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Midwest Jewish Studies Association - Shofar Book Reviews

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Palaces of Time: Jewish Calendar and Culture in Early Modern Europe, by Elisheva Carlebach.  Cambridge, Mass. and London, England: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2011.  292 pp., bibliography and index.  $35.00.


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.

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 Two 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 Three and Four 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.

A fascinating feature of these books was their illustration, usually on the first pages, inviting the reader through the gate (sha'ar) into the book. Carlebach devotes considerable space to these illustrations, noting the centrality of ladders in them as well as illuminations that sent their observers back to Eden. She also explains the extent to which these very traditions were at odds with Christianity, providing an alternative to Christian messages in Books of Hours. Most interestingly, Carlebach uncovers the humor behind the illustrations.

Chapters Five and Six are in my eyes the most thought provoking, discussing how early modern Jews lived in Jewish time within Christian time. Carlebach uses the calendar to demonstrate how Jewish and Christian time were intertwined as well as the ways Jews attempted to separate themselves as a minority from majority culture. The pejorative expressions employed by the Hebrew Christian calendars leave no doubt of the tensions between Jews and Christians. Christian authorities were aware of the insults expressed toward Christians in these calendars and thus they were subject to censure.

Chapter Six addresses non-Jewish time from a different angle, distinguishing between church time and market time. Carlebach juxtaposes the two kinds of time, presenting market time as that when Jews and Christians traded to their mutual benefit and when relaxed boundaries encouraged frivolity, and church time as ominous and dangerous for travel and access. Despite this distinction, Carlebach is well aware of the overlap between them, and in my opinion her discussion presents a much more complex story than the distinctions she draws at the outset. Indeed, as she explains, Christian holy days and market days were noted in the calendar in the same rubric or column. Moreover, church time—religious festivals and dates—governed the economic time. Business contracts were signed on certain saints’ days, and internal Jewish documents reveal that Jews used these dates as part of their business reckonings. Even the German word messe meant both market and mass and the markets began and ended in conjunction with specific holidays.

Chapter Seven presents the most beautiful aspect of the calendars, the illustrations, already mentioned above. Centered on the turn of the seasons, known in Hebrew as the tequfah—the solstice and equinox—these four seasonal turning points were widely observed in medieval and early modern Europe. During these hours Jews did not drink water, especially water left uncovered. While some rabbinic authorities questioned the legitimacy of these practices, the tequfah was noted in detail on the calendars. Part of the chapter surveys Christian responses to the tequfah customs and the ways Christians mocked these beliefs and practices. Carlebach also notes that the tequfot can also be seen from a gendered perspective as the sources and calendars themselves acknowledge women’s role in these practices and in this way allows another perspective on calendars and their users. The last chapter of the book, which also serves as its conclusion, brings the reader back to the introduction. Carlebach returns to discuss the ways in which time reckoning reflects system of beliefs, from orders of creation to messianic expectations.       

 Much like the calendric literature Carlebach describes in her book, this book is both highly specialized for scholars and easily accessible and read by non-specialists. Carlebach’s achievement is on both these levels—a brilliant study of a little-known genre as well as a fascinating cultural history of the Jews of early modern Europe. No less impressive are the graphic features of the book. The calendar illuminations and their careful reproduction turn the experience of reading the book into a beautiful and aesthetic one. Like the calendars and the computational literature addressed by Carlebach that were often drawn in bright colors, Carlebach’s colorful and elegant depiction and presentation of the early modern calendric literature are a joy. I can only conclude by highly recommending this book to all.

Elisheva Baumgarten

Bar Ilan University