This summer I have busy preparing Kosher Dining at Smith, rearranging my office at Smith since I got new furniture, spending time at Camp Ramah New England, and getting ready for the upcoming academic year.
Although the summer has been busier than most and my reading pile remains higher than I would like at the end of July, I have had some time for learning.
On my own, I have been learning the first tractates few tractates of Mishnah. The first Seder (Order) of the Mishnah, Zera'im, deals with agricultural and tithing in the Land of Israel during the time of the Holy Temple. The very first Tractate, Brachot, deals with prayer and blessings and sets the stage for the rabbinic reinterpretation of Biblical Judaism.
This week, the Talmud hevruta (partnered--or in this case group--text study) I participate in resumed our study of the first chapter of Gemara Sanhedrin (Jews of Paradise contains a picture of us learning). This chapter deals with the types of courts that existed in the Jewish legal system of the Rabbinic era and why different types of courts need particular numbers of judges. The section we have been learning recently examines the Beit Din (rabbinic court) needed to intercalate the calendar (declare a leap year by adding a second month of Adar in the spring). Note: I am oversimplifying these complicated topics. Factors such as allowing time for rebuilding bridges and roads, making sure people in transit can complete their journey before Pesach, and that the proper grains can be prepared determine whether the Beit Din declares a leap year. The power given to groups that set a calendar is huge (witness the power school districts have on shopping and travel).
In Zera'im, the intricate laws of tithing and sanctity reinforce the elite status of the Rabbis. If you don't tithe properly and observe laws of sanctity, you are not able to eat with them or have them eat with you. But when it comes to exercising one of the greatest powers (ie., setting the calendar), the Rabbis take on a populist approach. They go out of their way to ensure the greatest number of people can observe Passover in Jerusalem.
I take that as a tremendous lesson: the way people mark time creates community. More than what we do with our own lives, how we interact with individuals, it is how we structure our lives through time that informs our identity.
I will continue to ponder this as we get closer to the High Holidays.
And now, I say goodbye as I join Jews the world-over in celebrating Shabbat tonight!