Monday, July 21, 2008

Commentary on the schedule

This is some background information on the schedule for the first year of Sefer Ha-Aggadah.

Sefer Ha-Aggadah is organized in a four-level hierarchy:
a) The work is divided into six parts (without names). Parts I and II are arranged chronologically. Part I covers the biblical period and beyond, through the destruction of the Second Temple, and Part II covers the rabbinic period. Parts III-VI are arranged thematically. Part III deals with Israel and Torah, Part IV with God and theology, Part V with people and society, and Part VI with the natural world and miscellaneous topics.
b) Each part is divided into chapters, which have names and numbers.
c) Each chapter is divided into sections, which have names (this is what is listed in the rightmost column of the spreadsheet), and in the Hebrew version only, also have numbers.
d) Each section is divided into individual aggadot (atomic units of aggadah/legend). These are numbered from the beginning of the chapter (the numbers don't start over in each section). These are of drastically varying length, ranging from a single line to multiple pages.

Thus, for example, Part I (biblical period and beyond) has 10 chapters. Chapter 5 deals with Israel's time in the desert, and has 27 sections. Section 11 (no number in the English edition) deals with Korach's rebellion, and contains 7 aggadot (numbered 93 to 99).

When we did a straw poll a while back, the most popular choice was to split Sefer Ha-Aggadah evenly over two years. So the first year will cover all of Parts I and II, and the first 6 chapters of Part III. This calendar begins on the Monday a week after the end of Institute 2008 (figuring that it will take a week for people to get back into the normal rhythm of life) and ends on the Friday before Institute 2009. Each week, Saturday and Sunday are treated as a single day, and major Jewish holidays (using a maximalist definition of which days are considered holidays) are similarly combined with the day before or after them, to accommodate different rhythms of reading and blogging/commenting.

We tried to harmonize two seemingly conflicting ideals that were expressed: 1) keeping the pace as even as possible, 2) splitting up the text based on logical divisions rather than typographical ones (e.g. a page a day). So the reading for each day is split up mostly along section divisions (which has the added bonus of being consistent between the Hebrew and English versions, which have different page numbering), though due to the large variation in section lengths, it was often necessary to split a single section among multiple days, or combine multiple sections onto a single day. In no circumstances is a single aggadah split up. Some of these aggadot (e.g. Moses's death) are particularly long, and rather than split them up, we assigned shorter sections to nearby days, to make it easy to read ahead or catch up if needed. (The also lengthy story of the Ten Martyrs has internal divisions in the Hebrew version but not the English version, but we can address that when we get there.)


It's also cool to look at the (entirely random and coincidental) correspondences between this schedule and the Hebrew calendar. The story of the Akedah (binding of Isaac) will be the week before Rosh Hashanah, so we'll be equipped to prepare interesting discussions and divrei torah in our communities. The story of Honi the circlemaker, a perennial Tu Bishvat favorite, will be on... Tu Bishvat! (If you don't know this story, don't worry -- you will!) The Three Weeks leading up to Tisha B'Av include the sections about physical and spiritual exile, transitioning to the messianic redemption.

Some of these correspondences, on the other hand, are exactly the opposite of what one would expect, which may lead us to new perspectives on familiar holidays. During Chanukah, a festival
celebrating the rededication of the Temple, we'll read about the destruction of the First Temple. On and around Purim, a day celebrating a narrow escape from annihilation, we'll read about the
Ten Martyrs, for whom no such escape happened. (Maybe the difference between blessing and curse isn't so clear.) In contrast, the story of Purim itself falls around the Gregorian new year, a time of Purimesque revelry in the secular culture.

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