Updated: May 17, 2022
Written by Masha Vernik, Seed Project Coordinator
December 2021 | Tevet 5782
A few months ago, I saw something that made everything click: a circular Hebrew calendar. The year, laid out as a circle – not a row of squares – with months like slices of a pie.
This calendar was screen shared to our online class by Yesod Farm+Kitchen Scholar-in-Residence Justin Goldstein, as he taught us about the Jewish calendar and its connection to the sun and the moon. He shared that if you view the Jewish calendar as a circle, not rows of squares, the timing of the holidays makes more sense. So perhaps our ancestors understood time as a circle, not a line.
Image Source: Jewish Year Calendar - The Jewish Museum London
Today, common representations of time follow a straight line: schedules, timelines, x-axes on graphs. The only exception I can think of is an analogue clock, but even those are going out of vogue!
Time exists regardless of how we understand it. It’s something that just is, and our calendars help us move through it. So what happens to how we relate to the world when time is seen as a circle, not a line?
The Jewish calendar is full of cycles that give our lives rhythm. Shabbat comes around at the end of every week, giving us space for rest and renewal. We mark a new month with each revolution of the moon around the Earth. And every year, the holidays repeat themselves, pacing our lives with familiar reminders to remember.
As we observe Shmita this year, time’s circularity comes especially alive. In this last year of a seven year cycle, we let the land rest – just as we do at the end of every week. We are told to release the land and abstain from cultivation, harvesting only what we need from whatever the land produces by itself. Every seven years, we remember that we do not own the land, but are borrowing it from a greater power.
When we follow these cycles, beginnings and ends melt away. The end of one cycle is the beginning of a new one.
This circular understanding of time has given me some perspective on our work with seeds.
You harvest seeds at the end of the season, and you plant them at the beginning of a new one. When time is a line, seeds are just that – the end and the beginning. But when time is a circle, seeds become more than that: seeds are connectors. They tie the end of one season to the beginning of another.
A seed also connects one life to another: From a parent comes a seed that becomes a new being. When does a plant’s life begin, anyway? Is it when the seed gets planted or when it germinates? Or is it when the seed was first created in the heart of a fruit? If you look closely enough, there is no true beginning of life, as it always comes from life before. Similarly, there is no end, as one end leads to another beginning – death yields life. Each generation is just part of a larger cycle.
Generations of plants are grown by generations of people. Historically, seeds get passed down from (literal or metaphorical) parent to child, who iteratively adapt the crops to changing tastes and environment. Seeds hold centuries-old knowledge of what works best for both the culture and the climate. When we share seeds, we share stories, memories, and knowledge from the past to our communities of today and tomorrow. When we see time as a circle, seeds connect us to our ancestors of the past, communities of the present, and descendants of the future.
But the repetitive displacements that most Jewish lineages have suffered – whether Sephardi, Ashkenazi, Mizrahi, or other – made holding onto seeds difficult. When you move to a new place, you lose much of what you had before. Old seeds may not grow in new soils.
But sometimes, seeds are one of the few things that you can bring to a new land. In these cases, they can connect you to where your ancestors came from. It is said that upon being forced to board ships bound for the land we live on today, enslaved West Africans braided seeds into their hair in an act of hope. I wonder if our ancestors did something similar.
Time-as-a-line might have us believe that when we are disconnected from our seeds (or our language, dances, arts, or other parts of our culture), that’s the end of that. But time-as-a-circle reminds us that every end is a new beginning, and the circle will come back around.
Long ago, our ancestors stewarded qishuim. Then, they were separated.
Today, our stories have been reconnected. We’ve come full circle.