The Duality of Jewish Time
Family Edition

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The Summary

This summary is adapted from this week’s main Covenant & Conversation essay by Rabbi Sacks.

Alongside the holiness of place and person is the holiness of time, and this is something Emor charts in its deceptively simple list of chaggim and holy days. Time plays an enormous part in Judaism. The first thing God declared holy was a day, Shabbat, after Creation. In fact, the first mitzvah given to the Jewish people as a whole, just before they left Egypt together, was the command to sanctify time by determining and applying the Jewish calendar.

Time is an essential medium of Judaism’s spiritual life. But one feature of the Jewish approach to time has received less attention than it should: the duality that runs through its entire temporal structure.

Take, for instance, the calendar as a whole. Christianity uses a solar calendar and Islam uses a lunar one, but Judaism uses both. We count time by the moon’s monthly cycle and the sun’s seasonal cycle.

As Emor makes clear, holy time comes in two forms. There is Shabbat, and there are the chaggim. Shabbat was sanctified by God at the beginning of time and will be for all time, whereas the chaggim were sanctified by the Jewish people, who were given the authority and responsibility for fixing the calendar.

Let’s look at the brachot we say. On Shabbat, we praise God who “sanctifies Shabbat”. On the festivals, we praise God who sanctifies “Israel and the holy times” – meaning, it is God who sanctifies Israel but Israel who sanctifies the holy times, determining on which days the festivals fall.

Even within the chaggim, there is a dual cycle. One is formed by the three pilgrimage festivals: Pesach, Shavuot, and Succot. These days represent the key historic moments at the dawn of Jewish time—the Exodus, the giving of the Torah, and the forty years of desert wandering. They are festivals of history.

The other is formed by the number seven and the concept of holiness: the seventh day, Shabbat; the seventh month, Tishrei, with its three festivals of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Succot; the seventh year, Shemittah; and the Jubilee marking the completion of seven seven-year cycles.

Why the duality? Because God is both the God of nature and of culture. He is the God of everyone in general and the people of the covenant in particular. He is the Author of scientific law (cause) and religious ethics (command).

We encounter God in both cyclical time, which represents the movement of the planets, and linear-historical time, which means the events and evolution of the nation of which we are a part. This duality gives rise to two kinds of religious leaders, the Prophet and the Priest, and each represents a different consciousness of time.

Since the ancient Greeks, people have searched for a single principle that would explain everything, the unique perspective (what philosophers call “the view from nowhere”) from which to see the truth in all its objectivity.

Judaism tells us there is no such point. Reality is more complicated than that. There is not even a single concept of time. At the very least, we need two perspectives to see reality in three dimensions, and that applies to time as well as space. Jewish time has two rhythms at once.

Judaism is to the spirit what Niels Bohr’s complementarity theory is to quantum physics. In physics, light is both a wave and a particle. In Judaism, time is both historical and natural. Unexpected, counter-intuitive, certainly. But glorious in its refusal to simplify the rich complexity of time: the ticking clock, the growing plant, the ageing body, and the ever-deepening mind.

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Around the Shabbat Table

  1. Why do you think time is a significant value for the Jewish people? 
  2. Can you think of any other time-related mitzvot we keep (that are outside of the chaggim?) 
  3. Consider your own time: How can you use your time wisel
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Parsha in Passing

Emor starts by outlining specific regulations for kohanim, the Kohen Gadol, and Temple rituals. Kohanim must avoid becoming ritually impure through contact with dead bodies, except during the death of immediate family members. Restrictions on whom a kohen may marry are detailed, including laws against marrying divorcees or women of disrepute and even stricter laws for a Kohen Gadol. Physical imperfections disqualify a kohen from Temple service; similarly, animals with defects are not acceptable for offerings.

Newborn farm animals must stay with their mothers for seven days before they are eligible for sacrifice and there can be no slaughter of an animal and its offspring on the same day.

Emor also describes the Jewish holidays: Shabbat; Pesach and its associated offerings and rituals; the counting of the Omer leading to Shavuot; the High Holidays starting with Rosh Hashanah; Yom Kippur; and Succot, including building a succah and using the Arba Minim.

The section ends with the menorah lighting and showbread procedures in the Temple and addresses legal penalties for blasphemy, murder, injury, and property damage.

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Parsha Points in Time

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Rosh Hashanah: We start anew with a shofar’s horn, our hope in the New Year is reborn. 

Pesach: Unleavened bread on freedom’s trail, our Exodus tale we tell without fail.

Sefirat HaOmer: From barley to wheat, we count and climb, bridging each day, one Omer at a time.

Shabbat: A day to rest, divine and sweet. When work departs, it’s peace that we greet.

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Parsha Practical

In parshat Emor, one of the mitzvot we are taught is the counting of the Omer. This is a perfect combination of the two types of time because it’s linear in that we are counting a prescribed number of days and cyclical in that we are counting a seasonal aspect of grain harvested. In another essay on Emor (5768), Rabbi Sacks emphasises that counting the Omer is also about going, in 49 days, from an enslaved society to a free one. While this perspective puts the counting of the Omer into a more historical time-bound context, it’s a crucial one nonetheless. 

Being in charge of your time, something you can acknowledge through taking ownership over “counting,” is how you know you are truly free. This can, of course, be applied today.

  • When we find ourselves slaves to the news, finances, social media, and the like, how can we sanctify our time in such a way that acknowledges that we are truly free? 
  • How can we be “free” when so many of our laws affect how we use our time? 
  • What would you do if you had all the time in the world? 

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Parsha Playoff

Let’s play What’s the Time, Mr Wolf?, a fun and timely game! One player is chosen to be Mr Wolf, and will stand at one end of the chosen area with their back to the others. The remaining players stand on the opposite side and chant together, “What’s the time, Mr. Wolf?” Mr Wolf answers with a time (e.g., “Three o’clock”), prompting players to take that many steps forward. At any turn, Mr Wolf can respond, “Dinner time!” and quickly turn to face and chase the players as they rush back to the starting line. First person who is caught becomes the next Wolf!

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Parsha Philosophy

Rabbi Sacks explores the concept of time in Judaism, revealing how it deeply intertwines with the religion’s rituals and beliefs. He points out that, unlike many other cultures, which see time as a linear or cyclic phenomenon, Judaism embraces both aspects of what time could be. This duality can be found in the Jewish calendar, which combines lunar and solar cycles, allowing Jewish traditions to encompass natural rhythms and historical events. 

Ultimately, the holidays are about counting days and understanding time as a sacred entity central to Jewish spirituality. The way we, as Jews, celebrate these holy times makes each holiday an opportunity for spiritual growth and connection to our roots. 

  • When was a time you felt most connected to Judaism?
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Parsha Parable

The Clock

In a bustling Eastern European shtetl, Yosef, a watchmaker known for his meticulous craftsmanship, devoted himself entirely to perfecting his watches and clocks. But, his obsession with accurate work made him lose track of time around him, and he often forgot about people, and missed out on weddings, bar mitzvahs, and even the simple joys of everyday life.

One wintery day, a mysteriously cloaked woman visited Yosef’s shop for just a few minutes, leaving behind a small, dusty clock. Her gift was called the Clock of Shabbat, and it would soon teach the watchmaker the true meaning of time. 

That Friday, just before sunset, this clock chimed musically, singing: Ding-aling, ding-aling. 

Woken up by the chimes, Yosef recalled childhood memories of Shabbat: the warmth of his family’s table, the laughter, and the peace. Realising what he had been missing, Yosef closed his shop early that Friday and joined the synagogue for Shabbat services. For the first time in years, he experienced the sacred pause of Shabbat and the gift of time. 

The Clock of Shabbat never needed winding, yet it always marked the arrival of each Shabbat. Yosef learned that accurate time - sacred time - was immeasurable. Shabbat came with or without his crafts, marking time with joy, rest, and renewal rather than gears, cogs, and springs.

From then on, Yosef balanced his time with his faith. He made time for life’s sacred moments, becoming a testament to the truth that the most valuable times are those not counted but cherished. Through the clock, Yosef rediscovered time, not as endless ticks but as meaningful moments of rest and holiness.

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Parsha Ponderings

Would you rather live in a society that strictly adheres to historical traditions without adapting or continuously evolving and changing, potentially at the cost of losing connection with its past?

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Parsha Puzzle


Which sect always observed Shavuot on a Sunday, and why?

This Week's Parsha Puzzle Answer:

The Sadducees explained the Torah literally. They therefore understood the meaning of the phrase on Shavuot from Vayikra 23:15 - “mimacharat haShabbat”- to literally mean, “the day after Shabbat”.

This question has been adapted from Torah IQ by David Woolf, a collection of 1,500 Torah riddles, available on Amazon.

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Covenant & Conversation Family Edition

Written as an accompaniment to Rabbi Sacks’ weekly Covenant & Conversation essay, the Family Edition is aimed at connecting teenagers with his ideas and thoughts on the parsha.

With thanks to the Schimmel Family for their generous sponsorship of Covenant & Conversation, dedicated in loving memory of Harry (Chaim) Schimmel.

“I have loved the Torah of R’ Chaim Schimmel ever since I first encountered it. It strives to be not just about truth on the surface but also its connection to a deeper truth beneath. Together with Anna, his remarkable wife of 60 years, they built a life dedicated to love of family, community, and Torah. An extraordinary couple who have moved me beyond measure by the example of their lives.” — Rabbi Sacks

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