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Bloomsday, 5664: Casing the Promised Land, the Torah, and Ulysses

From: James Joyce Quarterly
Volume 44, Number 2, Winter 2007
pp. 291-302 | 10.1353/jjq.2007.0031

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Bloomsday, the now-celebrated day on which James Joyce set the action of his groundbreaking Ulysses, was 16 June 1904. It was also, on the Hebrew calendar, 3 Tamuz, 5664. While numerous studies of what was happening in Dublin on or around 16 June 1904 have been undertaken, little attention appears to have been paid to what meaning the Hebrew dating of the novel may reveal. This is not to suggest that Joyce chose the date for the book with the corresponding Hebrew date in mind, but that, as he did so exhaustively with all his facts, he researched it, was aware of it, and incorporated it into his all-encompassing novel.

Every week in the Hebrew calendar has corresponding Torah and Haftorah portions assigned to it. Because the Hebrew calendar is a lunar one, every 16 June would not necessarily correspond to the same Torah portion. The passages assigned to be read on Shabbat look forward to the next week, so that in 1904 the readings assigned to 28 Sivan, or Saturday, 11 June, would have applied to Bloomsday. The term Torah, while sometimes used to refer to all Jewish sacred writings, here refers solely to the Pentateuch, which comprises the first five books of the Bible, believed to have been written by Moses. The Torah is read completely from beginning to end every year, with sections of it assigned to each week so that it begins again every year in the High Holiday season. The Haftorah refers to passages taken from the books of the prophets, the Nevi'im, which, along with the Ketuvim, or writings, make up the rest of the Hebrew Bible. Oppressed for many years in lands not their own, Jews were not allowed to read the Torah but were able to read the Haftorah. The division of the Haftorah into portions that tried to relate to or comment on what the Torah portion for each week had said was, and is, uniformly used throughout the Diaspora so that all Jews would be studying the same section each week. The Torah portion for the week in which Bloomsday occurred is known as Shelah-Lekha and consists of Numbers 13:1-15:41; the corresponding Haftorah portion is Joshua 2:1-24. Both of these texts, which deal with the scouting out of the Promised Land, connect to and illuminate our reading of Ulysses.

The bases on which a closer examination of the relationship between these texts and Ulysses can be justified are manifold. Joyce was, as we know, a meticulous researcher whose allusions to matters geographic, literary, political, mythic, and religious are so densely woven into his masterwork that most readers need extended notes to aid them. Although I can produce no precise evidence that he researched the Hebrew date and the sacred readings that related to his chosen date on the Julian calendar, it can be established that Joyce was aware of the existence of the Hebrew calendar. John McCourt, in his study of Joyce's years in Trieste, reveals that the author bought and read Maurice Fishberg's The Jews: A Study of Race and Environment during that time. Published in 1911, Fishberg's book makes it very clear that Jews in the Diaspora still "had their own calendar" (477). In his chapter "Assimilation versus Zionism," Fishberg notes the Zionists' displeasure that "very few native Western Jews . . . know the exact day of the Hebrew calendar on a given day" (479). Ira B. Nadel notes too that "Jewishness expressed as time appears in Joyce's central texts," and references to Jewish holidays and the rituals of the Jewish day appear throughout Ulysses. Furthermore, according to Nadel, "in the notebooks for the Wake, Joyce listed the Hebrew months," including Tamuz, the month in which Bloomsday falls (25). On 15 September 1907, Stanislaus Joyce recorded in his diary that his brother had gone that day to a Jewish service at a synagogue for the first time and asked many questions; three days later, he wrote, "today until sundown was a Jewish holiday. Jim and I walked through some of the principal streets to see how many shops were shut," indicating a further knowledge that Jews measure...



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