- Palaces of Time: Jewish Calendar and Culture in Early Modern Europe by Elisheva Carlebach
Modern media and self-help books are filled with discussions of time—how to maximize time, how scarce time is, how important it is to modern man. Reading modern resources one could get the impression that time troubles were not part of the past. Yet, time has always been important for groups and individuals. Whether calculated by minutes, days, weeks, or years, different ways of understanding time have been the basis of alliances and divisions between individuals, religions, and even civilizations. Despite the importance of time and calendar, time has rarely been studied by Jewish historians, with one exception: the polemics around calendars in Jewish historiography have been symbolic of ways parting, whether as part of religious debates between Jews and others, during late antiquity when the rabbis sought to consolidate Jewish identity, or when the Karaites and Rabbinites argued over ritual and rites. Yet seemingly “uncontested” time within a unified community has hardly received attention, certainly not after antiquity.
Elisheva Carlebach’s new book is both a broad and specific study of time and calendar. The book focuses on calendars and books of calendric computations—all written by Jews in early modern Europe, capturing a new perspective on early modern Jewish history, indeed a new prism through which to understand Jews and their Jewishness. In her beautiful and riveting book Carlebach outlines how the system behind the calendar and the ideology that accompanied their making changed over the course of two and a half centuries. Most importantly, she demonstrates how these changes reflected and produced a new way of understanding Jewish time that was in constant dialogue with the ways time was conceived outside the world of the Jewish community. [End Page 105]
The eight chapters of the book can each be read on its own or as part of the whole. The first chapter is an introduction describing the methods of calculating the Jewish calendar and their conceptualization dependent on the sun and the moon. As Carlebach emphasizes in this chapter and then illustrates in different ways throughout the book, time and its reckoning were connected to God, creation, existence, and thus to religious doctrine and belief. Continuing this line, the calendar was also connected to mysticism and esotericism. The introduction leads the reader from antiquity to the early modern period in German-speaking Europe, which is the heart of the study. Briefly tracing the ideas of medieval intellectuals, Carlebach arrives at the cusp of the early modern period.
Chapter 2 situates the reader in early modern controversies of time. The Gregorian reform of 1582 reflected and stimulated new European Christian thinking about science, religion and the political order, and all these left their mark on the Jews who lived among the Christians. This reform was part and parcel of the printing revolution which made calendars household items. By the sixteenth century they had become almanacs, accompanied by popular sayings. Carlebach demonstrates how the Jewish calendars reflected the concerns of their Christian neighbors. For example, the Gregorian reform was not greeted uniformly, and these debates were evident in contemporary Jewish calendars as well.
If the first two chapters of the book set the stage, chapters 3 and 4 explore how Jewish calendars changed in the age of print and how calendars became books, bringing previously privileged knowledge into every home. These new calendars featured the names of Jewish months and notations relevant to the ritual cycle alongside the days of the week corresponding to the Hebrew dates and the Christian months, indicating Christian holidays and saints’ days as well as important markets and seasonal matters. Folk medicine and remedies were also noted, as were the stars and seasons. Much of this information was taken from non-Jewish calendars. Alongside the calendars used by laymen, the scholarly elite studied books in which the calculation of the seasons was explained, often referred to as secret. These were usually copied by hand and flourished in manuscript into the eighteenth century...