Sunday, November 30, 2008

What's in a Week?

All units of time are circular. They repeat themselves endlessly. Day dawns, the morning passes, afternoon passes, the sun sets, night falls and eventually a new day dawns.

The day corresponds to a relationship between the sun and the earth. The year also corresponds to a relationship between the sun and the earth. A new year is born, winter passes, then spring, summer, fall, all follow in sequence.

The “month” loosely corresponds to the relationship between the earth and the moon over a 28 day period. The two words “month” and “moon” obviously are derived from the same word, as is true in almost all other languages.

Tens of thousands of years ago, before the invention of agriculture, all humans lived as hunter gatherers. They told time by the sun, the moon, and the stars. They told tales about things that happened years ago, but they had no concept of a linear system of dating that one could refer to from any point in time. That's a modern invention requiring writing and calendars. Time was circular. People were born, lived and died and new generations grew up to replace them.

A week is a peculiar unit of time that we take for granted but it is not a natural division of time in the same way that a month or year is. Hunter gatherer societies don't really need to divide time into weeks. Their lives are organized around the daily, monthly and seasonal rhythms of nature and the weather.

Dividing a month into quarters and then naming the days probably first occurred with more sophisticated civilizations like the Egyptians and the Babylonians. The length of a week has varied in history from 3 to 8 days. Seven days has always been the most popular, because it divides evenly into a lunar month of 28 days; and because the number 7 corresponds to the seven celestial objects that can be seen by the naked eye: The Sun, Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. Indeed, in many languages, including English, the days of the week get their names from the seven celestial objects.

The concept of a week is very important in the Hebrew Bible. It's first mentioned in Exodus in one of the Ten Commandments. (Note the connection of the Bible's focus on the week and the backdrop of Egypt here.) In Exodus 31, 16-17 God says: “The Israelites shall keep the Sabbath, observing the Sabbath throughout their generations, as a perpetual covenant. It is a sign forever between me and the people of Israel that in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day he rested, and was refreshed.” Nowadays we work for five days , or even less, but we still like to rest and receive refreshment on the weekend. Building heaven and earth must have been quite a job, even for God, and that's why even God needed that extra day for R and R.

When the Ten Commandments are repeated in the Biblical book of Deuteronomy, instead of citing God's making the world in six days and resting on the seventh, it says in Deuteronomy 5, 12-15: “ ...But the seventh day is the Sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work... Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt and the Lord God brought you out of there...”

It makes sense to me that there are all these connections to work and the week, because the organization of time into working days and resting days has to do with agriculture and urban civilizations where people for the first time were brought together as slaves, servants, or contracted labourers. I find it noteworthy that the author of Deuteronomy uses the idea of liberation from slavery as a justification for the Sabbath. Everybody needs at least one day off in a week, I recommend more. “Let my people go”, as the good book says.

And so it came to pass, that this week was the one week in the year when the Prince Rupert phone book arrives at our doorstep. Now we can figure out which days are garbage days for next year. We can also read about cool outdoor activities and enjoy the local tide table for another year. All units of time are circular. They repeat themselves endlessly.

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