Moment Magazine “The Origins of the Jewish Calendar” by Lilly Gelman

You have written about how ancient Jewish sources used women’s bodies as metaphors for time. How did the role of women in the Jewish tradition affect the development of Jewish time?

One of my favorite texts from antiquity is an apocalyptic text called 4 Ezra, written at the end of the 1st century. The story opens with the scribe Ezra, who can’t sleep because he’s distraught about the destruction of the Temple. In his sleepless state, he has a series of visions in which he asks the angel Uriel when the redemption is expected to occur. Uriel responds by explaining that there are some things that humans can’t know, and that the time of redemption is one of those things. But Ezra doesn’t give up so easily. The angel then turns to the metaphor of pregnancy and says, “Go ask a pregnant woman if she knows when labor is going to start.” Of course, Ezra says, “A pregnant woman doesn’t know when labor will start.” Then Uriel responds, “Ask her if she can bring it on sooner.” Ezra acknowledges that doing so is almost impossible. This conversation between Ezra and the angel becomes a meditation on waiting. There are other examples, too, of observing the moon and menses in similar ways.

Rabbinic sources also think about time and gender on a practical level. For example, they discuss men and women’s differing relationships to time and how that affects the kind of religious practices they can or should engage in. There is a passage in the Mishnah that says that all commandments can be subdivided into four categories. There are positive and negative commandments, and there are time-bound and non-time-bound commandments. What we end up with are positive time-bound commandments, positive non-time-bound commandments, negative time-bound commandments and negative non-time-bound commandments. When the Mishnah explains this division, it states that everyone is obligated in all of these categories of commandments, with one exception: Women are not obligated in the positive time-bound commandments.

We end up with a situation in which men are obligated in rituals that need to be performed at a particular time of the day, while women are exempt from those practices. As rabbinic texts present it, men are more tied to ritual time. But that isn’t the end of the story, because in those very same texts, women are associated with other kinds of time—for example, they must observe menstrual purity laws. So although women aren’t obligated to recite the Shema every morning and evening as men must, they do need to be cognizant of the rhythms of their own bodies because they are required to maintain ritual purity. Whether or not the rabbis intended for this to be the case, the result is gendered time: men’s time and women’s time—with different rituals.