Jul 13 2015

Exhibit (San Francisco): “Night Begins the Day: Rethinking Space, Time, and Beauty,” at the Contemporary Jewish Museum

“Night Begins the Day: Rethinking Space, Time, and Beauty” looks like a marvelous exhibit. An artistic take on the Jewish day, which begins the night before, it runs through September 20 at the CJM, 736 Mission St., San Francisco. More information available at http://www.thecjm.org.

A quote in this Jweekly.com article describing the exhibit, however, caught my eye:

According to Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan, senior educator at Lehrhaus Judaica in Berkeley, the rabbis of early times had a deep understanding of astronomy: After all, the Jewish calendar follows the lunar cycle, and called upon Jews “to observe nature and be a part of this world.

“We have a tradition,” Wolf-Prusan notes, “that says, ‘Pay attention. See what’s around you.’ ”

There are certainly a number of rabbinic sources that support this viewpoint; Wolf-Prusan is not wrong, precisely. But in keeping with the old borscht belt adage “two Jews, three opinions,” I’d like to throw my own hat into the ring. While the Jewish calendar is lunisolar (not purely lunar), I would argue that the gradual move toward the fixing of the Jewish calendar (i.e., in place by the ninth-tenth centuries CE) turned rabbinic eyes away from direct celestial observation, not toward it. As per the research of Sacha Stern in ‘Calendars in Antiquity: Empires, States, and Societies’ (2012, Oxford University Press), this move was in keeping with the rise of the era of urbanization and fixed calendars (Stern 336). Aside from the recitation of the rosh hodesh (new month/moon) prayer (usually performed en passant) and the blessing on the sun recited every twenty-eight years (more about which, see here and here) Judaism is no longer focused on the skies. Heaven, yes, but not the heavens.

But here is the key. As is so often the case when analyzing rabbinic sources, particularly the Babylonian Talmud, multivocality reigns. This, combined with doubts cast upon the historicity of certain rabbinic institutions and astronomical-calendrical procedures makes it difficult, if not impossible, to unequivocally state that the rabbis all understood, let alone championed, the observation and study of the cosmos. In my own recent research, I demonstrate this rabbinic multivocality, highlighting views of the natural world on Earth, and perspectives on the heavens, that range from reverence and appreciation to outright scorn toward those who would waste time on any pursuit but the study of Torah.

That said, however, in addition to his own call for Jews to appreciate the natural world, Rabbi Wolf-Prusan also mentions that of the late rabbi and civil rights activist Abraham Joshua Heschel for “‘radical amazement’ — a sense of wonder that is a prerequisite to wisdom and faith.” It is on the contemporary scene that we see the opening of the floodgates of writing and political action — from Heschel’s call to similar calls for the preservation of nature as a “Torah responsibility” by the Rabbinical Council of America (Orthodox), as well as the Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist movements. In addition, the past few decades have brought with them new Earth-based Jewish groups, including Tel Shemesh, The Walking Stick Foundation, the Adamah Fellowship, and Wilderness Torah.

While these are most welcome changes, I leave open the question of whether these were borne of the classical sources themselves or whether they are, in fact, inspired but primarily contemporary shifts toward a more grounded (and cosmos-inspired) spirituality.

Oct 31 2014

Book review: Ancient Jewish Sciences and the History of Knowledge in Second Temple Literature


As promised, my review of the 2013 publication Ancient Jewish Sciences and the History of Knowledge in Second Temple Literature, edited by Jonathan Ben-Dov and Seth L. Sanders. New York: NYU Press.

Feb 10 2014

Now available online! ‘Ancient Jewish Sciences and the History of Knowledge in Second Temple Literature’

For your reading and research enjoyment courtesy of the NYU Library’s Ancient World Digital Library, in partnership with the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World (ISAW):

Ancient Jewish Sciences and the History of Knowledge in Second Temple LiteratureEdited by Jonathan Ben-Dov and Seth L. Sanders.

What is there to say but thank you?

N.B. One of my favourite introductory lines may be found in the above volume, in “Networks of Scholars: The Transmission of Astronomical and Astrological Learning between Babylonians, Greeks and Jews”, by Mladen Popović:

“What do we know about what ancient Jewish scholars knew about what Babylonian scholars knew?”

Jan 16 2014

4000 year old calendrical tablet unearthed

Currently being displayed at the Bible Lands Museum in Jerusalem, this 4000 year old silt cuneiform tablet, inscribed in Akkadian, contains a schedule listing activities taking place during a week in the month of Shevat, highlighting its Babylonian antecedents. Are any readers of this blog planning to visit the exhibit? If so, I’d enjoy reading your comments.

Dec 02 2013

Forthcoming book — ‘Time, Astronomy, and Calendars in the Jewish Tradition’ (2014)


I greatly look forward to reading the following volume:

Stern, Sacha and Burnett, Charles (Eds.) (2014) Time, Astronomy, and Calendars in the Jewish Tradition. Leiden: Brill.

The table of contents is available here, on the Brill web site, and below, for your convenience.

Table of contents

A Jewish Parapegma? Reading 1 Enoch 82 in Roman Egypt
Jonathan Ben-Dov

Observing the Moon: Astronomical and Cosmological Aspects in the Rabbinic New Moon Procedure
Reimund Leicht

Cosmology as Science or Cosmology as Theology? Reflections on the Astronomical Chapters of Pirke DeRabbi Eliezer
Katharina Keim

Some Early Islamic and Christian Sources Regarding the Jewish Calendar (9th-11th centuries)
François de Blois

The Jewish Calendar Controversy of 921–22:
Reconstructing the Manuscripts and their Transmission History
Marina Rustow and Sacha Stern

The Hebrew Calendrical Bookshelf of the Early Twelfth Century: The Cases of Abraham bar Ḥiyya and Jacob bar Samson
Ilana Wartenberg

Scribal Prerogative in Modifying Calendrical Tables
Israel M. Sandman

Astronomical Tables of Abraham bar Ḥiyya
Raymond Mercier

The Sabbath Epistle by Abraham Ibn Ezra: its Purpose and Novelty
Anne C. Kinneret Sittig

Medieval Jews and Medieval Astrolabes: Where, Why, How, and What For?
Josefina Rodríguez Arribas

Some Hygiene and Dietary Calendars in Hebrew Manuscripts from Medieval Ashkenaz
Justine Isserles

Me pudet audire Iudeum talia scire: A Late Medieval Latin School Text on the Jewish Calendar
C. Philipp E. Nothaft

(Thanks again, Carla Sulzbach!)

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Dec 01 2013

New publication — “Time and Identity: Hellenism in the Calendar Speech of Jubilees chapter 6″

Here is the bibliographic information:

Ben-Dov, Jonathan. (2013) “Time and Identity: Hellenism in the Calendar Speech of Jubilees chapter 6″. (in Hebrew) Meghillot 10.

But why search when it’s available right here, on Academia.edu?

(With deep thanks to Carla Sulzbach for pointing me to this publication)

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Sep 15 2013

Recent Book: Living the Lunar Calendar


Recent Publication:

Living the Lunar Calendar
Edited by Jonathan Ben-Dov, Wayne Horowitz, and John M Steele

This 2012 publication is a rich collection of papers by the editors, as well as Lawrence Schiffman, Sacha Stern, Robert Hannah, and others on the topic of lunar calandars in cultures including the ancient Near East, Christianity, Judaism, China, Japan, ancient Greece, America, and Russia. These papers engage topics including the variability of the lunar calendar, and the effects of this variability and the changing beginning of the month upon religious holiday planning, record keeping, etc. The table of contents of this excellent volume may be found here.

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