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

(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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Sep 14 2013

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

New Book Announcement:

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

This new book (August, 2013), emerged from the 2011 conference held at NYU, Institute for the Study of the Ancient World. Among the contributors to this volume are Jonathan Ben-Dov, Seth L. Sanders, and Annette Yoshiko Reed.  Of special note with respect to astronomy and early Judaism is the article “Networks of Scholars: The Transmission of Astronomical and Astrological Learning between Babylonians, Greeks and Jews”, by Mladen Popović.

I’ve ordered my copy, and greatly look forward to reading the book. I’ll be sure to review it here. (N.B. As of October, 2013,  Amazon lists the book as being available on December 15th.)

Apr 10 2009

Fantastic Fridays: Birkat Ha-Hammah (a view from the bonfire)

Category: Events,Fantastic Fridays,Judaismalobel @ 5:27 pm


This is my personal admission: I smell like charred bonfire. But I do have a good reason.

On Wednesday, I woke up early to make it to a local Birkat Ha-Hammah ceremony. It was cloudy and rather cold out, so I wasn’t sure that it was going to be possible to bless the sun. It simply wasn’t visible. My husband and daughter were still sleeping, so I headed out quietly. There had been a snowfall the night before, and I found it rather incongruous to be brushing snow off of the car immediately before heading off to bless the sun and burn leavening (hametz) for Passover.

When I arrived at the first location (there were at least two ceremonies being held nearby) nobody was there, and the sun was still covered with clouds. I looked in the general direction of the east and began to recite the blessing on the sun anyway. But a few words into the blessing, the clouds parted, and I could clearly see the solar disk (which I carefully kept in my peripheral vision).

I then drove to another ceremony site, which was the empty field of a synagogue that is currently under construction. A few women and families were just leaving, so there were only five or six men and me in attendance. The bonfire was in a large rectangular metal bin, and was being stoked by volunteers, with wooden planks being added periodically. People would come by, throw pieces of bread, pita, and even a box filled with croissants into the fire, and recite the Aramaic declaration of nullification of hametz. In turn, I also threw in the pieces of bread and pita that I’d brought with me and recited the declaration on behalf of myself and my family.

Most of the celebrants burned their leavened products and then said the blessing on the sun. I chatted with one of them, telling him that the sun had come out, however briefly, during the blessing. To this, he replied, “Yes, the miracle happened here too!” I smiled, and we wished each other a happy Passover.

After thanking the volunteers, I headed off to do some more Passover shopping. I was still thinking about the blessing of the sun. Miracle? Perhaps not the fact of the emergence of the sun itself, but our very relationship to it on earth is certainly a powerful one (whether one subscribes to the rare earth hypothesis or no). Mostly, I think of such moments as numinous, as per Rudolf Otto (Das Heilige). Whether or not one attributes this feeling of awe to a religious force, it is difficult to deny that the sun, moon, stars, planets and other heavenly bodies hold a certain fascination. Even more so when their observation is underscored by religious ritual.

A happy Passover and Easter to those who celebrate them!

Mar 30 2009

Blessing of the sun redux

Category: Archaeoastronomy and Ethnoastronomy,Events,Judaismalobel @ 2:21 pm


Several months ago, I posted about an upcoming rare event in Judaism — that is, the blessing of the sun, or Birkat Ha-Hammah, that takes place once every twenty-eight years, and is based primarily on the Babylonian Talmud, tractate Brakhot 59b.

The event takes place this year on April 8th, in the early morning. Because Passover happens to begin on the evening of April 8th (a truly rare convergence indeed), many morning celebrations will combine the burning of leaven (chametz) and the blessing of the sun.

For those who may be interested, here are a number of relevant links, spanning several perspectives, both confessional and non:

To quote the immortal bards Gerome Ragni and James Rado, “Let the sunshine, let the sunshine in, the sunshine in.”

Mar 06 2009

Behind the curtain. . .

Just a quick peek behind the workings of this blog. I’m currently spending much of my time reading materials in preparation for my comprehensive exams. (a.k.a. qualifying exams) For now, as has been the case for a few months, until these exams are completed, I only have a limited amount of time to devote to Chaldea (i.e., I’ll post whenever I can). I thought I’d bring a notable source I’m working with to the attention of others in similar fields.

For those interested in cultural perceptions of the heavens in ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, ancient Israel, Persia, Greco-Roman cultures, as well as early Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, I highly recommend The Early History of Heaven, by J. Edward Wright. (2000, Oxford University Press)

I first took it out of the library in 2003, but soon found it indispensable, so I bought a copy. It’s a very thorough overview of the important writings and beliefs about heaven and/or the heavens (including heavenly cosmography) in these cultures, and it incorporates archaeological findings as well as textual sources. It is difficult to distinguish between astronomy proper and astral beliefs in many ancient civilizations; this book provides the reader with a solid awareness of the background views of the cosmos in these cultures, thereby setting the stage for later evolutions in cultural astronomy.

Have a good weekend, all!

Nov 02 2008

News item: Coupling of Science and Religion

This article, in the Vancouver Sun, is the first of a series on the topic of science and religion. Of particular interest is the reference to “the striking similarity between 16th-century Polish astronomer Nicolas Copernicus’s arguments for the Earth’s rotation and those of 13th-century Muslim polymath Nasir al-Din al-Tusi”, noted by science historian and Islamicist Dr. F. Jamil Ragep of McGill University.

Oct 23 2008

Blessing the Sun in Judaism

Category: Archaeoastronomy and Ethnoastronomy,Judaismalobel @ 5:08 pm

I’ve just come across this site, which describes the Jewish ritual of blessing the sun every 28 years — at which point, it is traditionally believed, the sun occupies the same point at which it was present at its own creation in Genesis 1:14-15. The next date for this blessing, called Birkat Ha-Hammah, will be April 8, 2009.

There are some fascinating rabbinic and other resources located on the site I’ve embedded above. One of the main textual sources for the blessing tradition is to be found in the Babylonian Talmud, tractate Berakhot 59b, which refers to blessing the sun when it returns to “its turning point”. Another source is found in one of the primary Jewish legal codes, the Shulkhan Arukh, Orach Chayim 229:2.

This ritual, which last took place in 1981, prior to the internet age, will almost certainly be well-publicized, serving as a reminder that astronomy is alive and well in contemporary religious life. That it happens to coincide with the International Year of Astronomy is sweeter yet.

Oct 11 2008


Category: Archaeoastronomy and Ethnoastronomy,Islam,Judaismalobel @ 8:31 pm


This recent article in the Ottawa Citizen describes some of the controversy surrounding the astronomical moment at which the month of Ramadan is over. This, of course, is signaled by the appearance of the new crescent moon. The question, however, is that of exactly where this first lunar crescent must be sighted — from one’s own city or from Mecca. Furthermore, does the latter option invalidate the primacy of aeons of naked-eye viewing of the new lunar crescent in Islam?

This is ultimately about the question of religious authority, and as such, it summons to mind other similar challenges posed by the matter of first lunar visibility. In ancient Judaism, for example, the new month was once proclaimed first based upon a system in which an initial viewer of the new crescent would light a signal-fire on a mountain or hill-top to notify the next viewer, who would then light another signal-fire, and so on. This practice was disrupted by the deliberate lighting of signal-fires at the wrong time by the Samaritans of the first century. This practice was soon replaced by a system involving witnesses of the new crescent, who would then be carefully interrogated by Jewish authorities. Upon establishing the credibility of given witnesses, the new month would be proclaimed. This matter was, of course, crucial to the timing of important religious festivals such as Passover and the New Year. Later, the fixed, calculated Jewish calendar would come to replace visual observation of the moon for religious purposes — a critical transition within Judaism, to be sure, and one which had its origins in the political nature of calendrics and its reliance upon astronomical viewing.

It is, perhaps, notable, that the small community of remaining Karaites continues to rely on direct visual observation of the lunar crescent, having never adopted the beliefs, interpretations and rituals of Rabbinic Judaism.

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