Off the Shelf: Religion, gender and time by Rabbi Rachel Esserman

“Time is one of the most basic examples of something that is socially constructed. We collectively create the meaning of time – it has no predetermined meaning until we give it meaning. To say that something, like time, is a social [construct] is not to say that it doesn’t exist or it is merely an illusion, but instead that humans have created systems of meaning that [create] the concept of time.” – Karen Sternheimer, sociologist at the University of Southern California 

Time plays a very important role in Judaism. The Mishnah begins with the word “from what time” followed by an analysis of the appropriate times to say particular prayers. How the ancient rabbis viewed time tells us a great deal about their culture, something Sarit Kattan Gribetz discusses in “Time and Difference in Rabbinic Judaism” (Princeton University Press). In her fascinating yet very complex work, she looks at “the central role that time played in how [the ancient] rabbis attempted to construct Jewish identity, subjectivity, and theology – indeed, how they constructed their worlds – during this formative period in the history of Judaism.” The need to formulate time differently occurred because of the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem. Before that, the Temple was the temporal center of Judaism, with its rhythms and rhymes organizing sacrificial and cultic practices. That’s not to say that the influence of the Temple rituals disappeared, but they had to be reconstructed to fit a new world. 

By looking at rabbinic texts, Gribetz explores four different realms of time, offering information based on a comparison of rabbinic time to Roman time, Jewish time to Christian time, men’s time to women’s time, and God’s time to human time. Her work is detailed and difficult to summarize, but it’s possible to give an overview of what she discusses.

  • Rabbinic vs. Roman time: The written Roman calendar contained a listing of all the empire’s festivals and celebrations. Since Palestine was under Roman rule, it was impossible for Jews living there to avoid the Roman calendar since its holidays were the law of the land. The ancient rabbis attempted to undermine that calendar, though, to keep rabbinic identity separate from Roman. This included noting the days Jews were not allowed to do business with non-Jews before and after Roman festivals – even those festivals that might have been considered civic holidays, rather than religious ones. The rabbis also formulated new rules of Jewish holiday observances that took the place of the Temple cult and sacrifices. It’s important to note that, in this time period, rabbinic identity was not the same as Jewish identity since not all Jews followed the rabbis. Some assimilated into Roman culture, while others followed different Jewish paths. 
  • Jewish vs. Christian time: Most of this discussion centers on the observance of Shabbat. It’s important to note that the Greco-Romans had a negative attitude toward the observance of Shabbat. They thought that Jews were lazy to stop working once every seven days. Plus, they did not adhere to a seven day week so stopping work on that particular day seemed arbitrary. To differentiate themselves from Jews, Christians denigrated using Saturday as a Sabbath and declared that Sunday would be the Lord’s Day. They also claimed Jews had been given the Sabbath to atone for their sins and with the coming of Jesus, that rule did not apply to Christians. The rabbis, on the other hand, entered into great discussion about the laws of Shabbat. Gribetz cites scholars who believe this discussion was a polemic against Christians, although other scholars suggest that, for the most part, the rabbinic world ignored the Christian one. In addition, the author offers information about the development of the seven day week and how thoughts about the Sabbath changed as the Roman world became predominately Christian. 
  • Men’s vs. women’s time: Gribetz begins by noting rabbinic innovations when dealing with time, for example, dividing commandments between positive ones (which only men were required to perform) and negative ones (which both sexes were required to observe). This meant that women were excluded from many rituals and requirements that make up the majority of religious practice in the post-Temple period. The author focuses on two examples: saying the Shema for men and niddah (the rules of family purity) for women. She suggests that the idea of being commanded to say the Shema twice a day was a rabbinic innovation since the Torah verse was originally taken to mean that one should always keep God in one’s mind, rather than the need to recite those words at a particular time. Gribetz also talks about the increase of rituals relating to niddah, with women being required to check themselves twice daily to make certain they were not menstruating. She suggests this was a rabbinic innovation – one not required by biblical law. Although the laws of ritual purity relating to women increased during this time, the ones relating to men lessened or were ignored. Gribetz does question whether the rabbis intended to separate men and women’s time, or if it was simply the result of actions taken for other reasons.
  • Human vs. Divine time: The question of Divine time in rabbinic discussion often focuses on God’s activity since the creation of the world. For example, what actions does God perform to fill the day? Answers vary, but the rabbis believed God’s time mirrors that of humans, which includes spending time studying Torah. Although God does not just focus attention on Israel, the rabbis note that a certain amount of time is set aside for their nation. One humorous suggestion sees God as the ultimate matchmaker; the rabbinic story features a Roman woman who attempts to do the same with her slaves with disastrous result. Gribetz also discusses how human and Divine time differ when it comes to knowing the exact time, with only God truly knowing the hours, days, months and years. One example mentioned is that while God knows the exact time Shabbat begins, humans must begin Shabbat early so they don’t accidentally start at the incorrect time.
  • In her conclusion, Gribetz notes how the ideas she examines continued to develop and change over time. In fact, many of them are still being debated in contemporary times. She does realize the limitations of her study, but believes that understanding how the rabbis viewed time can better help us understand their worldview. “Time and Difference in Rabbinic Judaism” is not an easy work to read. It is definitely aimed at scholars, but the ideas discussed are so intriguing that, at least for this reader, it was worth the struggle.

Editor’s note: “Time and Difference in Rabbinic Judaism” was the winner of the 2020 National Jewish Book Award’s Nahum M. Sarna Memorial Award.