Unequal Hours: The Jewish Reception Of Timekeeping Technology From The Bible To The Twentieth Century

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Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
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Near Eastern Languages & Civilizations
Engineering Mechanics
Jewish Studies
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Many studies of Jewish history are set against a backdrop of political or cultural change; few studies, especially those set before the Industrial Revolution, analyze technological change, in part because such change often took place quite slowly. Timekeeping technology has been in development for more than 3,500 years; by examining the long Jewish relationship to timekeeping, this dissertation is intended to serve as proof-of-concept for how historians of Judaism and historians of technology can learn from one another and is an invitation for them to do so. Beginning in Ancient Egypt, this study surveys the origins of formal timekeeping systems and the earliest timekeeping technologies and tracks their appearance in the Bible and Second-Temple-period Jewish writings. Investigating the adoption of Greco-Roman timekeeping systems by the rabbis of Late Antiquity, the study reassesses what the rabbis did and did not expect from the public with regards to timekeeping precision and what they themselves understood about timekeeping on a theoretical level. The study introduces the concept of a “naïve” hour and highlights the role of latitude in legal deliberations. Following the Islamic conquests, Jews in Islamic lands gained access to sophisticated timekeeping concepts through Islamic astronomy, but these did not become popular in non-scientific writings. Rabbanites continued to use the Greco-Roman timekeeping system, whereas Karaites did not. In medieval Christian Europe, access to timekeeping technology and theoretical knowledge was limited, but settlement at northerly latitudes nonetheless forced rabbis to reckon with timekeeping in new ways. With the invention of the mechanical clock around 1300 (and the sandglass, invented almost simultaneously), the Jewish relationship to timekeeping changed yet again, with different areas of Europe and the Ottoman Empire reacting quite differently according to local usage. Seventeenth-century breakthroughs in clock and watch accuracy led to further changes in the Jewish relationship to the devices. Beginning in the eighteenth century, increased toleration of Jews by Christians led to Jews deploying clocks and depictions of clocks in public settings for the first time. This study concludes with an examination of Jewish protests to the timekeeping system adopted in Mandatory Palestine and the State of Israel.

Talya Fishman
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