LOS ANGELES — A recent study in The Journal of Neuroscience confirms what we’ve long suspected — time flies when you’re having fun (or at least, having new experiences). Likewise, in times of at-home quarantine, it can feel as if it’s creeping along. But long before the discovery of neurons, Jewish mystics had looked to the Hebrew lunar calendar to tap into time’s cyclical attributes.
“People have become very aware this year that time can flow in different ways,” says Jorian Polis Schutz, creator and publisher of the Misaviv Hebrew Circle Calendar.
Misaviv is an out-of-the-box visual representation of the Hebrew calendar. Each month is illustrated by an interpretive painting commissioned by a contemporary Jewish artist. Today it’s largely found in the homes of an in-the-know few who belong to more creative circles. Now, as Rosh Hashanah rolls back around and people brace themselves for the new Hebrew year 5781, the calendar is again gaining mainstream relevance.
“It’s far from a corporate product — it’s very heimish,” says Schutz, using a Yiddish term that approximately translates to homegrown. “And on a sociological front, I think it’s some sort of sign that there are more people who are interested in creative takes on Jewish time than ever before. It’s a new demographic.”
Traditional calendars, both Gregorian and Hebrew, are boxy and rigid. A circular calendar, Schutz contends, displays “an idea of wholeness” that rectangular calendars lack. The circular Misaviv calendar is symbolic and meaningful, he says. It reflects the cycles of nature — that is, seasons and phases of the moon — and projects a more feminine resonance.
“A lot of people are longing for a more enchanted connection to time,” Schutz says. “And Judaism is all about that.”
The Hebrew calendar is based upon the lunar cycle, with holidays often falling on the full moon. Some main holidays — Passover and the High Holy Days, for example — can be thought of as being on opposite sides of the year; the days of the week, as well, fall concentrically around a Sabbath focal point.
“One of the things the calendar is doing is getting you into a rhythm,” says Schutz. Not to mention, he adds, “the Torah makes the argument for spiral-based time” — a combination of circular and linear.
The concept of “spiral time” appears in many Jewish mystical practices.
“Spiral time means we’re progressively moving forward and upward, but hitting the same points we hit in the year before,” explains Rabbi DovBer Pinson, head of the IYYUN Center for Jewish Spirituality in Brooklyn, New York, and author of many books, including “The Spiral of Time: Unraveling the Yearly Cycle.”
“Every year we experience the same seasons as we cycle through the pattern of the year, but we’re also spiraling higher and higher,” Pinson says.
On the Misaviv calendar, the days of the week are shown as a series of concentric circles, similar to the rings of a tree. Sundays are the outermost circle, then Mondays, and so on, with Shabbat the central point on the page.
“Shabbos is a day to come from or go toward,” says Pinson. “So in that paradigm of time, Shabbos is the center, and the week flows in and out of Shabbos.”
The Jewish names for the days of the week reflect this. Instead of being named for planets, the days are numbered according to where they fall in relation to the Sabbath. Sunday is “Yom Rishon B’Shabbat,” or Day One towards the Sabbath, while Friday is “Yom Shishi B’Shabbat,” or Day Six towards the Sabbath.
Sunday through Tuesday are seen as the days after the Sabbath, Pinson explains, whereas Wednesday through Friday are those leading up to the Sabbath. And the Sabbath itself is the sacred pinnacle of the week — or as scholar Abraham Joshua Heschel put it a “palace in time.” It’s outside of and distinct from our mundane experience the rest of the week, meaning that time flows and feels differently on the Sabbath, a day of stillness and being in the present.
Feeling outside time and being very much in the present moment allows people to get into “the best state of mind you can be in,” says Marc Wittmann, research fellow at the Institute for Frontier Areas of Psychology and Mental Health in Freiburg, Germany, and author of “Felt Time: The Psychology of How We Perceive Time.”
Wittmann notes that cycles or repetition can help us escape an unhealthy attachment to time, from ruminating on the past or being anxious about the future. Whether it’s repetitive shamanistic drumming or the repetition of seasons, cycles are liberating because they help mitigate our hyper-awareness of self and time.
As the most prevalent cycle of the Jewish calendar, “Shabbat is both the destination and culmination of our weeks — as well as the springboard to the next,” says Schutz.
The Circle Calendar is formatted to show this, with the Sabbath both at the month’s center and fully around its rim.
“On Shabbat we are enveloped in spaciousness and delight, and we are re-ensouled,” Schultz writes in the introduction to this year’s calendar. “Make [Shabbat] your portal to an all-embracing, all-encompassing outer rim, and you have learned to use Misaviv 5781.”