Webber / Jewish Systems of Chronology, page 1 JEWISH SYSTEMS OF CHRONOLOGY AND PERIODISATION When Professor Sato invited me to write a paper on native Jewish approaches to the subject of time and chronology, I decided to entitle it "The Memorable, The Measurable, and a Good Sense of Timing". As an anthropologist, rather than a professional historian, I feel that any contribution I might be able to make in Kofu is to stress how it is that a culture that treats time very seriously in fact possesses a variety of models for conceptualising time, including an absolute chronology (a subject which Professor Sato discusses in detail in his own position paper)__but that one cannot assume in advance just how these different models are operationalized in cultural practice. The purpose of this paper, then, is briefly to outline some of these models so as to provide at least a schematic ethnographic account of what is in fact a somewhat complex picture. I think the Jewish case could therefore be of more general interest, if only to show the limitations of relying on an absolute chronological system for the universal representation of the passage of time.
The text of the Bible, which has historically provided Jews with a literary specification of their cultural identity, gives considerable prominence to the subject of time, introducing it at two key points in the narrative of the Five Books of Moses. Time thereafter became a major Webber / Jewish Systems of Chronology, page 2 preoccupation of Jewish culture, and it is not especially difficult to argue that the whole cultural system fundamentally hinges on a proper sense of timing. There are two major starting-points that the Bible identifies: the creation of the world (described at the beginning of the book of Genesis) and the creation of the Jewish people as a people (the exodus narrative, described from chapter 12 in the book of Exodus). Quite apart from the identification of these two narratives as the central founding events of everlasting importance, the text clearly draws attention to the category of time itself in both cases. "And God blessed the seventh day and made it holy", the text states at the end of the narrative of the six days of creation. The very first thing which God sanctified during his creation of the world was in fact a segment of time__not the Jewish people nor the Land of Israel, but the stretch of time known as the sabbath, i.e. the seventh day, the day when God, as the story puts it, rested from his work of creation. If we are to understand the purpose of the creation story as attempting to provide a (culturally defined) specification of the fundamental categories which exist in the world (the fundamental categories on which all reality is believed to be ultimately reducible), it is surely highly evocative__indeed, highly provocative__for the rest of the cultural system that a segment of time announced as sacred is written into the structure of the world itself.
The six days of creation mean, in effect, ordinary vernacular profane time, whereas the seventh day means the reality of the co-existence with this vernacular time of a special category of sacred time. This idea__that particular segments of time are intrinsically sacred__is a proposition that was given elaborate attention in later books of the Bible.
Thus it is that when the narrative finally reaches that second starting-point, that moment when the Jewish people are poised to leave Egypt and begin their historical trajectory as a people in the service of God, the text once again opens up the subject of time. Jewish peoplehood is understood in the Bible as embodying ritual practice and a precise system of divinely ordained law; and from Exodus chapter 12 onwards the text concentrates less on narrative and more on the details of this law and culture the people were expected to observe.
How this twelfth chapter of Exodus actually begins, therefore, is, once again, evocative and provocative. Establish a calendar, a 12-month calendar, the text says, and ensure that a Webber / Jewish Systems of Chronology, page 3 festival commemorating this departure from Egypt, the liberation of the people, and indeed the existence of the people as a people, will for ever after be celebrated in the first month of such a calendar. Or, to put it in other words, establish a fixed cyclical calendar so that sacred time can be accommodated within it. It is noteworthy that these instructions take place in the text even before the liberation events that the festival is to commemorate in the future have been reached in the narrative: it is as if the text is more interested in fixing the notion of sacred time than in supplying the narrative which accounts for it.
In short: the creation story makes it clear that the notion of sacred time is part of the reality upon which the whole world is based; and then, when the narrative reaches the formation of the Jewish people as a people, it is once again the specification of sacred time__in this case the festival of Passover__which is the main preoccupation of the biblical text. One could hardly imagine greater prominence being given to the concept of time and the need to devote cultural energy to specifying how time is to be used.
The absence here of any measurement of absolute chronological time must surely strike our attention immediately. The linearity of the six days of creation followed by the seventh day of the sabbath makes it clear from the start, as I hinted by the word "measurable" in the title of this paper, that a concept of sacred time takes for granted the underlying capacity to measure time in the linear dimension; and an annual cyclical calendar of twelve months likewise. But where is the starting-point of this linearity? In fact, nowhere in the biblical text is a chronological date for the exodus actually given__for example, the number of years that had elapsed since the creation of the world. As is well known, absolute chronological time does exist in Judaism (Anno Mundi), but it is very seldom invoked to anchor events. Jewish cultural interest in a good sense of timing, then, is less concerned with absolute chronological time than with the idea that specific segments of time are intrinsically sacred__or, in the case Webber / Jewish Systems of Chronology, page 4 of founding events, that of course they were profoundly memorable. But memorability, when projected onto the time dimension in order to provide a sense of ritual occasion, depends, as I have said, on an underlying capacity to measure linear time.
The Jewish cultural energy that went into measuring time was focused on two principal objectives: the internal specification of the division of the year; and celebration of the sabbath every seven days, thereby generating the concept of a week (in fact the word for "week" and "seven" are cognate in Hebrew). The specification of a year is socially determined, defined by those in authority who decide upon leap years, leap months, and indeed identify new moons, new months, and of course, new years (all of which is needed for the Jewish calendar, which uses a luni-solar year)__a completely different sociology of knowledge from that which is required to count the six days between sabbaths, which can be done by the ordinary person without any reference to those holding power. Doing something at "an appointed time" (a biblical phrase) meant a precise sacred moment in the socially prescribed cyclical calendar; punctuality, in the sense of undertaking a ritual duty with a proper sense of timing, was unquestionably a Jewish virtue. Counting years as such lay outside such preoccupations, although cycles of sabbatical years (every seven years), jubilee years (every fifty years), and, later (after the calendar was fixed in the 4th century AD), the solar cycle (every twenty-eight years) are indeed known__but these, once again, are cyclical periodicities, not the indefinite counting of linear time. Absolute chronological time contained nothing intrinsically Without, therefore, the capacity or the interest to supply dates for events (i.e. beyond their respective anniversaries in the calendar), traditional Jewish culture had little by way of history as we now know it. Jews took up a concern with their history only very recently, in the 19th century; and it came about in the context of the radical critique of Jewish life introduced by modernising scholars associated with a movement for change known as Reform Judaism. Their imposition on the total Jewish past of an absolute chronology, with its consistent, pure, standard measurement of linear time, was an innovation__although, as I Webber / Jewish Systems of Chronology, page 5 shall discuss below, this has today become more or less completely domesticated in the context of 20th-century Jewish life. It should be said here, however, that there had indeed existed a Jewish system of measuring absolute chronological time__i.e., Anno Mundi, the dating of events according to the number of years elapsed from the time of the creation of the world, based on scholarly reconstructions of the evidence given in the Bible. In fact, this system first came into regular use about a thousand years ago. But the point is that even though such a system technically "exists", it is seldom used. An absolute chronology based on Anno Mundi is to a considerable extent culturally meaningless in traditional Judaism; and the reformers were perfectly aware of that. Classical Jewish culture simply did not work in this way; it had got other things on its mind. In order to understand how cultural systems generate approaches to time, it is no good assuming in advance that a standard measurement will of itself yield the necessary data. But here let me now be more specific. There is in any case no such thing as a timeless "Jewish culture", no such thing as one undifferentiated Jewish system, but rather a series of Jewish cultural systems which for the sake of the exposition here I can divide into five broad eras or periods. Or, to put it another way, the absence of a single, unified, absolute chronological Jewish time is in this sense a direct reflection of the Jewish historical The opening chapters of the pre-history described in the book of Genesis rush through the first 2,000 years or so of recorded history from the first man, Adam, to the first Hebrew, Abraham: this sequence consists of twenty generations, indeed put forward in the text as a genealogy with only a pause at Noah for the story of the great Flood. The purpose of this pre- history is clearly the attempt to place the Hebrews in the context of the human race. The second period is the 500 or so years from Abraham to Moses: this is the period of the Webber / Jewish Systems of Chronology, page 6 eponymous ancestors of the Jewish people and the beginnings of some kind of relationship with God. Moses, at approximately 1500 BC, marks the formalising of this relationship into a covenant and a code of law, and thereby we enter into the third period, which is the early history of the people down to the year 1000 BC and the construction of the first Temple in Jerusalem by King Solomon. The biblical account, in other words, always concerned with beginnings, does indeed give a lot of space to these beginnings of the people before they finally settled down as an established people in an established country with an established cultic centre. Then there is the fourth period, which lasts about 1000 years from the time of King Solomon to approximately the time of Jesus; this period was characterised by a social system governed from the cultic centre in Jerusalem. The city and its cultic centre were twice destroyed, the first time about half-way through this period, and the second time at the end of it, in the year AD 70. Fifthly, and lastly, there are the 2,000 or so years from AD 70 to the present, characterised by the Jewish people living in diaspora, living in exile from Palestine and governed, sociologically speaking, by quite a different cultural system__namely one in which they are not living in their homeland but on the other hand concerned with maintaining a highly developed sense of their own cultural identity as a minority group in lands belonging to others. For the sake of completeness one should perhaps add a sixth period, namely the last 200 years, during which time the Jews have slowly become socially and politically emancipated in the European countries in which they live (in the mid-19th century 90% of the world's Jews lived in Europe) and have developed different ideologies of modernism, most notably various styles of a Reform Judaism which I have referred to above.
These different periods represent substantial shifts in the cultural self over time. To describe any of them as representative of the totality would therefore clearly be tendentious, even though it is true that stereotypes do exist of the Jewish people, most notably that they remain frozen in Old Testament time. Each of the periods I have mentioned has in many respects quite a different sociology, and therefore quite different approaches to the subject of time.
There is of course a hegemonic discourse, deriving from Old Testament ideas, which continues to govern how Jews are thought of by others and indeed how Jews think of Webber / Jewish Systems of Chronology, page 7 themselves; and to some extent this hegemonic discourse is still used to this day, even during a period of major transformation, assimilation, and modernity.
I cannot, within the confines of a single paper, even attempt to do justice to all the theories of time which have flourished during these various periods. I would like to say something about linear time as an illusion, and about attitudes to time which flourished in the period of the Jewish diaspora during the past 2,000 years, but before that I need to say a few words about genealogical time and cyclical time. The main argument that I wish to elaborate is that pre- messianic time is fundamentally motionless (it is seen as belonging to a single era), and that therefore the evolution of linear time is an illusion. It is this view which sustained the biblically derived lack of interest in the elapsing of ordinary chronological time, and by the same token helps us to understand in contrast why many Jews today perceive the vitality of the modern concept of "Jewish history"__as if the elapsing of time itself does now possess intrinsic meaning. There is no doubt that the return to the ancestral homeland and the establishment (after a diasporic interlude of 2,000 years) of a Jewish state in the Land of Israel has given many Jews the sense that time itself has been speeded up in the modern world__quite apart, that is, from the new historiographic interests of modern Jewish intellectuals over the past 200 years. There would seem to be a coinciding of approaches here__but nevertheless it is also important to bring out the revolutionary nature of modern Western theories of time, including the dominance of an absolute chronological system, in the context of a people whose traditional discourse is based on very different principles.
The first concept of historical time introduced in the Bible after the creation of man was generational or genealogical time. It is true that the biblical text supplies the ages measured in years of most of the key people listed in these genealogies, and therefore theoretically could without difficulty have placed them into a dating scheme in absolute chronological time. But Webber / Jewish Systems of Chronology, page 8 it is clear from the content and structure of these genealogies that what the text wanted to show was something about the social relationships between the descendants of these eponymous ancestors which are listed and thereby provide, through the genealogical metaphor, a conceptual handbook about social relations between the different peoples that were the descendants of these ancestors. To put it another way, the Israelites of the Ancient Near East saw the peoples that they were surrounded by as being descendants of specific ancestors. The concept of genealogies, or of genealogical time, was to provide a theory about social relations__for example, a friendly trading relationship or a set of long-standing hostilities__which existed between these different peoples, as if all the peoples described constituted an extended family (which, for the Hebrews, they ultimately were). Genealogical relations, and thus genealogical time, are seen as objective realities, measured not in years but in the idiom of kinship. Genealogical time, as indeed all time, is social time, the time which is common to the group and which possesses meaning (it is well known from Africa and elsewhere how genealogies are often rewritten when social relations change). To restate the obvious at this point: to apply absolute chronological time to these generational and genealogical relations would be to miss the point completely of what the text was trying to say__and that, indeed, is probably why it said what it wanted to say the way it did.
Models and metaphors of time, in other words, constitute a major cultural idiom for expressing a particular set of preoccupations. Perhaps the most important of these, as I have already hinted, is the notion of motionless or structural time. The concept of motionless time enables a social group to think about itself as one which has not fundamentally changed and thereby to provide its members with a sense of continuity. There are many devices by which this can be done. On the one hand, it is necessary to deal with cultural memory, find a way of representing the past, and confront the notion of chronological distance. Even though everybody knows that quotidian, daily social life consists of transitory events, the social structure is deemed not to change. The technique here is myth__especially when (as in the Jewish case) it is canonised into a fixed scriptural text preserved by the priests (later the rabbis) who hold power in the society, whose job it is also to shape a liturgy and other rituals Webber / Jewish Systems of Chronology, page 9 which give substance to the ideas represented in the myth. Just as in the case of genealogical time, the events described in the myth have been narrativised and restructured in order to provide a raison d'être for a particular ritual.
The Passover rituals are a good case in point. As I hinted above, the founding event of the exodus from Egypt, which explains the existence of the Jewish people as a nation, was narrativised in the biblical text in such a way as to lend itself to the commemorative Passover ritual that was to be enacted in subsequent generations. It was as if the memorability of the founding event__the sense that it was a "historic moment", to use the modern popular expression__was something that was known even to the original participants themselves. The present, one might say, was aware of its own future. Certainly at one point the liturgy includes the explicit remark that participation in the Passover ritual is undertaken for the purpose of considering oneself as having partaken in that original founding event itself. The ritual, in other words, collapses past, present, and future. The liturgy naturally refers to the pastness of the event, but that pastness is not relevant or not supposed to be relevant for the This is, perhaps, a good working definition of a founding event. It is an event-type in which nothing substantially new can be added into its specification. On the contrary, its meaning and its structure are deemed to be eternal. There is no scope here for attributing any relevance, any cultural significance, to historical change or the passage of time; change that is derived from an awareness of the chronological distance that separates the believer from the founding event (other than homiletic expansion, for example by reference to contemporary issues) is nothing more than an illusion. This is motionless time; this is how a culture shapes its own memory of itself. It means that new events do not normally get remembered, or that new events are simply merged in the collective consciousness with the older, pre-existing We write history today partly because we believe that the world constantly changes, and we Webber / Jewish Systems of Chronology, page 10 need an absolute chronological system in order to map those changes along a linear time dimension. But this is not the system which is used in the tradition that I am describing now.
To quote the classic image from the Book of Ecclesiastes: What once was that is what will be, and what happened in the past is what will happen again. There is nothing new under the sun. There are things about which people will say "Look, this is something new", but in fact it has always been there, before our time. This is because people do not remember the past.
Of course, if one were to impose an absolute chronological system onto this type of cultural memory, one would be able to reveal many historical inaccuracies, including the construction of "merged events" which may not have happened in the real world.
An interesting example of this is the belief that the past contains recurrent patterns. Jewish commentators have noted (historically inaccurately) that the first Temple built by King Solomon survived for exactly 427 years, and that the second Temple, which was destroyed in the year AD 70, also lasted exactly 427 years. This is what (until the modern period) the past consisted of__patterns, meaningful event-types. Hence it was triumphantly noted in the Talmud that the Book of Genesis had recorded in fact exactly ten generations from Adam to Noah, and that the span of generations from Noah to Abraham was also ten generations. The same passage in the Talmud goes on to note that there were ten plagues with which God smote the Egyptians and that there were ten miracles in the desert when the ancient Israelites finally left Egypt; and so on. The unstated assumption here is not merely that there was something important about the recurrence of the number ten, but rather that this was an event-type which happened once and therefore, just because it had happened once, was going to happen again__and probably even again and again. If God created the world, it followed that he therefore controlled all human events. If man cannot fully comprehend God, it follows that man cannot fully comprehend the past either. History, according to this view, simply is an established pattern; but the full workings of that pattern is out of range, out of sight, of ordinary human beings. This is why linear time is a meaningless way in to try to make sense of what happened in the past. But what can provide an understanding of the past is to get a Webber / Jewish Systems of Chronology, page 11 hold of the event-types, because, as Ecclesiastes had said, there is nothing new under the sun.
This is another way of saying that all the event-types one needs to know about have already been described in the holy scriptures. The rabbinic dictum here was ma'asei avot siman lebanim__that is to say, by studying the activities of the ancestors, for example in the book of Genesis, one can learn about the future. To put it another way, if the meaning of the present may be apparent only a long time later, chronological distance between events is simply an illusion. In Genesis, for example, Joseph gives a set of clothes to his brother Benjamin. The significance of this became apparent in the Book of Esther, written very many centuries later, when the Jewish hero Mordecai received the costume of a nobleman on being elevated to a high position in the ancient Persian empire. The point is that it had all happened before: Mordecai was from the tribe of Benjamin. The whole of the Hebrew Bible, despite its vast chronological span, is thus thought of as a single sacred narrative network. The meaning of events may therefore be concealed from ordinary mortal vision with its limited information based on the illusion of the elapsing of linear time__condensed, moreover, to the brevity of a single life-span; at any rate, there is no point speculating about it with the limited information What calendric cyclical time establishes is a finite set of these event-types and their respective meanings, together with a sense of repetitiveness, again-ness, that is non- cumulative. The statement in Exodus chapter 12 that the month in which Passover falls should be the first of the months of the calendar year was in this sense a sociological statement of intent: it was the meanings of Jewish culture, and of Jewish peoplehood, that were to be unpacked onto the calendric year, embodying both sacred and profane time.
Celebrating a particular calendric festival is not merely to commemorate a historical event or an event-type; from a spiritual point of view it is to enable the people to bask in the same spiritual light that God revealed to the world at the original moment of the founding event in question. The role of the year as a unit of time was to enact and give expression to these meanings; and the job of liturgy and its accompanying rituals was to map the correct Webber / Jewish Systems of Chronology, page 12 language on to the correct calendric moments so as to offer mankind the opportunity of communicating with the divine. Uttering the wrong prayer at the wrong moment would be as useless as wishing someone "Merry Christmas" in the middle of August. Punctuality in ritual, having a good sense of timing, is what creates the human ability to connect the measurable So let me turn now a little more closely to the question of founding events. After all, it is founding events which stand at the basis of cyclical time and people's sets of certainties about the nature of reality and the nature of time.
As I have said earlier, although the biblical text starts with the creation of the world, Anno Mundi is not a founding event in the sense of supplying the text with an absolute chronological system. Time in the book of Genesis is measured generationally. The first founding event which the Bible knows, and which it then subsequently uses as a dating system, is the exodus from Egypt. The people then wander in the desert for 40 years before they arrive at the Promised Land, and the other events which the narrative portrays as taking place during these 40 years are then dated according to the elapsing of time since the exodus event. Events are described as having happened "in the first year of the departure from Egypt", "in the second year after their departure from Egypt", or "in the fortieth year after their departure from Egypt". The text is in fact completely silent about 38 out of those 40 years: there was obviously nothing memorable that happened during this time, so the text passes over them as if "nothing happened". The arrival in the Promised Land is certainly narrated but, interestingly enough, in no sense was it a founding event; it is not marked in the cyclical calendar at all. In fact, the narrative of the Five Books of Moses__the cornerstone liturgical and spiritual founding document of the Jewish people__ends with the death of Moses: the people are poised to enter the Holy Land but have not yet done so. It is as if the Webber / Jewish Systems of Chronology, page 13 Jewish people visualise themselves as being on a trajectory away from the original founding event of the departure from Egypt, but never in fact finally arrive at their spiritual destination.
The message here is doubtless that it is better to travel hopefully than to arrive.
However, the narrative in the later books of the Bible describes what happened when they did in fact enter the Land of Israel. There was a period of about 400 years before the Temple was finally constructed in Jerusalem, by King Solomon. During this time, the main political events are described in these books in terms of the rule of a series of named judges, and the text specifies in each case how long they ruled for. We are almost at the concept of regnal years, but not quite. It is only once the centralised monarchy in Jerusalem is established that regnal years regularly appear in the narrative. There is one very interesting passage in the book of Kings (I Kings 6: 1) where it says: "And it came to pass in the 480th year after the Israelites came out of Egypt, in the fourth year of Solomon's reign.that he began to build the house of the Lord." This is the only passage where a regnal year is given specifically in the context of the number of years that had elapsed from the original founding event of the departure from Egypt. Thereafter, the departure from Egypt ceases to be a founding event in terms of measuring time; what we have instead are regnal years. But it is important to note that regnal years are not themselves set in a system of absolute chronological time. The book of Esther, for example, begins "And it came to pass at the time of King Ahasuerus, who ruled from India to Ethiopia.and it happened in the third year of his reign.". Later in this book the plot by Haman to organise the mass murder of the Jews of the kingdom is defined as having started in the twelfth year of the reign of King Ahasuerus. The point is that the text does not supply any comparative chronology here, for example by locating Ahasuerus according to any other chronological system that would have been known to the Jewish Here we can begin to discern the absence of any sense of founding event applicable to the entire Jewish experience in the sense that the departure from Egypt had been__probably because by this point the Jews were living in many countries, not only in the Land of Israel.
Webber / Jewish Systems of Chronology, page 14 During the sixth century BC, after the destruction of the First Temple by the Babylonians, the Jews of Palestine were deported to Babylonia. Many of them did not return to their country after the opportunity for them to do so had been supplied by a later king of Babylonia, King Cyrus, an event which was followed by the construction of the Second Temple. That is to say, the beginnings of the Jewish diaspora can be traced back to this point. The absence of a single centre meant the absence of completely unified social and political system, and thereby also the absence of a unified system of dating. Thereafter, one might say, the Jewish experience entered into its diasporic mode, and a new type of founding event was now required in order to render intelligible the Jewish historical experience.
The case of the Book of Esther is in fact an interesting pointer in this context. The diaspora Jewish community in Persia simply followed the regnal years of the country they were living in. This was neither of course an intrinsically Jewish system of dating nor would it have been instantly intelligible or meaningful to Jews living in all the other countries of their dispersion. As far as the measurement of linear time was concerned, the unity of the Jewish people had in practice collapsed. Jewish law thereafter enshrined the principle of local custom, in Hebrew known as minhag hamakom, as a fundamental regulating principle, not only as regards matters of dating but also with regard to certain ritual matters. "The Jewish people" slowly became, sociologically speaking, the local Jewish community.
During the period of the Second Temple various attempts were made to reckon linear time. A system of dating documents, known as minyan shetarot, came into use in Palestine in the 4th century BC, based on a non-Jewish era defined by the Seleucid dynasty, but it slowly died out after the destruction of the Second Temple in AD 70. The pseudepigraphical work known as the Book of Jubilees, composed in the 2nd century BC, presented early biblical history in terms of the 50-year cycle of the jubilee and the seven-year cycle of the sabbatical year: it was a valiant attempt to describe the past in terms of these cycles, but this method of reckoning time never came into widespread use. The first known attempt to use Anno Mundi as a standard basis for reckoning dates in Jewish history is attributed to the 2nd century AD, after Webber / Jewish Systems of Chronology, page 15 the destruction of the Temple, in a celebrated work known as Seder Olam. As is today well known amongst Jewish scholars, the use of rabbinic traditions in attempting to disentangle chronologies given in the Bible led to many chronological contradictions and other difficulties; in other words, there was a lack of fit in a chronological sense between the biblical account on the one hand and rabbinic traditions in understanding the biblical account on the other hand. The use of Anno Mundi in the Seder Olam was a pious attempt to put everything into one mould, but the project was culturally doomed from the outset. Absolute chronological time was not the biblical way, and the attempt to frame the biblical past in this mode ran into many interpretative difficulties.
Still, Anno Mundi eventually came into universal Jewish use about a thousand years ago.
This is known from various extant commentaries from this time and also from tombstones bearing Anno Mundi dates which have been discovered in southern Italy. Hardly surprisingly, the main Jewish cultural purpose of using Anno Mundi since that time has not been for the writing of biblical chronologies (although certainly several were composed, attempting to provide a complete, chronologically determined history of the Jews from creation to the present day). The universal usage of Anno Mundi dates, from the 9th or 10th century onwards, has been fairly restricted__to such contexts as dates on tombstones and wedding contracts. Wedding contracts quote the Anno Mundi date very formally (indeed, the Jewish wedding liturgy describes the ceremony as an echo of the creation). The founding event of the creation of the world was calculated, on the basis of the rabbinic traditions that I have mentioned, as having taken place in the year 3761 BC. The fifth millennium, that is to say 5,000 years from the creation of the world, therefore began in the year 1240 AD; this year, the year we are in at present, is the year 5760 Anno Mundi. A Jewish wedding contract taking place this year will give that date in full, but this is the exception that confirms the rule.
Creation as the ultimate founding event for the Jewish people is, as I have been indicating all along, a concept which does not resonate very easily in the biblical or rabbinic tradition.
Hence, except in formal contexts such as wedding contracts, the Anno Mundi date is in practice rendered only in a shorthand form: this year 5760 is conventionally represented Webber / Jewish Systems of Chronology, page 16 simply as 760, written in Hebrew characters. One can say that absolute chronological time does exist here, but it is not treated as of literal significance. The reason for this lack of desire to ascribe significance to the Anno Mundi date is not far to seek. The point is, simply put, that the linear date as such has no cosmic significance. It does not link up to anything else in the cultural system. It is true that there were millennial expectations at the turn of the fourth millennium 760 years ago in 1240 AD, and there are also some other indications whereby the Anno Mundi date is thought to have significance: for example, in those cases where the Hebrew letters making up the shorthand Anno Mundi date can be read as a word with some inauspicious meaning (perhaps the most notorious example was the year 1939, which when represented in this way made up a Hebrew word meaning "you shall be murdered"). But otherwise, apart from these exceptional cases, the linear progression of year to year in this absolute chronological system contained no That, however, does not prevent individual Jews from ascribing meaningful names to particular years. Professor Sato wonders in his paper whether coating a year with a meaningful name occurs outside East Asia; it is, in fact, a common Jewish practice. The date of death as recorded on a tombstone, or the year of publication as recorded on the title-page of a Hebrew book, are quite commonly, even today, given meaningful names. The device to accomplish this is through the use of a Hebrew chronogram. Hebrew chronograms are constructed by ascribing to each of the letters of the alphabet a particular numerical value; when the letters of a particular word or sentence are added together they can be found to supply the numerical value of a particular year in question__for example, to add up to the number 760. Hence chronograms are commonly used on tombstones and on title-pages of books, as quotations relevant to the personality of the person being commemorated on the tombstone or the subject-matter of the book in question; the phrases are usually drawn from biblical literature, often the Book of Psalms. "Great peace have they who love your law" (Psalms 119: 165), representing the year 5743 (1983) on the tombstone of a judge, or "For the Webber / Jewish Systems of Chronology, page 17 sake of Zion I will not remain silent" (Isaiah 62: 1), representing the year 5758 (1998) on the tombstone of a modern Zionist leader__to cite two illustrative examples of the genre.
However, such usage is totally contextual, specific only to the tombstone or book__it does provide the opportunity to coat a year with significance, but such a procedure is purely at the whim of the individual, and has nothing whatever to do with any generally agreed naming system of the year in question. In short, therefore, although it is true that in such contexts Jews do make the attempt to demonstrate that the occurrence of a particular year can be linked up with the rest of the cultural system, can be shown to have some significance beyond its ordinal number from Anno Mundi, nevertheless it is clear that the exercise of aesthetic preferences in such very restricted contexts is merely an art form. Such chronograms exist for their own sake, they point neither forwards to the next year nor back to the year before, and one cannot make any inference from a chronogram quotation representing one particular year about what a chronogram quotation representing the following year might actually be. There is no progression here intrinsic to the nature of the texts being quoted on these occasions; nor is there any such intention on the part of their authors.
So much, then, for Anno Mundi as an absolute chronological system in Jewish culture: it exists, but it doesn't explain. The historical events commemorated in the cyclical calendar are nowhere, in no context, represented by an Anno Mundi date. The ordinary Jew would scarcely be in a position to provide an Anno Mundi date for the festival of Chanukah or Purim, let alone for the departure from Egypt. The past events such festivals commemorate, as I have described above, exist in the present and the future, and there is nothing of spiritual or cultural significance to be gained by a measurement of the chronological distance that separates the present-day worshipper from those original historical events with which the Webber / Jewish Systems of Chronology, page 18 But what about the founding events of diaspora Jewish society? How about catastrophes as founding events here? Does a diasporic society such as that of the Jews measure time from the moment the people were driven out of their homeland, with a view to registering how long they have been in a state of exile? The short answer to this important question is no.
Although it is indeed true that one can find contexts in which the number of years that have elapsed since the destruction of the Second Temple and the exile of the Jews from Roman Palestine in AD 70 is in fact liturgically mentioned (this usage is found, for example, in communities of the Spanish and Portuguese Jews on the annual fast-day which has been established to commemorate the destruction of Jerusalem), the sociology of exile does not normally work along these lines. Refugees commonly assume that their exile is temporary; they will shortly be going back home. In other words, it may take quite some time before the refugee community finally accepts the reality of being permanently, or at least semi- permanently, in exile. Hence they do not start counting the years immediately after arriving in There are two aspects of this cultural state of mind which are worth mentioning here. The first point concerns the theological aspects. The whole concept of exile is in fact prefigured in the Five Books of Moses, where it is repeated many times that if the people sin then God will not permit them to remain in his Promised Land, but that they will be driven out by famine or by force of arms. Sin, however, can be atoned for, and the people in exile can therefore make the decision to return to their God. Exile, in other words, is a fully reversible situation. As is commonly put in many religious works, exile is like one long dark night, but the daybreak will be coming soon. Another way of putting this would be to say that the future return to the homeland is already in the present. It is, as it were, in the wings, like actors waiting off-stage for the correct moment to enter before the audience. Hence, the years of exile can certainly be counted, but it serves no essential purpose. God's covenant with the Jewish people is eternal, so redemption and return are always possible. To put all this another way, time since the exile is time in which nothing essentially happens (like the 38 years in the desert); it therefore may go culturally unrecorded. Webber / Jewish Systems of Chronology, page 19 But what does characterise catastrophe as a founding event, to turn to my second point, is the overwhelming sense of loss. What the people really remembered, and what was commemorated in the rituals and liturgies, was a sense of mourning__mourning for what had been destroyed. In other words, it was not the date of migration, or the date when the first refugee communities became established in a particular location that was necessarily treated as memorable; rather it was the sense of loss__a loss which the entire diasporic communities in all the countries of their dispersion shared together as common cultural memory and provided the sense of the exilic founding event. The consequences of this are quite important, because the sense of nostalgia for what had been lost refers__by definition__to a period prior to the catastrophe, not necessarily only to the catastrophe itself. The catastrophe may be substantially leapfrogged in the cultural imagination; what people are remembering__just because of the catastrophe__is the period prior to the catastrophe. It is as if the history of the diasporic community is perversely undermined in a chronological sense from the very outset.
There are even more substantial consequences. What had previously been left largely unrecorded as normal, quotidian experiences in the pre-catastrophe period now become, in the diasporic imagination, subjects of intense interest. For example (and here I give perhaps the classic example of this process in the Jewish case), it was only after the destruction of the Temple that the Talmud came to be written down. The corpus of writings known collectively as the Talmud in fact started off as an extremely detailed specification of ordinary everyday life in pre-catastrophe Palestine, the study of which has been the central literary focus of the Jewish diasporic imagination for the past 2,000 years. It is hardly a coincidence that the Talmud had not been written down prior to the catastrophe; on the contrary, it is in this sense diasporic literature par excellence. But there were yet further consequences. This cultural fascination with pre-catastrophe Jewish life in Palestine pushed out other alternatives: what went unrecorded during the diaspora was the sense of at-homeness in exile. Official (talmudic) Judaism had no cultural room for a detailed quotidian understanding of its own Webber / Jewish Systems of Chronology, page 20 contemporary exilic condition, even though, as I have indicated above, there was specific provision in Jewish law for recognising local diasporic custom in certain ritual matters.
Perhaps the most notable example of this in the present context was the doubling up in the diaspora of all Jewish festivals, such that Jewish communities in diaspora celebrated each festival on two successive days rather than the one day specified in the Bible. Historically, this had arisen because the sighting of the new moon, and its confirmation as the beginning of the month, had taken place in Palestine, with the result that diaspora communities would not be able to establish with certainty which was the correct day for the observance of a festival in that month; so in order to be sure that they would be able to satisfy the requirements of the law they kept two days instead of one. Diaspora rhetoric as expounded in the Talmud (after the calendar had been fixed) elevated this historical legacy into a spiritual principle, suggesting that the inferiority of other lands, as compared with the intrinsic sanctity of the Holy Land, required two days for the diasporic celebration of a particular festival rather than the one day which would suffice in the Land of Israel. But this case, fascinating though it is, and celebrated to this day on the basis of being accepted tradition, marks the exception rather the rule as far as an interest in quotidian diasporic life is concerned. Perhaps it was inevitable that diasporic communities would have a different calendric identity all to themselves; but there the matter rested. Jewish chroniclers of the Middle Ages did not really write up histories of their exilic communities. It is interesting to note, however, that after the great catastrophe of 1492 AD, when the Jews were expelled from Spain and Portugal, the literature of nostalgia again set in: Spanish Jews who came as refugees to Greece, Turkey, and other parts of the eastern Mediterranean wrote nostalgic poetry about the beloved Iberia they had left behind. Today, similarly, we are beginning to see serious nostalgic interest in Jewish life in eastern Europe before the Holocaust; the genre is repeating itself. A concern with the Holocaust does not just mean a concern for the details of the destructive fury with which Jewish life in German-occupied Europe was so swiftly and so brutally brought to an end; on the contrary, once again, what is developing is an overwhelming sense of loss for what was destroyed. In the contemporary Webber / Jewish Systems of Chronology, page 21 idiom, this nostalgia takes many forms__for example, pilgrimages, films, plays, photo albums, lectures, even the twinning of synagogues in western countries with destroyed communities in eastern Europe; and there has been a veritable explosion in such expressions in the past few years. Clearly, the Holocaust will come to be seen as the major founding event of a new form of Jewish life which has yet to emerge. But so far as one can judge after this brief period of only 50 years, the catastrophe has unquestionably rendered culturally visible a new interest in quotidian pre-catastrophe Jewish life.
Thus it is that the founding event in this case is, chronologically speaking, hard to pin down.
In practice there is no consensus among ordinary Jews regarding the ostensibly simple chronological question of when the Holocaust began: some would date it at 1933, when Hitler came to power; some would date it in 1938, when the synagogues in Germany were set on fire; some would date it in 1938, when the war broke out, some would date it in 1942, when the main death camps came into operation. Reading the memoirs of German Jewish Holocaust survivors, one comes away with a definite sense that the period between 1933 and 1939 is not easy to classify. It is certainly known that many German Jews did not wish to emigrate from Nazi Germany because they felt that the persecution they were experiencing at this time would soon be over; other Jews, who did emigrate, say they felt at the time that it was already too late. In other words, the chronological specification of a founding event is hard to pin down when seen from close up__as we are able to do in this generation as regards Jewish perceptions of the Holocaust catastrophe. Webber / Jewish Systems of Chronology, page 22 I am approaching my conclusions. My point is that the evidence from diaspora sociology raises important, challenging questions about the identification of founding events and, thereby, about the functioning of chronological systems. Official Jewish culture, as I have discussed, concerns itself with specific founding events and their registration in a cyclical calendric system. Mourning for Jerusalem is undoubtedly the founding event of the Jewish diaspora in the specification of this official culture. But the recent evidence regarding the Holocaust period, and the evidence arising out of the expulsion of the Jews from Spain 500 years ago, clearly suggests the possibility of the formation of quite different counter-histories.
Marking the passage of time in a diaspora context may thus proceed on principles quite different from how one might have predicted them if one had relied on official versions alone. These counter-histories, when examined more carefully, in fact seem to strike at the very heart of stereotyped concepts about exilic and diasporic identity.
At first, the elapsing of chronological time was not measured when the diasporic community came into existence. Relocation in the new exilic context was supposed to be temporary. But then, over the passage of time (unrecorded time), the exiles developed feelings of being "at home"__even to the point of the possibility of a new intra-diasporic founding event if the community were expelled from one diasporic country to another (from Spain to Turkey, for example). What all this boils down to is this: to the extent that the minority diaspora community needs to retain its sense of difference from the cultural environment in which it finds itself, there is no reason to suppose in advance that there is always a strong sense of coherence or corporate identity in such a community over time. The very sense of difference between it and the surrounding environment is in practice constantly negotiated and re- negotiated. Minority communities are by definition culturally hybrid, constantly importing cultural forms (such as food, dress, language) from the surrounding environment. There may be particular moments when the leaders of such communities try to put a ban on particular cultural features that they consider especially threatening to their own sense of difference.
Webber / Jewish Systems of Chronology, page 23 This need for the cultural management of a sense of difference is another reason why a diasporic community may not have a good model to represent the passage of time. The official system has no way of recording this complex process of cultural management. In practice, a minority group may be full of internal cultural contradictions of this kind (for example, accepting some forms of dress from the outside but not others) without these contradictions being held up for careful examination and resolution. This point is particularly acute in the circumstances of today's Jewish world, where under the influence of political and social emancipation (as compared with the relatively tightly ghettoised Jewish life of the European Middle Ages) Jews today are only partly or intermittently Jewish__they possess, in the real world, dual identities, i.e. as Jews and also as ordinary citizens of the countries in which they live. The classic hegemonic discourses of official Jewish culture must today compete for attention amongst assimilated Jews with the cultural demands of today's global I am not sure whether in fact the sociological reality of cultural simultaneities is really any different in principle in today's Jewish world from what it always has been in a diasporic context; but certainly the simultaneities of dual identities are much more clearly visible today But what about attitudes to measuring time? How far have Jews been able to accept non- Jewish systems of time as part of their dual identities? The short answer is that there seems never to have been a problem about this, as I noted above regarding the use of Persian regnal years in the book of Esther. But the question raised by Professor Sato__the issue of world- dominant Christian chronology based on a zero year 2,000 years ago, preceded by the category BC stretching back indefinitely into pre-history__raises other problems. Professor Sato suggests that this is a "neutral" system of reckoning time and gives evidence of non- Christian countries in East Asia which have apparently accepted this system without difficulty. Similarly, assimilated Jews today have of course absorbed this system of chronology without any problem; it is part of the wider cultural universe in which diasporic Webber / Jewish Systems of Chronology, page 24 Jews live. Inasmuch as Jews today possess dual identities, they would not normally perceive themselves as betraying their Jewish identity merely by referring to the upcoming But the ethnography reveals some interesting usages which are worth pausing on for a moment. In Israel, at the top of official letters written on government-headed notepaper one can find both the Christian date and the Jewish Anno Mundi date. It is, if you like, an unselfconscious articulation of the duality of present-day Jewish identities. The Jewish state in this sense is both a Jewish state and a participant in the world order. But there is also a perceived need that the issue needs cultural management. Christianity, as seen in Jewish perspective, is by no means a neutral, value-free cultural system; the origins of Christianity as a Jewish heresy, coupled with a long history of Christian theological antisemitism, have encouraged Jews in certain contexts to take a rejectionist position vis-à-vis this world- The category of BC, which as Professor Sato correctly points out, enabled many non- Christian civilizations to accommodate the Christian system just because it could locate every historical point on a single time-frame, and in that sense was preferable to Anno Mundi, is, theologically speaking, nothing less (as seen in Jewish perspective) than the Christian acknowledgement of the Jewish origins of Jesus and of the supposed relevance to Christianity of the Old Testament which preceded the New. BC postulates a Christian founding event as central to the reckoning of time. Hence, many Jews, particularly Jewish scholars, and even more particularly American Jewish scholars, refrain from using the term BC at all, and prefer to use instead the appellation BCE, which notionally stands for the phrase "Before the Common Era". Similarly, "AD" is replaced in such usage by the term "CE", which stands for the phrase "Common Era". I would say that this usage is so widespread that it in fact is hard to find nowadays any Jewish scholarly text that uses a system other than CE and BCE. I think this usage is a magnificent example of terminological obfuscation__what Kierkegaard Webber / Jewish Systems of Chronology, page 25 would call the use of language to conceal the absence of thought. You will note that replacing BC and AD with BCE and CE still, in fact, preserves the Christian chronological system intact, but merely relabels it so as to strike the unsuspecting Jewish bystander as less culturally provocative. For certainly the use of BC, or BCE, is a secularisation which starts out from a rejection of literalist biblical chronology based on Anno Mundi. But because of the relabelling, it would seem that the internal cultural contradictions are not readily visible.
Given that there is no Jewish equivalent of the category of BC, scientific discoveries in archaeology, geology, and other fields that express dates many thousands of years BC are fundamentally inexpressible in Jewish chronology. There is no Jewish system with which Jews can refer to a date before Anno Mundi, which was 3761 BCE. But__and this is the point__it is not at all difficult to find Jewish scholarly texts which refer to a date before 3761 BC, expressed as a BCE date, for example, the existence of neolithic sites in Palestine of the seventh millennium BCE, as can be found in the well-respected Encyclopedia Judaica, published in Jerusalem. By expressing a pre-3761 date in BCE, there is no evident clash with Anno Mundi; the two realities exist in separate planes, just as Jewish dual identities do more generally. In other words, Jews can remain with Anno Mundi but also can use BCE dates without feeling the need to reconcile the contradiction.
This is what I mean when I refer to the cultural management of dual identities and the capacity to possess multiple histories, even counter-histories, that may rely on cultural systems__in this case chronological systems__that are fundamentally in contradiction with each other. Just as some forms of dress, or of architecture, may be borrowed from the wider environment, while others may be explicitly banned, cultural boundary devices to enclose a group's feeling of identity do not operate on rational lines. In this sense there is nothing especially abnormal about the use of BCE, odd though it seems. What makes the Jewish case interesting is indeed the existence of cultural hybridity; to insist on the boundedness of one cultural system at the expense of the other is not necessarily how cultures, especially minority Webber / Jewish Systems of Chronology, page 26 Modern Reform Judaism, however, has in this area of Jewish culture, as indeed in many other areas, felt the need to clear away the accumulated debris of residual cultural forms, rationalise the contradictions, and altogether place Jewish culture on a standard, historically defined time-frame. In this sense, modern Reform Judaism's radical critique directly competes with the traditional Jewish model of motionless time and the intrinsic changelessness of Jewish spiritual truth as claimed in the hegemonic discourse of contemporary Orthodox Judaism; and it competes too with the organic disorder that (at least when observed from the outside) is in many ways typical of cultural management.
The present-day Jewish world is characterised, if anything, by an intensity of debate which at bottom is a debate over the correct use of a single concept of time. Reform Judaism sees the history of the Jewish people as a process of historical evolution, and it would dispense with those parts of Jewish ritual which it perceives as originating in a period too culturally remote from the present day to be of intrinsic spiritual value. On the surface, such internal debates within the Jewish world would seem to rest on irreconcilable positions, especially regarding an appropriate model of time__in particular, a position on the question of how important it is to have a feeling of being part of the historical action. The importance of being "part of the action" is a very modern Jewish sentiment, counteracting the accumulated feeling of powerlessness which today's Jews, living at a time when a Jewish state has come into existence, see as characterizing their social status as a diasporic minority group over the past 2,000 years. Today's multicultural discourse, on the other hand, encourages assumptions about the empowerment of minorities and the democratisation of memory. This new Jewish concern for history has thus become domesticated as a new set of Jewish voices. And it is also generating new histories__for example, histories of diasporic antisemitism, or indeed the reverse__nostalgia for the green pastures, mountains, and valleys wherein Jewish communities used to live, now long since destroyed.
The old implicit background narrative of Jewish culture, resting on those punctualities in motionless, cyclical time that helped connect the measurable with the memorable, has been Webber / Jewish Systems of Chronology, page 27 eased out of its former dominance; new modes have arisen to comprehend and express the Jewish past. New myths are today being structured, narrativised, and even ritualised for their cultural memorability. Chronology never constituted, in the Jewish case, an absolute system; today, more than ever, this can be seen very clearly. And so we must all resist the temptation to insist exclusively on the standard measurement of linear time.

Source: http://www.oslo2000.uio.no/program/papers/m2a/m2a-webber.pdf


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