People of the Book: A Journey in the Jewish Calendar with Professor Dalia Marx

February 7, 2024

Dalia Marx

Book Cover - From Time to Time: Journeys in the Jewish CalendarTime is fundamental to the human experience. To Jews, says Rabbi Dalia Marx, Ph.D., the Rabbi Aaron D. Panken Professor of Liturgy and Midrash, time is much more than that. It’s sanctified. That’s why understanding the Jewish calendar is essential to understand Judaism — and that’s why she wrote From Time to Time: Journeys in the Jewish Calendar, now available from CCAR Press for the first time in an English translation five years after it was first published in Hebrew (CCAR also created a free supplementary Study and Discussion Guide in English and a Spotify playlist of songs featured in the book). In the book, Marx — a member of the faculty at HUC-JIR’s Taube Family Campus in Jerusalem since 2011 — does what she does in all of her courses and publications: She brings together sources both ancient and modern, from east and west and from all denominations, with a special emphasis on female voices. We caught up with her in Jerusalem to discuss the new English translation of From Time to Time, which has also been translated into German and Spanish.

Why is time sanctified for Jews?

DM: We talk about sacred time more than we talk about sacred place. Abraham Joshua Heschel said that Jews often were insecure where they live — they didn’t know if they’re going to be there next year or next month or tomorrow. He said that we build our cathedrals in time. Nobody can destroy cathedrals in time; time is always there. There’s always going to be Shabbat, no matter what your life circumstances are. It gives us security. An anchor. It grounds us in our reality.

The chapters of From Time to Time, which are organized around the months of the year, have a distinctive rhythm. How would you describe the structure of the text?

DM: After a short explanation of the month’s name, each chapter has a Kavanah, a meditation for the month, followed by a section we call the ‘gate’ of the month, which is an introduction to everything that happens in the month. Then there are songs and poems of the month, which are sometimes religious Piyutim and sometimes more modern poems. That’s followed by Iyunim, or observations — micro-chapters with insights into different aspects of the Chagim, the holidays and festivals of each month. The last part of each chapter is prayers of the month — old and new prayers, sometimes expected, sometimes unexpected.

There are so many delicious and surprising nuggets of information and inspiration in each chapter, even when the subject is, as you say, ‘expected.’

DM: For example, the subject of the chapter for the month of Tishrei is something expected. It focuses primarily on the high holidays, of course. We all know the high holidays. We have a map of them in our head. But the goal with this book is to build another mental or spiritual or emotional layer to add to that map that’s already in us.

The book also covers holidays and festivals that will no doubt be unfamiliar to many readers. Do you have any favorite examples?

DM: In the month of Marcheshvan, there is a very special festival for Ethiopian Jews called Sigd. The book explores its origins, its celebration, what happened to Sigd after the Ethiopian community migrated to Israel and how non-Ethiopian Israelis relate to Sigd. The prayer of the month in that chapter is a prayer of the Ethiopian community. We translate the prayer from Ge’ez, the ancient Ethiopian sacred language for Jews and Christians, and show how it’s related to classical, mainstream Jewish liturgy.

The book acknowledges a third kind of day — days that should be holidays.

DM: Yes, there are days that we don’t remember or celebrate that I think we should celebrate. For example, the ordination of the first woman rabbi, Regina Jonas, who was ordained in Nazi Germany and perished in Auschwitz. It just happens to be on the same day as Eid Al-Banat, or Girls’ Day, a festival that came mostly from North Africa where women and girls used to gather on the last day of Hanukah to do things together.

Who do you see as the book’s target audience?

DM: The audience for this book is quite broad. It isn’t only for the educated Jew or the committed, engaged Jew. In fact, some of the most enthusiastic readers seem to be non-Jews who want to read about the Jewish experience, not from the perspective of the Bible or the Holocaust — they want to read about the vibrant reality of today’s Jewish life, culture, and creativity.

You’ve linked From Time to Time to two late HUC-JIR leaders.

DM: Yes, the book is connected to two great leaders of our school and our movement: Rabbi Aaron Panken, Ph.D., to whom I dedicated the book; and Rabbi David Ellenson, Ph.D., my first teacher of Jewish liturgy, who wrote the generous foreword to the book and passed away days before its publication. May the book serve as a modest memorial for these brilliant teachers and scholars.

Speaking of moments in time, this has been an extraordinarily difficult time for you and other members of HUC-JIR’s extended family with the recent loss of Rabbi Ellenson, z”l, Chancellor Emeritus of HUC-JIR — a mentor and friend — and for Jews in Israel and around the world since October 7.

DM: It’s precisely in these difficult days when it’s important to celebrate special moments in our lives. This is what Jewish tradition teaches us — to celebrate time.

Listen to Rabbi Marx discuss the book on the podcast Essential Questions with Rabbi Dan Levin.

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