The Spiral of Time

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Bet Alpha Synagogue in the Gilboa ridge. Photo credit: Effie Elian

It’s that time of year again. For Jews, it’s always that time. Or this time. Or another time. Time is always of the essence, somehow.

A time to weep…a time to laugh (Ecc. 3:4), times of rebuilding (משנכנס אדר מרבין בשמחה mi-shenichnas Adar) and times of destruction (משנכנס אב ממעטין בשמחה mi-shenichnas Av). The Sabbath, the New Moon, New Month, Sabbatical Year, Jubilee, Holiday, Mourning Day, Anniversary of this person and that event, and the annual completion of the Torah reading – which evolved to be linked to the end of Sukkot – someway or other.

Time, and time again.

spiral of time.png

Jews live by the calendar, and community life is driven by it, as are the consequent sermons, activities, gatherings and more controversial issues. Jews don’t see time as commemorative, but rather as a reliving of some spiritual essence that we meet in time, if you will (מועד – Mo’ed = Hebrew for “holiday” as well as “set meeting place/time”).

It is that essential ‘spiritual potential’ that is met, that enabled the events to take place in it. Passover is not commemorating the Exodus. Rather, the Exodus was possible because of the innate aspect of Freedom in the nature of Spring. The agricultural relates to the personal and the national? Interesting thought, that.

As we come “back” to the same meeting place in time, we have moved forward. Like our birthday, it’s the same time, but one year later. More experiences have accumulated, contributing to our sense of self and achievement, and those, in turn, to our identity. A spiral which is a manifestation of process, development and progress towards some ultimate goal, be it personal, spiritual, national or universal.

The story of Rain and Grain

A beautiful example of how time was on the agenda, is the Bet Alpha Mosaic (image). A 6th century synagogue in the northern slopes of the Gilboa (near the final battle place of Saul and the Philistines). This image stresses the Zodiac, as well and the four seasons (תקופות), as written on its four corners.


When I show this to my students, I often ask “why would this be on the floor of a synagogue?” or “what does this have to do with going to synagogue?” Their answers are always interesting. This year, a sixth-grade girl suggested that “the nature of time affects the nature of your prayers”. True enough. The prayers are related to the Temple service and the daily-monthly-holiday offerings, and the holiday services have much to do with agriculture:

The four new years are: On the first of Nisan, the new year for the kings and for the festivals; [Nisan is indeed the new year for kings, in Babylonian chronicles as well]

On the first of Elul, the new year for the tithing of animals; Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Shimon say, on the first of Tishrei.

On the first of Tishrei, the new year for years, for the Sabbatical years and for the Jubilee years and for the planting and for the vegetables.

On the first of Shevat, the new year for the trees according to the words of the House of Shammai; The House of Hillel says, on the fifteenth thereof.

(Mishna, Rosh Hashana 1:1)

Most of these “new years” are corresponding to the four seasons. Furthermore, there are periods of judgement, which relate to agricultural aspects:

At four times the world is judged: On Pesach, for the crops. On Shavuot, for thefruits of the tree. On Rosh Hashnah, all the world passes before Him likesheep, as it says, “He that fashioneth the hearts of them all, that considereth all their doings.” (Psalms 33:15) And on Sukkot, they are judged for the water. (idib, 2)

Even Rosh Hashana, which is not directly related to agriculture, uses an agrarian metaphor: sheep.

In this short and beautifully crafted video, the Israeli educational-bakery Pat Bamelach demonstrate the central role of agriculture in the Temple services, and consequently in the prayers which commemorate them. You can check out their website here, and their Facebook page here.

The Lion King and the Day of Memory

Rosh Hashanah stands outside of this cycle, as does Yom Kippur. While Yom Kippur does relate to a more historical aspect of the Jewish year – as I will demonstrate – Rosh Hashanah still does not fit into that. I would like to briefly share a thought about this, which I hope you can use to engage your students or children in conversation.

Yom Kippur, as we know, is a day of Forgiveness. That is because some 3,000 years ago, the Israelites were graced with the Second set of Tablets, and forgiven for building the Golden Calf (Exodus, ch. 32). That is indeed a day of forgiveness, par-(Hebrew: Bull)-excellence!

Yet Rosh Hashanah does not fit, neither historically and agriculturally. Despite that, the Talmud has no problem looking at the (apparently arbitrary) ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur as a special time of closeness between God and the world, and Israel is no exception.

This topic can (and has!) fill entire books, and I will not be delving into it now. I would like to address an essential aspect of Rosh Hashanah in its other name: The Day of Memory.

The metaphor I use for explaining Rosh Hashanah is from The Lion King. Pay attention to the part that relates to memory, for that is the essence of this aspect of the day. It can be argued that most of the services of the day are supporting this one, straightforward issue. The Lion King definitely nailed it, integrating several key aspects of the holiday in one famous scene where Mufasa tells his son, Simba, “Remember who you are.”

(the video used to be linked here, but it stopped working so I had to remove it. I’m sure you can find it yourself, if you don’t already know it)

Agricultural? No. But there is a connection. When Simba indeed comes home (spoiler alert), he finds a dry, dead land. But when he takes his place as King at Pride Rock, it seems to us (whoever watched this as kids) as the most natural thing in the world that it should start raining again. In no time, everything turned be lush and green. Another thought for another time.

The key aspect of the Day of Memory here is Identity. The driving question of this holiday is “Who am I?” Incidentally, it is in essence the most primal struggle expressed in the story of Adam and Eve (or rather, Humankind) in the Garden of Eden (Genesis, ch. 3). Moving up the Spiral of Time, we tend to lose touch with ourselves, who we are and what we have. It is either up hill or downhill, for in such matters, static is, by definition, downhill.

Rosh Hashanah is a day to calibrate (and maybe celebrate?) ourselves in order to stay on point. In that way, we can calibrate ourselves to the smaller aspects of our lives, such as happiness, freedom, forgiveness, and so on. Through the Memory of who we are, our Identity is reinvigorated, activated, and we are free to dream again – the sky is the limit!

Wishing you all a Shana Tova – Happy New Year.

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