Al Et m’zumenet l’tova v’et m’zumenet l’ra’ah
There is a time ordained for good and a time ordained for evil.
Talmud Bavli, Sanhedrin 102a
Hakol l’fi haz’man.
Everything follows the style of the time.
Talmud Bavli, Bava Metzia 40b
Now the time has come (Time)
There are things to realize (Time)
Time has come today (Time)
Time has come today (Time)
The Chambers Brothers, “Time Has Come Today”
Often people misunderstand the Talmud, as they believe that the Talmud has an opinion on something. It does—many, many opinions collected and redacted from discussions that travel through centuries. The Talmud has been likened to a sea; and it is, as one can ride the waves and currents of subjects and opinions that flow in something of a stream of consciousness punctuated by intense argument and an often confounding lack of resolution.
That sea, however, is mainly reflective of the thought processes of late antiquity into early medieval times and then serves as a foundation for ensuing centuries of continued discussion and debate.
On understanding the concept of time, the Talmud presents a number of perspectives. Two of them are represented above.
Belief in astrology is a given in most Talmudic thought. There is a story I remember learning in my Yeshiva days (I haven’t located the reference at this moment) about Rabbi Meir disputing the power of the planets to influence events and personal characteristics. Rabbi Meir was told that because he was born under the influence of the planet Mars (Aries), he would commit murder. Rabbi Meir angrily disputed this and in his anger accidently killed his opponent in the discussion. Rabbi Meir,
however, possessed the power of techiat hametim/ resurrection of the dead and was able to bring his companion back to life. There is an opinion in the Talmud Mesechet Sanhedrin that “Ayn mazal b’Yisrael / There is no planet for Israel” (sometimes misunderstood as Jews have no luck). This is generally understood to mean that because the lives of Jews are regulated by divine laws (the Torah and the resulting halacha), Jews are not completely at the mercy of “nature” and therefore can
transcend negative inborn traits and be protected during a time of natural evil. This seems to be the perspective in the first of the two Talmudic quotes above.
This past month our calendar was marked by the day of Tisha B’Av. Tisha B’Av is traditionally a day of mourning commemorating the destruction of the Second Temple on the 9th of Av in 70 CE. In creating the traditional observances, the rabbis seem to adhere to the perspective of an “evil time,” the concept being that due to the sinful behavior and lack of fealty to the observance of the Torah (and a lack of harmony between Jews), divine protection from the force of evil of the time was removed and
the Jews suffered destruction and exile that could only be remedied through the coming of the Mashiach. Mashiach would through miracles return the exiles and rebuild the Temple and reinstate its priestly cult of animal sacrifice (now under rabbinical supervision) after militarily crushing the enemies of the Jews. The dead would also be resurrected to return, even burrowing underground from their graves outside of the Land of Israel, and the synagogues and yeshivot would detach from the
ground and fly to Eretz Yisrael. Numerous legends evolved and actual historical facts were massaged to fit the narrative of the 9th of Av being an especially evil time. The arrival of the Mashiach to end the suffering of exile would be entirely up to God, based on his judgment of our merits but could perhaps be hastened by dramatic displays of mourning including a fast as severe as to rival that of Yom Kippur and the recitation of Lamentations. When that time of redemption would come Tisha B’Av would instead become a day of joyous celebration. There would be a great feast where the righteous (men) would dine on the flesh of Leviyotan, a giant sea monster, and Behaymot, an enormous crazed ox, while mobs of admiring gentiles would tug on their tzitzit begging to serve the Jewish people. Some accounts have the Mashiach being born on Tisha B’Av.
An alternative understanding of time is represented by the second Talmudic reference. The opinion in Bava Metzia seems to be an approximation of the concept called by anthropologists cultural diffusion.
Every era seems to feature certain trends in thought, belief, and behavior. Cultures and civilizations in close proximity both consciously and unintentionally share ideas and practices and influence each other, creating a “style of the time.” This is a point of view that Jews have come to accept more and more over the years.
Zionism was based on a rejection of the “evil time” concept and through cultural diffusion was influenced by the late 19th century rapidly spreading concept of nationalism. Zionism proposed that the Jews needed a state the same as other people did and that the establishment of a state could not be accomplished by waiting for a messiah to be the antidote to an evil time. That Jews would need to, as the phrase came to be known at a later date, “seize the time.” Due to what was going on in the rest of the civilized world in which the Jews lived, the time was now ripe to rebuild a Jewish state. This concept of time has been accessed subsequently by Jews in updating Judaism, in creating the modern Conservative and Reform Movements, and in instituting essential improvements in Judaism such as equality for women.
There is certainly no shortage of problems in our time, but I see the world as overall being much better than when I was a young man. There still is so much more we can do when we access the most positive aspects of our time. Time has come today!
Column originally appeared in the August 1, 2013, issue of the Bellerose Jewish Center newsletter, The Messenger.