The Sacred Calendar and the Cycle of Time

By Michael Kohn

To everything’turn, turn, turn
There is a season’turn, turn, turn
And a time for every purpose under heaven

In his book The Sabbath, Abraham Joshua Heschel writes that ‘Judaism is a religion of time, aiming at the sanctification of time. . . . Jewish ritual may be characterized as the art of significant forms in time, as architecture of time. Most of its observances’the Sabbath, the New Moon, the festivals, the Sabbatical and the Jubilee year’depend on a certain hour of the day or season of the year.’ And these observances recur year after year after year.

At least half of Parashat Emor speaks of these observances’the mo’adim, those appointed times fixed by God, as mikra’ei kodesh, holy convocations. The first described is Shabbat. Thereafter, the Torah describes in order: Pesah, Sefirat Ha’omer, Shavuot, Rosh HaShanah, Yom Kippur, and Succot. Two things are immediately apparent from this list of Biblical holidays. The list begins with Pesah”in the first month on the fourteenth day of the month towards evening’; and the holiday occurring ‘in the seventh month on the first of the month’ is not called ‘Rosh HaShanah.’

Etz Hayim describes this portion of the parashah as ‘The Sacred Calendar.’ But it is only a part of what we consider to be the Jewish calendar today. Today, Jews speak of four ‘New Years”the first day of the first month, which the Torah calls Aviv, and which we now call Nisan; the first day of the seventh month, which we now call Rosh HaShanah, the time when according to Vayikra Rabbah 29:1, God created the world; Simhat Torah, the new year of the Torah, when we finish Sefer Devarim and begin again with Bereshit; and the 15th day of Shevat, which we call Tu B’Shevat, the new year of trees.

We most often think of time as linear, running from a beginning to an end. However, the Jewish calendar, with four ‘New Years’ and its annual mo’adim, suggests that time may be circular rather than linear. A little over 500 years ago people believed the world was flat. Even today when we are traveling in a jet airplane at 40,000 feet the world below us looks flat. But in a jet traveling at 75,000 feet one can see the curvature of the earth. Unless we are that high up, our sight span permits us to see only a small piece of the earth, a piece too small to see its true shape. Similarly, our life span only permits us to see a small piece of time, a piece too small to see its true shape.

Yet this shape is reflected in many ways. Our tradition holds that we go from this world to the world to come, only to be returned at the time of Mashiah. And large numbers of Jews, who demonstrate little other outward observance of their religion sit down at the seder table and come to synagogue on Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur year after year after year.

Even our liturgy reflects this cyclical nature of time. On the first day of Pesah we recite Tefillat Tal, the prayer for dew. And on Sh’mini Atzeret, the day after Succot, we recite Teffillat Geshem, the prayer for rain. There are six months between Pesah and Sh’mini Atzeret and vice versa. There are six main verses in Tal and six in Geshem. In Kabbalat Shabbat, in L’kha Dodi, which ushers in Shabbat, the first verse after the refrain refers to Shabbat, the next six do not, and the final verse refers again to Shabbat. We go from Shabbat to Shabbat in an endless cycle. Heschel notes that Shabbat is ‘holiness in time.’

Judaism has survived for the past two thousand years because Jews have successfully replaced a holy space’the Temple’with holiness in time. The sacrifices prescribed in ‘The Sacred Calendar’ are no more and, perhaps, never to be again. However, we continue to observe those mikra’ei kodesh, those holy convocations, as is otherwise prescribed and through prayer.

It is not difficult to acquire space for ourselves. We purchase land, rent hotel rooms and acquire with relative ease, other objects which occupy space. But we cannot so acquire time. Time, like God, is not under the control of God’s creatures. Yet when we observe the cycle of time’daily prayer, charity and lovingkindness; weekly Shabbat rest; and the annual occasions of ‘The Sacred Calendar”we feel ourselves closer to God. As a circle, we can grab onto time at any point and make our way around. ‘The Sacred Calendar’ directs us to those entry points on the circle, to those places where we can grab on and ‘Turn, Turn, Turn.’

1 The Byrds. Words adapted by Pete Seeger, based on Ecclesiates 3