The Technology of Time

“From Scrolls to Scrolling” is a fascinating article about the “technology” of Judaism. Ever since the COVID pandemic, I’ve been intrigued by the Christian worship seasons and the reassuring framework they give to help us steer our way through time, so this piece in the latest issue of The Plough immediately caught my eye.

J. L. Wall, the writer of the article, says that at the front or the center of the synagogue is the Sefer Torah, the historic, carefully handwritten scroll on animal hide. The earliest papyrus scrolls date back three millennia, from the time of ancient Rome and before. He notes that the physical form of a scroll implies continuity. Each year, at the very moment the congregation finishes reading the last verse of Deuteronomy, which completes their Torah,1 they immediately go back to Genesis chapter one at its beginning.

So the scroll itself reminds worshipers of the Scripture’s continuous thread from the past to the present, constantly drawing the worshiper forward in time.

Over the centuries, however, the use of rolled-up scrolls gave way to reading from a codex, or book. Wall says that new technology began in 1523, when the book form of the Talmud1 came into being. The book form of commentaries is what my older generation of Christians is most used to these days, with Bible passages and our Christian Old and New Testament scholars. Most of those books have Scripture verses on the top half of each page with related commentary placed below it. In the Jewish Talmud, the Oral Torah text is put in the exact center, with remarks from the great rabbis of the ages literally surrounding it.

The codex or book form itself encourages us to flip back and forth through its pages. The text, initially written in the past, plus the explanations from its future experts, come together for the reader in the present moment.

Much more recently, expanding technology has added another form – or rather, a verb – to transmit the Jewish and Christian Scriptures, as well as everything else in life. Scrolling is the way 6.84 billion people3 around this globe receive information, and share opinions and more these days.

This new technology emphasizes all that is ephemeral, says the article writer Wall. “Its conversations are brief and fleeting as breath.” They mirror “our horizons [that] are as brief as our lives – data trends across decades, perhaps extrapolating to gaze on a full century. But history, beginning with the first imprint of stylus on clay, is longer than we can fathom.”

So Wall’s article brings us back to how we experience time. It helps me return to the ancient Christian worship seasons. Like the scroll, they reflect the continuity of our faith and God’s covenant with us. Like the book, they have us naturally conversing between the past and the future. And like the current act of scrolling, they remind us of the ever-so-brief passage of our lifetime.

What a gift! The worship seasons speak more deeply to us the more we explore them.

Your partner in faith exploration,

Betsy Schwarzentraub

1 – The Torah means the ”Law” or ”Teachings” of Judaism. It contains the Books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. The written Torah is the first part of the Jewish Hebrew Bible, which is also the Christian Old Testament.

2 – The Talmud is the main text of Rabbinic Judaism and the primary source of Jewish Law. Compiled between the third and sixth centuries, it contains the Mishnah, or Oral Torah, plus the Gemara, which records the opinions of thousands of rabbis about faith, ethics, and daily life.

3 – “As of 2024, the number of smartphone users is predicted to reach 7.1 billion. Currently, there are 6.84 billion smartphones globally. Around 91% of college graduates own a smartphone. 50% of US citizens spend about 5 to 6 hours on their smartphones per day as of 2024.”
( › smartphone-stats. Jan. 31, 2024)