A Sabbath Message: Our Jewish Calendar – Holiness in Time

Judaism teaches us to be attached to holiness in time.” – Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972)

As Shabbat draws near this week, I think of the beautiful description of the gift of this day coined by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, perhaps our greatest Jewish scholar of the 20th century: he called the Sabbath a Palace in Time. As a people, our sense of TIME has always been very central to who we are. Our days our not all the same – they are holy or they are secular. They are fast days or days of feasting and rejoicing. 
“To everything there is a season.”

In fact, one of the first things we are told to do as a people in the Torah is to keep a calendar. In Chapter 12 of the Book of Exodus, in the midst of the frenzy of the plagues and leaving Egypt, the narrative takes an abrupt break and we are told: “This month shall be for you the beginning of the months, it shall be for you the first of the months of the year.” And from that small seemingly insignificant verse, came our elaborate and unique lunar calendar still in use all of these millennia later. Of course, that requirement to keep a calendar was quite necessary, since in the very next verse, the Feast of Passover was commanded to be kept for all time – on the 10th day of this first month of the year, which became the month of Nissan. And we would never forget that first Passover, as it was observed in the very midst of our escape from Egypt.

Most of us know about Passover and Hanukkah – the High Holidays in the fall – and the most important holiday of all according to our tradition, which arrives every week: the Sabbath. But there are more obscure days and commemorations to know about, whether or not we personally choose to observe them. This knowledge enriches us with a rich history of the generations.

Yesterday, was such a day: Shiva Asar b’Tammuz (17th Day of the Month of Tammuz) – a minor fast with major history. On the Jewish calendar, we have a number of minor fast days – traditionally, no eating or drinking from dawn to sundown – and two major fast days, which are full 24-hour fasts. According to the Talmud, the 17th of Tammuz commemorates a number of tragedies which occurred in history – five are actually listed, but the most important of which is considered to be the breaching of the walls of Jerusalem by the Romans on their way to destroy the 2nd Temple. Thus, this minor fast day begins a 3-week period of mourning according to tradition, leading up to the major fast and darkest commemoration of our year: Tisha B’Av. It is interesting that some Jews observe this period of mourning with certain rituals: no big celebrations, like joyous weddings, abstaining from haircuts, etc. Sound eerily familiar…?

During these challenging days, perhaps there is value in reconnecting with our rich heritage, as an anchor in this sea of uncertainty. There is much to hold on to in our beautiful tradition.
With peaceful blessings for a Shabbat Shalom – and a calm respite in your Palace in Time,

Ruth Steinberg, LCSW
Director, Jewish Family Service