Marking the Sacred and the Ordinary ~ The Cyclical Nature of Jewish Time

This post was inspired by the first (5776), second (5777) and third (5778) editions of MISAVIV Hebrew Circular Calendar by deuteronomy press. You can purchase this beautiful 5778 calendar from the Little Minyan Kehillah; contact littleminyan@ littleminyan.org for more information. 

The way I think about time each day is heavily influenced by my ties to secular standards of time: a dental appointment at 2:30 on Tuesday; get to the bank before it closes at 5:00; the sale price at the grocery ends on Wednesday; a conference call on Friday at 11 a.m. with a friend in Denver means 1 p.m. EDT.  If I oversleep, I wake up in secular time, and when I schedule my day, glance at my watch, consult my electronic calendar, and go about my business I am thinking and acting in secular time. Secular time is my default programming, my auto-pilot mode.

When I practice what I preach, however ~ when I embody my spiritual practice, I operate in Jewish time. When I relax into a reflective mode whether to journal, or meditate, or study Torah, or pray, or dream, I do so in Jewish time. When I speak about spiritual growth, I think in Jewish time. When I create prayer-centered spiritual experiences, I open to the expanse of Jewish time. When I teach about the merit and meaning of our Jewish wisdom tradition, I often reference the cadence of Jewish time. And when people ask me what I liked most about living in Israel, I talk of how secular time, though very present in Israeli life, takes a backseat to Jewish rhythms of time, allowing Jews to live in harmony with societal meter rather than having to chose which beat to emphasize each Shabbat and on holy days as they fall on random secular weekdays.

Marking time Jewishly has a cadence that emphasizes the sacred. The downbeat is on gratitude and the tempo is set by memory – memory of the history of a People guided by relationship and law and story. Each day of the week is noted by its relationship to Shabbat – the holy day of rest and renewal (Shabbat ends and then, Yom Rishon, Sheini, Shlishi … First day, second, third … and after sixth day, Shabbat once again). Each week is distinguished in relationship to Torah which relates the passage of time to agrarian cycles of planting, growth, and harvest, and the ancient pilgrimage festivals when we brought the “first fruits” of our harvest to the Temple to honor the Sacred with gratitude and praise for Creation’s bounty. Each month is marked according to the cycles of the moon, each holy day in relation to the moon’s fullness or darkness. Each season is celebrated in relationship to the way the Earth responds to rainfall and other atmospheric conditions. And each year is counted in relationship to the history of our People and mythology of our creation story.

Jewish time is circular ~ much like the wire slinky toy I had as a child, it moves forward in a spiraling pattern, returning again and again to the same and, simultaneously, very different place. The markers/sign posts are the same, but the constant forward motion of time ensures that the vista is different with each rotation. At times, the difference is barely perceptible, and, on occasion, the changes are so vast that one must strain to locate familiarity.

Although the markers remain constant, the passage of time alters our perception of the world around us as well as our view of the inner terrain of our being. Sometimes this is a direct result of our efforts to effect change in the world around us, or transformative work we do to improved our mental, spiritual, or physical well-being. At other times, the agents of change are ones over which we little or have no control. In these times, Jewish time becomes an old friend who helps us find our bearings, a safety net to catch us from falling, a walking stick that helps us maintain our balance, a bench or boulder along life’s path upon which to rest and reflect until we regain the strength to continue.  

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, in the prologue of his famous book The Sabbath, Its Meaning for Modern Man, distinguishes between civilizations focus on “things” – man’s conquest of space, and Torah’s construction of an “architecture of time:”

Judaism teaches us to be attached to holiness in time, to be attached to sacred events, to learn how to consecrate sanctuaries that emerge from the magnificent stream of a year. 

As we enter the last Sabbath of the year 5777, may we deeply enjoy this sanctuary in time of which Heschel wrote so eloquently. And may we seek out ways in the coming year (5778) to dance and sing in the rhythms of Jewish time, to find beauty in the cyclical patterns of Jewish time, and to notice and observe more opportunities to appreciate the sacred and sanctify it.

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