houston Chronicle at http://blog.chron.com/iconia, welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com.

About the Author: Menachem Wecker, who blogs on faith and art for the Houston Chronicle at http://blogs.chron.com/iconia, welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com.

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