A Jewish Guide to Time Travel

Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim Luntschitz, the brilliantly insightful 16th century author of the Torah commentary Kli Yakar, comments on the fact that the word the Torah uses for the sun and moon—“me’oros,” or “luminaries,” (Beraishis, 1:16) is spelled in such a way that it can be read “me’eiros,” or “afflictions.”

“For all that comes under the influence of time,” he writes, “is afflicted with pain.”

Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner, the renowned Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivas Rabbeinu Chaim Berlin, saw similar meaning in the term “memsheles,” (ibid) which describes the luminaries’ role. Its most literal meaning, he said, is “subjugation.” We are, in other words, enslaved by time.

What is subjugating and frightening about time is not only that it brings about entropy and dissolution, that each day’s passing leaves us (as a poet once put it) “shorter of breath and one day closer to death,” but that it is entirely beyond our control. We can change our positions in space—moving here or there at will—but time seems frustratingly one-directional; its effects are entirely, utterly unchangeable.

Jewish tradition, however, informs us otherwise. We can travel, the Talmud teaches us, in time too.

“Sound the shofar at the new month, at the appointed time for the day of rejoicing,” declares the posuk in Tehillim (81) in reference to Rosh Hashana. The word for “at the appointed time”—“bakeseh”—is most simply read to mean “at the covering”—a reference, the Talmud tells us, to the fact that the moon, in pointed contrast to the situation on other Jewish holidays, is not visible at the onset of the Jewish new year. Rosh Hashana, of course, coincides with the “new moon,” when the lunar luminary is invisible to us.

Intriguingly, a mystical tradition attributed to the Zohar conceives of the moon’s apparent absence on Rosh Hashana as representative of the lack of “two witnesses” to the Jewish people’s sins. The sun, witness #1, is there—but the moon? Missing.

The moon has a direct role in Jewish life. It keeps time for us. The sun may mark the passage of days for all humanity, but it is to the moon that Jews are commanded to look to identify the Jewish months.

The moon is our clock. Perhaps it goes missing on Rosh Hashana because the holiday reminds us that we can transcend time.

Our time machine is teshuva, repentance. And that is no mere metaphor. We are actually empowered by teshuva to reach back into the past and alter it.

How else to understand our tradition’s teaching that sins committed intentionally are rendered by even the most elemental teshuva (born of fear) into unintentional sins? Or the even more astonishing fact that when teshuva is embraced out of pure love for Hashem, it actually changes sins into good deeds?

Consider that shocking idea for a moment. An act of eating of non-kosher meat years ago can be “accessed and edited” into the equivalent of consuming matzah on Pesach. We can travel back in time and change the past.

And so if one is a successful penitent on Rosh Hashana, there can indeed be no complement of “witnesses” to his past sins; the sins are no longer there to be witnessed.

The Rosh Hashana night sky, with its missing “Jewish clock,” reminds us that time can be overcome in a meaningful way, through sheer force of will.

This tossing off of time’s shackles may be what lies at the root, too, of the theme of freedom that is so prominent on Rosh Hashana. The name of the month it introduces, Tishrei, is rooted in “shara,” the Aramaic word for “freeing”; the day’s central mitzvah, the sounding of the shofar, is associated with Yovel, or the Jubilee Year, when slaves are released; one of the holiday’s Torah readings is about Yitzchak Avinu’s release from his “binding”; and Rosh Hashana is the anniversary of Yosef’s release from his Egyptian prison.

All of us, too, if we honestly and critically confront our lives and resolve to change for the better, can break free from the seemingly unshakeable bonds of time.

Gmar chasima tova!


[Rabbi Shafran is an editor at large and columnist for Ami Magazine]

The above essay may be reproduced or republished, with the above copyright appended.

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