Essay on the Plurality of Time in Judaism
Sylvie Anne Goldberg



The clepsydra is a water clock. Devised to measure changing, relative time, its flow is adjusted depending on the season to take into account the length of the day. The amount of water in the clock must be calculated to achieve an unequal flow, but one that nonetheless conveys the passing of the hours and duration. This varying, mobile time can serve to represent our lived experience of it, in which, inasmuch as they impinge on us more or less intensely, hours are not to be judged by the same measure. Our relationship with time involves multiple perceptions, which do not weigh equally in the balance. Beliefs, hopes, and fears burden the passage of time all the more if they arise from systems of thought in which it is a key concept. The past, present, and future form temporal flows that, although differently sensed, constitute a whole in which memory, history, hope, and faith blend into a vast, unchanging present. Our awareness of time past emerges from that of the present. The present asks after the future, and with this in mind turns back toward the past.

The history of the West delineates a unique relationship with time, which is both “told as a tale” and “tallied.” This book endeavors to highlight the importance of the theme, somewhat overlooked by history, of the multiplicity of temporal registers. It shows how this multiplicity may be used and “adapted” to suit historical requirements and their evolution over the course of centuries. What better device than the clepsydra to embody the amazing ability of human beings to make use of their temporality?

This book is an essay. It has no philosophical ambitions, although it sometimes aspires to reflect on the use of categories of thought. It denotes a moment in the research of the historian, who has spent years gathering archival documents, materials of all kinds, based on sources in religion, culture, law, and folklore. Some of these texts belong to the sacred, others to the profane. They all convey ways of doing or thinking, and assertions by pedagogy, theology, or philosophy. After this process, we may wonder how the data harmonize to form a cultural ensemble specific to a given time or group. In choosing to work on Jewish temporality, I aimed to dig beneath the ambient clichés, the more or less vague and implicit approaches to the history of the Jews, as well as their past depictions of the universe. Tired of the repeated invocation of teleological, essentialist, political, anti-Judaic, and other singular agendas that still permeate Jewish studies, whether unconsciously or in all frankness, I came to feel that a sufficient toll has been paid to our history for us finally to pursue ordinary research about it. To be sure, anything dealing with religion is tricky to handle in terms of historical work. And also to be sure, Jews are denominationally defined. In earlier societies, however, a person was Jewish in the same way that every human being was “something”: it was a matter of being enrolled in a social order, a group, a community, a form of civilization. The Ashkenazi universe, like the Sephardic one in its locations, belongs, just like the Christian one, to a conceptual order much vaster than that controlled by a synagogue or Church. Although organized according to its own laws, the system of thought specific to the Jewish world is interrelated with the development and evolution of the cultural milieu from which it descended, as well as the environment in which it evolved. Equipped with the Halakhah, a corpus of distinct laws held to be a normative structure governing Jewish life in its public and private aspects, Jews subjected every realm of life to ethical reasoning. Halakhah governs both ritual and religious subjects and social, civic, and penal issues. It might have been the law of the land had the Jewish people not been dispersed to a multitude of nations. It possesses the powers and contours of such a law, with the difference that from the talmudic era on, rabbis have decided that “the law of the kingdom is the law” (dina de-malkhutah dina), meaning that they fully and entirely accept the external laws of the countries they have inhabited since the loss of the ancient Jewish state and the resulting Diaspora.1 Accepting a double standard of jurisdiction, to which they only referred with respect to generic penal matters or in a limited way to avoid transgression, Jews likewise employed it in regard to temporality. Possessing their own method of computation, they also acknowledged the conventions common to their surroundings, sometimes participating in calculations by scholars of their day of calendar tables (such as those of Tycho Brahe or Kepler). Playing with time as with laws, they thus continually employed a double register of references. The process of secularization and the separation of Church and state led to a crystallization of the religious realm. Members of Jewish society thus became citizens whose religion was Judaism. Their ways of thinking shifted: from what had been models of representing the universe, they drew notions that would be taken as belonging to a strictly confessional order.

The historical breach during the twentieth century that also caused the demolition of the dynamics of continuity and discontinuity of the bygone Jewish world contributed in a major way to the loss of its codes. These “codes,” which allow organic transmission of a social and cultural patrimony, were usually filed away in family and local lore, storehouses of memory of secular tradition that were irremediably lost. Since the end of the nineteenth century, the Jewish world has been, for the most part, wholly uprooted from its historical and geographical milieu; furthermore, it has experienced the modification, followed by the disappearance, of its points of reference and forms of internal communication. Notably, the Jewish languages that provided ex tempore access to its varied traditions have ceased to be used. As a result, the endlessly repeated connections between past and present Jewish worlds are now only inscribed in a system of consistent readings for Jews who are aligned with the Orthodox religious tradition, even though the latter scarcely escaped the widespread upheavals that affected other Jews. If the transformations in contemporary Judaism can be gauged in light of the relationship of Jews with temporality, how are we to grasp the structuring of time in past Jewish societies? How did Jews devise a relationship with time and space so singular that it has spanned oceans and epochs? Was this also the case for Jews before rabbinic Judaism appeared? Doubtless that transition led to changes as profound as those to which Jews have been exposed over the past two centuries. And doubtless, too, in order to understand this phenomenon, we must make a detour by way of antiquity, when the seeds of the structural elements of Jewish thought were sown, prefiguring future structurings and informing the genealogy of Judaism for future centuries in a relationship with Christian time as half-hearted as it was unchanging. It is to find answers to these questionings that I have chosen to analyze the origin of structures of time in the Jewish world of antiquity and the High Middle Ages.

Temporality is approached here in a dual aspect. On the one hand, it is a matter of understanding the questions of time asked during a given era in response to a specific historical, cultural, or social situation; on the other, it is a matter of trying to understand how in every era and situation, a dynamic principle is put in place to convey or recreate a truly Jewish temporality, whatever the context. This Jewish temporality, which operates according to liturgical and calendrical rhythms or other ways of appropriating space, is a social fact. As such, it can be studied by the historian with appropriate means. Sometimes changes that occur in approaches to temporality are subject to other questionings. The latter belong to a different cultural apparatus, more diffuse because it extends beyond a specific group. The present study aims to draw attention to the way in which times intersect for various groups, forming a set of “questions of time,” rather than to teach anyone anything about time per se. What is more, it aspires to bridge the concepts of time and temporality, which, according to current thinking, the compartmentalization of academic fields has made seemingly irreconcilable.

This study has two parts. Part I, “Narrated Time,” suggests an approach to the conceptual universe that makes up what is called “time.” The structure of a Jewish time is analyzed by weighing the arguments expounded in contemporary texts and speech. This first part seeks, by describing the means by which it was constructed, to demonstrate the kind of bricolage upon which the standard view of Jewish time is based and its lexicon, which combines a diversity of ideas rooted in historical, philosophical, and theological traditions. Starting from standard perceptions of time in the Bible and the history of Israel, it examines some of the central notions governing the approach to these two sources of interpretation, which lead to the conclusion that Judaism invented a form of temporality that is forever being reenacted by the reseeding of the past in the present, and that denies Jews any relation to history.

The purpose of Part II, “Time Counted Down, or the World Order,” is to prove the historical relevance of this finding. It seeks to understand the affiliation between the idea of time and the collective experience of it within a group. Specifically, it seeks to test the validity of the theory that a break occurred between Jews and history after the destruction of the Second Temple. This section takes the form of an archaeological survey of the relics of Jewish antiquity. It aspires to identify traces of the development of a connection between time and history before rabbinic Judaism appeared. Studying the way in which the meaning of time changed the direction of historical consciousness means rediscovering the pathways that led to the double construction of a unique understanding of time and a unique temporality. Study of the many “scansions,” or orderly repetitive temporal patterns, shown in the sources makes it possible to examine how the permeation of religious and social spaces structured itself during the invention of a principle of temporality. From biblical chronologies to rabbinic judgments of time past, including texts that structure thought, we can try to assemble a mosaic. A temporal jigsaw puzzle can perhaps be (re)constituted by means of bricolage and mosaic assembly.

Historians will not be surprised to find the analysis of philosophical and theological ideas in Part I subject to contradiction by the reading of sources in Part II, which aims to highlight the difference between theoretical and practical constructs. Nonetheless, it is true that our contemplation of the past, especially when it is so distant that analysis of the traces of it that remain is inevitably hypothetical, is encumbered with traditions and proprieties that the centuries have laid down as confirmed principles. It may be hoped that reading these pages will call into question some common certainties about both Judaism and its “prehistory.” The bond that connects ancient Judaism with that of today may then seem less stable than it did a priori: rabbinic Judaism did not suddenly appear only after the destruction of the Second Temple but emerged from a national question that history bluntly settled in its own way. By establishing a new temporality, Judaism managed to perpetuate itself among the nations. Through this unique temporality Jews were enabled to continue living in the midst of other peoples, as much by the rhythms of Judaism as by a time that was not theirs. This structuring of time rooted in the most ancient Jewish texts reappears nowadays among all the minority groups in our so-called multicultural societies. The genealogy of the pyramid of time dealt with here may thus, perhaps, help us better understand the role Jewish time plays today.

“Every generation writes its own history of past generations,” Salo Baron writes.2 In conceding that the vision of the past reinvents itself from age to age in light of current issues, the search for time undertaken here must necessarily be a “matter of time.” It perhaps supplies the basis for an account of the construction of Jewish time, but I confess that I am not entirely sure yet how to formulate the question . . .