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  • Sarit Kattan Gribetz

Secrets of Time: The Pursuit of Divine Wisdom and The Dead Sea Scrolls

Sarit Kattan Gribetz on Arjen Bakker’s The Secret of Time: Reconfiguring Wisdom in the Dead Sea Scrolls

The book of 4 Ezra, composed in the late first century CE, explores the limits of human knowledge. At the beginning of the narrative, the scribe Ezra suffers from insomnia as the trauma of Jerusalem’s destruction prevents him from sleeping. His mind keeps replaying the events of war and its aftermath, prompting questions about the ways of God: why have these past events transpired, and what awaits the people of Israel in the future? Ezra is anxious because he does not understand how the world works, and he cannot predict what will be. His inability to comprehend God and to know the future are, throughout the work, inextricably linked. The world, the divine, and time remain intertwined mysteries.

Much of 4 Ezra is set at night, as Ezra tosses and turns in bed. When he cannot sleep, he turns to God and then a heavenly angel in a series of nocturnal visions and conversations. These nighttime scenes link the desire to understand how the world works with the unfortunate reality that not all is knowable. When Ezra begins his questioning, the angel Uriel challenges Ezra to weight fire, measure wind, and reverse time. Ezra admits that he cannot do any of those things, for he is human. Uriel thus addresses Ezra’s epistemological limits: if he cannot understand such earthly things, how does he expect to access divine secrets about heaven and hell, past and future?

Ezra is distraught. He expresses a wish to die: without understanding, it would have been better not to have been born, he confides in the angel. (4 Ezra here draws upon related textual traditions: Ecclesiastes characterizes the pursuit of divine wisdom as striving after the wind, and both Ecclesiastes and Job make similar declarations as Ezra does about wishing they were never born). By the end of the narrative, Ezra comes to terms with his human limitations, and learns to find comfort in the passage of time even as he can’t control or understand it.

As Hindy Najman notes in Losing the Temple, 4 Ezra is a temporally complex story, in which a character from one era gives voice to the ongoing trauma of another, prompting a desire to reboot history and start again. Time in the narrative is intricately linked with the narrative’s interest in time. 4 Ezra is thus deeply invested in confronting the unknowability of time, and the text creatively uses time on various registers, including nocturnal visions, to narrate its story and explore theological questions. Ezra most desires divine wisdom – that is, to understand the divine logic of past and future – at night. Nighttime, though, is also the time when Ezra is forced most dramatically to confront his human epistemological limits. He learns that there are some things humans simply cannot know. In other words, Ezra is kept in the dark.

Certain passages in the earliest rabbinic composition, the Mishnah, similarly relate to the theme of epistemological limits. Tractate Hagigah includes the following warning: “Anyone who looks into four things, it would have been better for him not to have come into the world: what is upward? what is downward? what is forward? and what is backward?” Though scholars debate the precise meaning of this passage, it connects the desire to understand the world with warnings about the dangers of uncovering knowledge that lies beyond the world’s spatial and temporal limits. There are some things, this mishnah insists, that should not be sought, whether because they are unknowable, too dangerous, or inappropriate. The warning is couched in temporal language: one who seeks the mysteries of primordial creation or eschatological end-times as well as heaven and hell should not have been born into this created word. This passage is embedded between two others: an exhortation to tread carefully in efforts to understand the creation of the world, God’s heavenly chariot, and forbidden sexual relations, and a call to protect God’s honor. If 4 Ezra suggests that there are things humans cannot know, this passage in the Mishnah – and others related to it in the Tosefta as well as the Palestinian and Babylonian Talmuds – warns that there is knowledge they should not even seek (even though such knowledge might, in theory, be knowable).

Not all communities in Jewish antiquity encouraged acceptance of epistemological limits, sought to temper inquiry into heavenly wisdom, or felt necessarily confined by the boundaries of human knowledge. Arjen Bakker’s The Secret of Time: Reconfiguring Wisdom in the Dead Sea Scrolls examines a corpus of ancient Jewish texts – the Dead Sea Scrolls – from a community that aimed to transcend human boundaries in order to attain divine knowledge. Though The Secret of Time is a scholarly work, the book’s focus on the pursuit of hidden wisdom and the quest to overcome human limitations taps into contemporary concerns and desires. We find ourselves today in a moment of deep suffering, division, and war, in which the ways of the world seem mysterious and confusing. Like Ezra and Job, we are in despair. Might comprehending the incomprehensible ways of the world offer comfort or reassurance?

Arjen F. Bakker, The Secret of Time: Reconfiguring Wisdom in the Dead Sea Scrolls. Studies on the Texts of the Desert of Judah 143; Leiden: Brill, 2023. 184 pgs. $113 and Open Access Online.

The pursuit of divine knowledge within the community that produced the Dead Sea Scrolls was, Bakker demonstrates, an all-encompassing endeavor that drew upon diverse textual traditions. While many of these traditions were shared by other ancient Jewish communities, this community reconfigured them in unique ways. Bakker begins his study, in the book’s opening chapter, with a methodological call to unsettle distinctions between categories too often imposed on the texts of the Dead Sea Scrolls: wisdom and apocalyptic, biblical and non-biblical, sectarian and non-sectarian. He exposes the circularity of these existing classifications and argues that the texts of the Dead Sea Scrolls ought to be read without such labels. Analyzed on their own terms – literally understanding the terminology that the texts use and how they relate to themes such as wisdom, learning, and time – leads to new discoveries about them. Bakker writes:

“an intricate conception of time far surpasses these two categories of wisdom and apocalyptic and is expressed in a much broader variety of texts. In the construction of the sectarian category, time also plays a central role, since some of the most distinctive features of Qumran sectarianism are temporal: calendrical dispute, determinism or pre- destination, and eschatology. The secret of time, however, invites us to venture beyond these categorizations and explore a rich conceptual framework that is manifested across a wide range of texts, beyond generic categories, and beyond the sectarian divide.”

The book examines the pursuit of divine wisdom in the Dead Sea Scrolls by focusing on the centrality of the rāz nihyeh, which Bakker translates as “the secret of time,” an important unifying concept in the Dead Sea Scrolls: who sought to discover it, by what means, when, and how, and finally the insights that define “the secret of time” itself.

A particularly exciting chapter examines the mechanisms through which wisdom is acquired. Bakker observes that obtaining heavenly wisdom necessitates heavenly forms of study and thus “procedures that push beyond the limits of mortal human beings.” One way of doing so is through continuous study, including throughout the night. One source, for instance, commands, “Day and night meditate on the secret of time and study continually.” Another text provides a literal, practical application, outlining a practice of rotation, in which at least one person studied throughout the day, while at night groups of community members engaged in forms of study collectively in rounds, such that, at any given moment, study was ongoing, implementing a system of continuous learning that persisted through the night.

Continuous and especially nocturnal study is framed, in these sources, as angelic forms of study. For in order to learn the secrets of the heavens, those on earth need to study as though they were angels. Angels have the capacity to study all the time, including at night, when “regular” humans would usually sleep, for they are not bound by the same physical and material limitations as humans. Angels are also imagined as celestial beings, associated with and perhaps even synonymous with the stars, who continuously move across the heavens and illuminate the night. Studying at night, therefore, mimics the angels not only because it instantiates the call to study continuously, but also because the nighttime in particular evokes the angelic and divine sphere. Angels pursue knowledge without tiring and the knowledge that they pursue gets to the root of wisdom itself. Thus, humans mimicking and embodying angelic forms of study and worship might lead to acquiring the divine wisdom to which angels – but typically not humans – have access. Bakker demonstrates that how divine wisdom is obtained is deeply connected to when one pursues it. Reaching beyond human wisdom entails overcoming human temporal limits.

The book makes a stunning revelation. Heavenly wisdom, as it is conceived in the sources, consists of “the secret of time” (rāz nihyeh): divine decisions regarding the past; historical periodization; division of time, including the daily and seasonal alternation between light and dark, the calendar, distinctions between sacred and profane time, liturgical markings of time; anticipation of the future; and, more broadly, the hidden organization of time. And the means to acquire it entail overcoming human limits of time and flesh to continuously pursue it.

The secret of time revolves around understanding the alternation between light and dark (literal and metaphorical); attaining such secrets entails mimicking the angels, who are associated with the nighttime, stars, and nocturnal study. They are beings that resemble humans without being bound by earthly limitations. The sage and the student thus study continually, including at night, and join the angels in prayer, coordinating heavenly and earthly time in order to uncover the very secrets of time that underpin the logic of the cosmos and divine wisdom itself. Bakker shows that what is sought, by whom, how, and when are all intricately and inextricably linked.

In addition to examining the pursuit of hidden knowledge in the Dead Sea Scrolls, Bakker’s analysis opens up many additional avenues for further inquiry. For example, the focus on nocturnal study and prayer, angelic practice, and heavenly constellations contributes to how we tell the story of the ancient night – both in terms of other Jewish sources from the biblical, second temple, and rabbinic periods, and also in the broader context of the late Hellenistic and early Roman worlds. How might these texts fit into a wider history of the night, including the practice of lucubratio (writing or studying late into the night, or “burning the midnight oil”) in Roman elite contexts, the nighttime vigils and prayer services in the development of late antique Christianity, and the more practical but no less important innovations in lighting technologies that facilitated the use of the night in new ways? What might the “secret of time” at the heart of Bakker’s study reveal about the social and cultural history of nighttime in this community, and how, in attempting to overcome the quotidian, limiting dimensions of the night, might the texts that this community studied also illuminate for us those very mundane aspects we might not otherwise have noticed? What was unique about the nighttime in the Dead Sea Scrolls, and what was shared with neighboring communities and empires?

Dead Sea

Bakker’s call to question the distinctions between wisdom and apocalyptic, and sectarian and non-sectarian, might be extended beyond the study of the Dead Sea Scrolls and their relationship to earlier and contemporaneous sources, to later corpora and communities that drew upon many of the same materials but in new contexts. Does blurring distinctions in this case, too, yield exciting new observations, whether about how we imagine these communities, their quest for knowledge, conceived limitations, or the role that time plays in all of these?

For instance, rabbinic sources grapple with the tension, found also in the Dead Sea Scrolls, between the ideal of continual study and the human reality of other obligations and constraints that make such study impossible. In what ways do the texts examined by Bakker resonate with similar commitments in rabbinic sources, and in what ways do they differ? While dominant rabbinic voices in our sources generally shy away from many of the topics associated with hidden knowledge most sought after in the Dead Sea Scrolls (as observed in the warning against seeking what is above and below, ahead and behind mentioned above), the value and commitment to study continually was, at least in theory, shared by the rabbinic enterprise. Rabbinic sources, too, grapple with the tension that emerges from calls to study God’s Torah day and night. These sources, and later traditions based upon them, responded to this commandment in various ways, including instituting a requirement for eligible men to study Torah every day, to set aside regularly scheduled time for study, not to waste time that could otherwise be used for study, and to study whenever possible.

Studying Torah at night becomes a contested issue in the Babylonian Talmud. In b. Eruvin 65a, for example, Rav Yehuda asserts that the night was created for no other purpose but for sleep. Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish counters that the moon was created only for the purpose of Torah study. When Rav Hisda’s daughter encourages her father to get some rest, her father responds that doing so isn’t necessary. And when Rav Nahman bar Isaac asserts that Torah scholars are day laborers, the talmudic narrator notes that when Rav Aha bar Jacob could not finish his studies during the day, he completed them at night, borrowing time, a concept attested as well in Latin literature. Other Talmudic passages less ambivalently promote nighttime study as pious and praiseworthy. A statement attributed to Rabbi Hiyya in b. Tamid 32b teaches that anyone who occupies themselves with Torah at night, God’s presence (the Shekhina) watches over them. b. Sanhedrin 92a likewise declares the “any house in which words of Torah are not heard at night, fire will consume it.” Finally, b. Chagigah 12b mentions that a group of ministering angels recites its song at night while keeping silent during the day, out of respect for Israel, who worship God during the day, an idea echoed as well in Hekhalot literature, which itself accords in certain ways with themes prevalent in the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Bakker writes in an extremely clear and compelling way, his arguments are smart and insightful, and his study transforms how we think about wisdom, time, and the pursuit of knowledge in the Dead Sea Scrolls and in ancient Judaism. Bakker’s study also serves as an excellent example of how time – as it was conceived and used in ancient sources, and also as it functions as a conceptual framework – is itself a mode of analysis for us, as contemporary scholars, to use in our own pursuit of scholarship, to understand the past and present. The texts of the Dead Sea Scrolls, in their dogged insistence that there must be answers to seemingly impossible questions – about God’s ways, the past and the future, the logic of the universe, and the mysteries of time – if only we look harder or inquire in the correct ways, represent a form of hope or resistance to the pain of the present. Time, then as now, serves as a reminder of human limitations. We feel our most vulnerable when we run out of time. Yet when there are urgent matters, including when there are matters of life and death, we race against the clock, persist late into the night, and push our bodies and minds to their limits.

These texts were powerful—and remain powerful—in part because they promised their communities of students access to hidden wisdom, heavenly knowledge, and secrets of time. Such knowledge provided hope and empowerment, and it allowed them to grapple through moments of adversity.


Sarit Kattan Gribetz is Associate Professor of Classical Judaism in the Theology Department at Fordham University and co-director of Fordham’s Center for Jewish Studies. Her book, Time and Difference in Rabbinic Judaism (Princeton University Press, 2020), received a National Jewish Book Award in Scholarship and a Jordan Schnitzer Book Award from the Association for Jewish Studies.


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