Rabbi Dalia Marx, PhD, is the author of From Time to Time: Journeys in the Jewish Calendar, now available from CCAR Press. In this excerpt from the preface, she meditates on Jewish time and discusses how the book contains a multiplicity of voices.
What is time? What is this slippery, uncontrollable element in our lives? The thing that sometimes flies at top speed and sometimes refuses to budge? The thing that moves babies to start turning over on their bellies, sit up, stand, and grow into children, that causes the young to grow tall and adds the graceful touch of silver hair to older people? How can we define the constant, inscrutable flow that we call “time”?
Ever since ancient times, people have endeavored to understand time and control it by dividing it into measurable units: hours, days, months, and years. This division grants us a certain sense of control over our lives and that unrestrainable demon we call time. Holidays and observances enable us to focus attention on experiences and memories, to sort and store them in particular emotional and intellectual drawers. Taking stock of our lives is what Jews do on Yom Kippur, but Purim should have a good measure of lighthearted celebration. How would our lives look if every day were Purim or, alternatively, Yom Kippur? There has to be some kind of order. Measuring time and subjecting it to discipline is the basis of all culture. “Teach us to count ourdays rightly,” says King David, the sweet singer of Israel, “that we may obtain a wise heart” (Psalm 90:12).
The goal I have set for myself with this book is to open windows and doors to our calendar, to air out rooms that have been closed for a long time, to illuminate hidden places, and to do my part in broadening our shared tent, as the prophet Isaiah put it, “Enlarge the site of your tent, let the cloths of your dwelling extend. Do not stint! Lengthen the ropes, and then drive the pegs firm” (Isaiah 54:2).
Each month in the year has its own character, its own special flavors and aromas. I have tried to bring them into these pages. Each chapter is a deep dive into one of the Hebrew year’s twelve months, according to a fixed structure: a kavanah (intention) prayer, an introduction, a “Poem of the Month,” sections (which I call iyunim) that examine a series of topics, and a “Prayer of the Month.” The kavanah is an intention-setting prayer or meditation that spells out my wishes for all of us during each particular month. The short introduction to each chapter, labeled “At the Gates of . . . ,” previews the iyunim sections. In each chapter, I have highlighted a poem, song, or piyyut (liturgical poem) written for or mentioning the month’s events. The iyunim sections address various subjects that arise from the nature or events of the month. The Prayer of the Month might be a prayer recited during a particular month or another prayer that illuminates an aspect of the month. There are numerous sidebars alongside the text, where I have placed midrashim (exegesis), supplementary piyutim, thoughts, and additional materials.
Friends who read drafts of the various chapters commented that I adopt different styles and voices in the different iyunim sections. I was happy to receive those responses. Pluralism and diversity are important elements in the message of the book. I profoundly believe in the power of these values. Different topics require different voices and varied approaches. By design, the narrative voice in this book is sometimes personal and sometimes academic. Sometimes the perspective is historical, and sometimes it is cultural and religious.
It is also important to me to challenge the supposed contradiction between what is considered “religious” and “secular,” presenting the entire range of the Jewish discourse in Israel and beyond. Even if there is a degree of criticism here and there, it was always written out of love and belonging.
As a Jewish woman born in Jerusalem, a rabbi and a scholar of liturgy, and a professor at Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion, it is important to me to weave together both old and new, feminine and masculine, Western and Eastern, familiar and less familiar throughout the book. I sought to include Jewish voices from different eras and places that express a range of positions and trends of thought. The criterion for focusing on specific subjects, additional texts, and poetry was first and foremost the quality of the material rather than a technical attempt to present all voices. I was happy to see that what emerged from my keyboard reflected the beneficial and fruitful diversity I had hoped for. I have not attempted to encompass everything. After all, this is not an encyclopedic work. I merely wanted to offer suggestions for thought, conversation, and even healthy debate.
Originally, this book was written by an Israeli for Israelis, but this translation attempts to offer insight not only into Israeli culture and religious expression but also more broadly into Jewish culture and Jewish religious expression. This English volume also seeks to be inclusive of the experiences of people who live in English-speaking countries. At the same time, many of the prayers and poems appear in both English and Hebrew, because I want to share the power and beauty I find in the Hebrew language. Even if you cannot read the Hebrew, I hope that the image of the original text is powerful in and of itself. …
I invite you to come along on this journey through our calendar year—the Jewish one, the Israeli one—ancient but always in the process of renewal. You can read the book from cover to cover, take it month by month, or even iyun to iyun, reading about each month’s special days and events as they arrive. I do not expect you to agree with everything I wrote. In fact, I will be happy if what you read stimulates your own new thoughts and encourages you to set off on additional journeys to ancient and modern destinations, both far and near.
Rabbi Dalia Marx, PhD, is the Rabbi Aaron D. Panken Professor of Liturgy at Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) in Jerusalem. She is the chief editor of T’filat HaAdam, the Israeli Reform prayer book (MaRaM, 2020). From Time to Time: Journeys in the Jewish Calendar was first published in Israel in 2018 as Bazman and has been translated into German, Spanish, and now English.
 See the classic essay on time by the sociologist Norbert Elias, An Essay on Time, ed. Steven Loyal and Stephen Mennell (Dublin: University College Dublin Press, 2007).