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The Politics Of Jewish Calendars

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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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