In the opening lines of her book, Lynn Kaye explains that “Time in the Babylonian Talmud explores how rabbinic jurists' language, reasoning, and storytelling reveal their assumptions about what we call time” (1). Drawing on insights from modernist writers, artists, and philosophers including Virginia Woolf, Marcel Proust, and Wassily Kandinsky, Kaye establishes at the outset of her work a capacious understanding of the concept of time, one that is not limited to time-keeping or temporal units such as hours but that encompasses various forms of legal and narrative temporalities. With this approach, she stakes a bold claim in the field: in contrast to scholars who define “time” narrowly and thus suggest that the concept of “time” was foreign to and absent from most ancient Jewish sources, Kaye contends that working with an expansive notion of “time” allows us to appreciate the many ways in which rabbinic texts assume and develop complex temporal notions even when they do so in ways that differed from the temporal norms of their neighbors or of current scholars. Rabbinic sources, Kaye argues further, do not only contain sophisticated notions of time that can be appreciated through close textual analysis; rabbinic texts can, and indeed ought to, contribute more generally to contemporary theories of time.
In the book's introduction, Kaye proposes that even though, “in the legal, narrative, or exegetical contexts of the Bavli… time is neither a substance nor a concept, nor, in general, the focus of discussion,” nonetheless “time describes what sits between and binds conceptual or legal items together” and therefore plays an indispensable function in rabbinic discussions of law and narrative (3). In short: “In the Talmud, time is not necessarily a concern in itself, but it provides structure to events that are significant” (5). Moreover, Kaye identifies two temporal modes present in the Babylonian Talmud: “the irreversible temporal processes reflected in the material world, which can be called natural time, and flexible temporal modes of imagination, which are products of storytelling and legal reasoning” (2). Rabbinic texts construct imagined temporalities in order to overcome legal and narrative challenges posed by the ordering of natural time. In the end, both co-exist simultaneously, on different temporal “registers,” as it were (110).
The remainder of the introduction discusses the book's methodology (e.g. adopting Husserl's phenomenological approach to time, coupled with literary analysis); reviews previous scholarship about time and time-keeping in ancient Judaism; and contextualizes rabbinic temporality within the broader landscape of ancient Jewish, Christian, and Zoroastrian notions of time. The book is in conversation with the recent work of Sacha Stern, Rachel Adelman, Sergey Dolgopolski, and others. Kaye makes the case that one of the most striking features of rabbinic temporality, found especially in the anonymous layers of the Babylonian Talmud, is its assumption of “permeable temporal boundaries” between past, present, and future.
The first chapter centers on the idea of simultaneity—that is, when two events happen at the same time rather than in succession. Kaye uses rabbinic discussions of simultaneity to highlight “unspoken assumptions about events happening in succession” (32), as well as how such sources deal with unusual temporal occurrences in which two or more events happen seemingly simultaneously. One of the central insights of this chapter is that rabbinic sources use the metaphor of bodies moving across space to describe temporal simultaneity. In one text, two people arriving at a gate at the same time serves as an illustration of the time of twilight, in which two days coexist in the same temporal space. Another passage wonders whether two animals born in the same birth are both considered, simultaneously, to be “firstborns,” or whether only one of them is the “firstborn” (the practical question is whether both or only one of the animals must be given to the priest). Such passages allow for reflections on the intersection between space, time, and movement in rabbinic sources. At stake in many of these rabbinic debates is whether it is theoretically possible or impossible for two things to happen exactly simultaneously. They thus also serve as the basis for Kaye to reflect on the ways in which rabbinic discussions of temporal simultaneity address questions of epistemological, ontological, and legal limits more generally.
The second chapter focuses on differences between human and divine temporal perception and precision. The chapter persuasively demonstrates the ways in which rabbinic texts portray God as extremely accurate at time-keeping, in contrast to humans, who can only approximate hourly time. This fundamental temporal difference between God and people has wide-ranging legal and narrative implications. For instance, human Sabbath observers must begin the Sabbath early (establishing a temporal buffer) to ensure that they do not violate the prohibition against work on the Sabbath. God, in contrast, can begin the Sabbath at the very moment when it actually begins, because God created time and therefore can distinguish between the most miniscule temporal durations. In another set of examples, human witnesses are permitted some degree of temporal inaccuracies in their testimonies, because the text assumes human error in hourly time-keeping. A third case debates the time of day when leaven can no longer be eaten on Passover eve. Textual disharmonies in contradictory biblical passages are also explained as the result of God's sensitivity to human deficiencies in keeping precise time. Again, Lynn demonstrates how discussions about human and divine time highlight underlying interest, within rabbinic sources, in the limits of human knowledge and power, especially in light of divine omnipotence, including in the temporal sphere.
The following three chapters each present a different temporal concept as it develops and functions in the Babylonian Talmud. Chapter three examines the temporal construct of “fixity” (from the root ‘.q.r), “a quality that permits nonmaterial things, like a practice, tradition, or law, to remain the same despite the tendency of things to change over time” (86), “link[ing] together non-successive events, erasing the ‘distance’ that separates them from natural time” (30). The metaphor used in rabbinic sources to illustrate this idea is that of something being “nailed down,” that is, something seemingly fleeting (such as a teaching) made permanent, often through repetitive or regular action, drawing a connection between time and movement. Kaye summarizes: “Torah knowledge, it seems, can be fixed and preserved over time, which is described as nailed down and unmovable, or it can be ‘uprooted,’ making it moveable, changeable, and lost” (87). Regular activities such as sleeping and eating are also presented, in rabbinic texts, as fixed. Thus fixity, as a temporal concept that appears over 600 times in the rabbinic corpus, exists in both “natural” and “imagined” (in this case “legal”) time.
Chapter four analyzes “retroactivity” (bererah), a concept that approaches the ordering of events in temporally flexible ways—such that a later event can affect the status of an earlier event—in order to solve legal challenges, such as doubts in cases in which facts are unknown. While “retroactivity” functions in various legal realms, including “property ownership, reliability of witnesses, marriage and divorce, ritual purity and sacrificial rites, laws of the Sabbath and ritual slaughter, and tithing and agriculture” (114), Kaye focuses her analysis on a set of three interrelated cases, all connected to the establishment of a temporary residence for the Sabbath, a practice essential for various forms of travel on the Sabbath day. Kaye uses these cases to explain that “In the Talmud, it is possible for a chronologically later event to happen at a legally crucial earlier moment, because it is imaginatively possible” (120).
The book's final chapter turns to rabbinic Passover innovations as an example of the ways in which study, storytelling, speech, and sensory ritual practices work to bring together, through collective memory, moments of the distant past with the contemporary present into a single time, while nevertheless acknowledging the temporal distance of past events. Kaye labels this phenomenon “conjunctive” time, in which “more than one time [is] present for an individual” (142), and, through beautiful argumentation, demonstrates the various ways in which such conjunctive time is constructed through rabbinic Passover prescriptions. Specific concern for performing these rituals on the same calendrical date and time of day, for example, synchronizes the time of exodus from Egypt as described in biblical sources with the present moment of the ritual practitioner. Kaye presents this final chapter as the narrative-exegetical counterpart to the legally-oriented chapter on “retroactivity,” because both reimagine the flexibility of the timing of events in relation to one another. Kaye is also careful, however, to identify them as two similar but nonetheless distinct temporal phenomena. In this chapter, too, Kaye demonstrates that rabbinic sources simultaneously take for granted assumptions about natural time (e.g. that events progress linearly), while rarely feeling constrained by natural time in their conceptions of additional imagined temporalities that exist alongside natural time (e.g. that events nonetheless can also occur simultaneously or that actions can change retroactively).
Kaye quotes Woolf (Orlando, 98) to remind her readers that there is an “extraordinary discrepancy between time on the clock and time in the mind” (10). Kaye climbs into the rabbinic legal and narrative imagination in order to understand the complex ways in which rabbinic texts conceive of and manipulate time to achieve various ends, both in conversation with clock time and also far beyond it. One particular pleasure of this book is its unconventional interweaving of voices from across temporal expanses (reading Passover and Proust in conversation, to cite one example of many), demonstrating in its method as well as in its argument that much is to be gained by experimenting with and thinking creatively about temporality. In addition to its contributions to the study of time in Jewish Late Antiquity, Time in the Babylonian Talmud also engages with current developments in the study of the redaction of the Babylonian Talmud, the interplay between law and narrative within rabbinic sources, and rabbinic resonances with ideas and technologies beyond rabbinic communal boundaries (ranging from Neoplatonic thought to Ephrem's theology to Roman jurists and Zoroastrian legal codes, and much more). The book also succeeds in making rabbinic texts about time accessible to readers in other fields, including to those unfamiliar with rabbinic sources; they, too, stand to learn from Kaye's clear style, incisive analysis, and persuasive conclusions. Indeed, everyone should take the time to read this book. It will be time well-spent.