Time in the Babylonian Talmud

Time in the Babylonian Talmud

Natural and Imagined Times in Jewish Law and Narrative

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Lynne Kaye
  • Cambridge, UK: 
    Cambridge University Press
    , February
     192 pages.
     For other formats: .


Everyone has a sense of time. Augustine told us that no one can define it. Now we understand his words even better, and Lynn Kaye’s book advances that new understanding further. Scholars in the 20th century rediscovered the complexity of time beyond the theretofore regnant notion of time as an abstract arrow, just as scholars in this century are rediscovering place beyond the heretofore dominant notion of place as a segment of abstract space. Kaye’s work threatens to complicate both discoveries by reclaiming the role of the Babylonian Talmud (Bavli) in these broader discussions in the humanities. 

In my shortest rendition, her argument is that for the characters in the Bavli an event taking place in the past is always taking time in the now, and the now, too, is always taking a certain place. 

To get there, Kaye stands on the shoulders of Sacha Stern in his pioneering work, Time and Process in Ancient Judaism (Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2003, 2007) who—following the British philosophical tradition of empiricism—argued the rabbis had no concept of abstract time, but only of concrete processes; no abstract chronology, but only concrete genealogy; no abstract historical time, but only concrete, often competing, reconstructions of the events of the past. In contrast to Stern, Kaye turns to continental philosophy and literature and thereby reaches beyond the methodological premises of empiricism. She in effect argues that Stern is right only as long as his empiricist, abstract, schematically represented concept of time is assumed. By contrast, Kaye moves away from understanding time as a schematically represented concept (arrow, line, spiral, etc.). Rather, in keeping with the tradition extending from Plato to Kant and beyond, she reclaims time as an image, and therefore, as a sense (an inner sense, as well), which may or may not serve as a schematic representation of a concept, but strongly connects to the other sense, that of place. On these grounds, she asks and answers Stern’s question anew: is there time in the Talmud? Rabbis might not explicitly discuss or have any concept of time, but they operate with a specific sense or “image” of time. She is engaged in discerning and displaying that image.

For Kaye, there is time in the Talmud, and more than one type of time. First, there is “natural time,” which rabbis think they cannot control and/or change: the succession of days, months, and years, birth and death, or in more traditional philosophical terms that she implies but does not use, the time of becoming. Second and most important for her, there is a legally, narratively, or homiletically “imagined” time, or to reformulate it again in the implied traditional philosophical notion, the time in which human thinking and action unfolds and makes sense. In their pursuit of justice, the rabbis constantly negotiate and renegotiate the latter sense of time. According to the book’s central thesis, resistant to relegating time to either a purely natural flow or to a purely legalistic, fictional, or interpretive construct, the rabbis in the Bavli complicate the relations between the natural and the human-practical sense of time. They allow an event in the past to acquire its full legal, narrative, and/or homiletic significance only in light of an event happening at a moment in the present, when the significance of an event becomes clear and/or is debated either in court or, more broadly, in front of an audience. 

Terming the role of the now in debating and determining the significance of an event of the past as “retroactive determination,” Kaye, chapter by chapter, explores examples of legal concepts, narrative traditions, and homiletical interpretations in which the never explicated or thematized rabbinic mechanism of retroactive determination, that is, the mechanism of rabbinic imagination of time, becomes discernible for a critical reader.

This is where the role of place becomes prominent. Kaye ascribes such a lack of explicit articulation of time in the Talmud to a rabbinic manner, which she argues is necessary, of thinking about time through and in the images of places and/or localities. Unlike abstract segments of space, such localities are always articulated through the moves and motions of individuals. Humans are not mere inhabitants of an abstract empty space in which they change their positions in abstract time. Rather, human actions create and articulate concrete places, imbued with and only accessible through a concrete kinesthetic experience of the now, through which the past is taking place.

Promising to re-articulate time in rabbinic literature, Kaye in fact rearticulates the relationships between time and place therein. Her work therefore invites a new question: does the distinction between “natural” and “imagined” time suffice in order to discern and display the temporal foundation of rabbinic acts in the Bavli, or are we instead witnessing an organic temporality (exemplifiable by a development of an embryo into a full organism), which neither Stern’s concept of abstract time, nor Kaye’s insistence on two temporalities—natural and imagined—can fully grasp? Her work becomes a breakthrough from a natural temporality of the abstract time/space and therefore invites further investigation of the connections between imagination and organic thinking and living, which indeed can only emerge in concrete time and in a concrete place—both in the Bavli and in the broader array of heterogeneous places, as opposed to the homogeneous spaces humanities at large are encountering today. When global homogenized space is in question, Kaye’s work on the Talmud leads to a new approach to that question in the broader humanities.

This is not to suggest that the organic metaphor fully suffices either, but it is appropriate to highlight what Kaye’s work welcomes: an even more explicit engagement with, and renegotiation of the philosophical and literary theories of temporality and locality for exploring what takes place and what takes time in the Talmud. This way, Kaye’s reconnection of time with place can take us closer to how not only the Rabbis or Augustine, but also modern scholars, could have conceived challenges in articulating the sense of time.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Sergey Dolgopolski is Associate Professor and Gordon and Gretchen Gross Professor of Jewish Studies in the Department of Jewish Thought and Associate Professor in the Department of Comparative Literature at SUNY, Buffalo.

Date of Review: 
August 29, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Lynn Kaye studies Jewish law and legal culture of late antiquity. Her research combines philology and historical/textual analysis with critical theory, poetics, phenomenology and legal theory. Her doctoral dissertation examined concepts of time among Jews of late antiquity. She researched Hebrew biblical narrative for her Master's degree.


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