Miqeitz: Time and Process

The parashah opens “Vayhi mikeitz sh’nasayim yamim — and it was at the end of a pair of years of days”. After Yosef spent two years in prison, Par’oh’s dream leads the wine steward to remember Yosef and eventually leads to his redemption. But why does the pasuk say “sh’nasayim yamim”, rather than just “shenasayim”? [1]

Second, why is the term used here for the arrival of the denoted time “mikeitz”, at the endpoint (from “katzeh”, edge [2])? How does it differ from saying that the “z’man”, or “eis” (both meaning “time”) had arrived?

This duplication of terms for time is echoed in next week’s parashah, when Ya’akov describes his age to Par’oh as “The days of the years of my travels…” [3] as well as at the beginning of parashas Vayechi, in counting out Ya’akov avinu’s lifespan, “… And the days of Ya’akov was, the years of his life…” [4] The repetition implies that there are distinct concepts. Yom and shanah refer to different things.

Most ancient societies viewed time as cyclic. Among the motivations suggested [5] for the building of the Tower of Bavel was the fear that the flood was part of a 1,656-year cycle, and they would need to prepare for a second flood.

The position is understandable. Plato [6] concludes that since our means of measuring time was the cyclic movement of astronomical objects so must the time they define be cyclic. The month and its cycle of phases, the year and its cycle of seasons define a cycle of time. The seasonal cycle also shapes the farmer’s lifestyle into cycles. Time cannot be measured without a predictable repetition of events, be it the falling of grains of sand, the swing of a pendulum, the escapement of a clock, the vibration of a quartz crystal or the waves of light emitted by cesium atoms.

This mindset is alien to modern man. The contemporary western view of time is linear, a dimension — a progress from the primitive to the advanced. This notion that history progresses comes from Judaism, from our view of time as running from First Cause to Ultimate Purpose, a history spanning from Adam to the Messianic Era and beyond. This acceptance is an accomplishment of the Chashmona’i revolution against the Greek mindset. Linear time gives us a view of man in which he can redeem himself; he is not doomed to repeat the same mistakes over and over. On the other hand, Judaism simultaneously embraces a cyclic view of time. As the Hagaddah phrases the purpose of the seder, “A person is obligated to see himself as though he himself came out of Egypt.” Every Shavuos we are to accept the Torah anew. Our holidays not only repeat the cycle of the Exodus, they are tied to agricultural events and thereby the cycle of seasons. The holiday is both reliving the Sukkos of the desert as well as celebrating bringing in our crops. [7]

The Zohar [8] describes a system of grammatical gender follows the conventions of sexual reproduction: Biblical Hebrew uses masculine nouns for those things that we think of as initiators that start a process. Feminine nouns take that seed and develop it into something more complete and usable. “Yom”, being in the masculine is therefore an initiator. “Yom” represents a unit of progress. It is a unit of linear time, a progress from birth to death. The culmination of history is notably called “acharis hayamim” [9] and in the navi, “yom Hashem” [10].

In contrast, “shanah” is from the same root as “two”, “to repeat”, “to learn”, or “to change”, and perhaps even that of “to age” and “to sleep”, as in “venoshantem ba’aretz” [11].

Shanah speaks of a retreat. A person can actively embrace that retreat, use it as a chance to build on what one already has. Or, it can be a time when he simply is a victim of circumstance.

While there is a need for progress, there is also a need to step back, to review, to develop the idea into something we can incorporate within ourselves and can use as a basis for future growth. It can be a time to regain a balance between technological progress and one’s basic humanity and values. If he embraces and uses the time, then he has achieved productive review, “years of days”.

Perhaps this is why the Malbim [12] explains Ya’akov avinu’s reply to Par’oh as having two parts. To Par’oh’s question about years, he answers that he traveled this earth 130 years. About days, Ya’akov laments that he did not use his time as productively as did his fathers, “Few and insufficient were the days of my life’s years, and they never reached the days of the years of my forefather’s lives.” [13]

R’ Aharon Kotler zt”l commented to a student on the occasion of the birth of the student’s son about the phrase “The bris should be be’ito ubizmano”, using both “eis” and “z’man” to denote its proper time. Rav Aharon explained the difference. If the baby is healthy, then the bris is at the pre-decided time, on the eighth day. If not, then it will be at the right time for that individual baby. Ideally the bris would be at both.

A z’man is a time that comes according to a pre-scheduled appointment, ready or not. It is a point in a shanah, in cyclic time that runs its celestial heartbeat regardless of human action. And so, the repeat of the exodus is “Z’man Cheiruseinu”, our time of freedom. An eis is a landmark in the course of progression. And so, one is “kovei’ah ittim baTorah”, one sets aside times for Torah.

But neither a z’man nor an eis can represent the goal of the trip. Reflection without progress and progress without reflection as to its purpose does not get one to a meaningful goal. A keitz, an endpoint, can only come from both.

Yosef’s experience in the pit was not simply measured in years of survival, but also in personal progress. After the culmination, the qeitz, of shenasayim yamim, he was ready to emerge a leader.


[1] We find the exact same turn of phrase in Shmuel II 14:28 and Yirmiyahu 28:3. In all three cases, the time measured is one in which someone (here — Yosef, Avshalom in Shmuel II) or something (the utensils of the Beis HaMikdash in Yirmiyahu) was in hiding.

[2] C.f. Shemos 36:33, “And he made the middle bar to pass through the boards [of the Mishkan] from the katzeh to the katzeh.”

[3] Bereishis 47:8

[4] Ibid. v. 28. Notable is the use of singular “hayah” referring to the days.

[5] Bereishis Rabba 38:1, third opinion

[6] Timaeus 36c-d

[7] Vayikra 23:39,43

[8] Pinechas 249a-b

[9] Eg. Sukkah 52b

[10] Eg. Malachi 4:5

[11] Devarim 4:25

[12] Bereishis 47:8

[13] Bereishis 47:9

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  1. Pam Green says:

    I don’t think you should cite Judaism as the origin of the modern view of time as linear and progressive. The linear-progressive model was developed to justify European colonialism and anthropology as the ‘handmaiden’ of colonialism. The theory went that mankind had developed from the primitive to the advanced. So, indigenous peoples who seemed primitive to the Europeans were considered less intelligent, unable to advance.

    To associate Judaism with this now well-known racist theory is both wrong and dangerous.

    • micha says:

      The notion that history runs from Adam to the messiah is older than (and in fact motivated) Christianity, never mind colonialism. And it’s a linear, progressive, model of time. The Imperial west may have adopted and adapted the idea for its own purposes, but one can’t say I’m associating Judaism with what racists did with an idea millennia after we developed it.

      • Pam Green says:

        Luckily your blog isn’t mainstream because anti-Semites don’t make such distinctions. In any case, I don’t know why you would want to claim such a theory. From an historical perspective, it was debunked over 100 years ago. Things don’t move forward, and they most especially don’t improve with time.

        • micha says:

          But it’s not only Judaism that has the “midgets atop the shoulders of giants” view of history. So do Christians awaiting Jesus’s alleged second coming, and Moslem awaiting Yom ad-Din and Yom al-Qiyama (the day of judgment and the day of resurrection). If the antisemite is willing to associate Judaism with colonial antisemitism because we adopted this notion of historical (decelerating) progress, then it’s the antisemite’s problem, not mine.

          (Embedded in the above is assertion that Zoroastrian messianism comes from the era in which the Jewish prophets were the sages of the Babylonian and then Persian-Median court. As recorded in the latter prophets. And therefore they got the idea from us. There are Christian skeptics who wish to deprecate the idea of messianism by asserting the idea flowed the other way, but it’s not supported by historical fact.)

          • Pam Green says:

            Ironically, your ‘midgets on the shoulders of giants’ quote is far older than Judaism. Do you know its history? As for ‘it’s the anti-Semites’ problem, not mine’, I’ve heard that attitude expressed by my fellow Jews before and it strikes me as highly impractical.

          • micha says:

            At some point you have to give up. The point of this blog is to share my thoughts about Torah with other Jews. I can’t worry overly much about how my words will strike someone looking for reasons to hate me. Such as faulting Jews for something people of his own religious background adopted from us.

            As for the history of the “atop the shoulders of giants” metaphor, In another blog post I traced it as far back as: “Pigmaei gigantum humeris impositi plusquam ipsi gigantes vident. — Pigmies placed on the shoulders of giants see more than the giants themselves.”, Didacus Stella in Lucan 10, tom. ii. (39-65 CE)

            Which is far younger than Judaism. Do you know of an earlier source?

            Notice, though, that you just also asserted an origin for the notion of progress, albeit decelerating progress, that is far older than colonialism. I think the problem with today’s age is the conflation of our accelerating technological progress with our actual stature.

          • Pam Green says:

            Where did I assert “an origin for the notion of progress”? Are you suggesting that the midgets/giants quote is a reference to linear progress?

          • micha says:

            Yes, “atop the shoulders of giants” does imply progress. It sets to explain how we expect to reach the goal, whereas generations before us, comprised of people greater than us, did not. The whole idea is that even though we are less capable to contribute to moral/spiritual progress than they had, we are progressing from where they brought us to, not from ground zero.

            As I wrote, the metaphor is of a decelerating progress.

            But in any case, of linear time, of a history that tends toward that goal we midgets still have a hope of reaching. Unlike Plato’s or Axtecian circular time, in which nothing really changes.

          • Pam Green says:

            Well, Micha, my advice to you is that whenever you see something worthy in a Greek or Roman author, assume that it was stolen from a more advanced culture.

            Out of curiosity, how did you find the Didacus Stella reference?

          • Pam Green says:

            Having followed your link to your previous post, and, in turn, to the blog post of Rabbi Sedley entitled “Dwarves on the Shoulders of Giants”, I really don’t understand the comment you left under Rabbi Sedley’s article. You wrote,
            “Pigmaei gigantum humeris impositi plusquam ipsi gigantes vident — Pigmies placed on the shoulders of giants see more than the giants themselves.” – Didacus Stella in Lucan 10, tom. ii. (39-65 CE, around the time of Hillel and Shammai).”

            Rabbi Sedley cited a book by Robert Merton, On The Shoulders of Giants, which explained in detail that there is no reference to this aphorism in Lucan! This mistake persisted for centuries because no scholar actually looked it up – so you, Micha, are in good company! Merton goes on to say that Didacus Stella – a 16th century Spanish mystic – was referring to the gospel of Luke.

            You should at least have provided a source for your comment instead of boasting that you yourself had traced the aphorism to the time of Jesus, not only to save yourself from embarrassment but to reassure any contemporary sources that you wouldn’t think of taking credit for others’ ideas. Personally, I feel uneasy about telling you the provenance and original meaning of the saying, which does predate Judaism and which had absolutely nothing to do with progress or linear time. The metaphor was invented long after the history and science were forgotten! It is like people of the future, with only scraps of books extant, looking at a painting of Adam and Eve and making up a story about an illicit love affair being found out during a picnic.

            And the greatest irony of all is that the pride taken in this metaphor, in the absence of historical knowledge, demonstrates why there can be no linear progress. It is because knowledge is lost! Or should I say, it is conveniently, intentionally, destroyed? As sentimental as the concept might be, we do not stand on the shoulders of those who came before. During every political regime change in history, the incoming despots destroy the knowledge of their predecessors. And it takes hundreds of years to recover, if recovery even occurs.

            As for your reference to “Plato’s or Axtecian (sic) circular time, in which nothing really changes”, that too is a facile cliche. I used to be so proud of the intellectualism of the Jews but it seems that we really are living on past glory, just keeping our brand alive.

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