19 December 2008

The Religious Origins of Our Weeks

All early cultures were exposed to the night sky. The seven celestial objects visible with the naked eye (that moved in a way that clearly indicated they were not stars) worked their way into the myths and legends of most early cultures. Time was and still is easily measured by celestial events, the spring equinox for example, occurs approximately every 365 days. It was easy to adapt the other 7 objects clearly seen floating about in the sky to measure the passage of time. The Sun, Moon and five visible planets gave their names to the weekly cycle of days.

This pattern lent itself to early religious teachings (Greek mythology for example) for most all knowledge -- astronomy, reading and writing, and most forms of education -- came from religious centers. Two in particular -- astronomy and religion -- often went hand in hand.

The concept of the Jewish and Christian seven-day week (Hebrew "shavua") is reflected in the Book of Genesis (the first book of the Torah and the Old Testament.) God creates the universe, earth, animals, and man in six days, resting on the seventh day, which is the Sabbath.

The existence of the sabbath day within the context of the seven-day week was affirmed. After the Exodus, manna appeared on all mornings except for the sabbath morning. Manna collected on other mornings rotted if held overnight but manna which was collected on the eve of the sabbath remained fresh for two days [1]. Observance of the sabbath is included in the Ten Commandments.

In Judaism, with emphasis on the Shabbat and the significant number seven, the week did not retain a lunar connection; by the time of the second temple it was defined only as a period of seven days, independent of the new moon. The new moon, heralding a new calendar month and observed as Rosh Chodesh, and the days of the month, are calculated according to the rules of the lunisolar Hebrew calendar.

From Judaism the week passed over to Christianity. Jesus did miraculous healings on the sabbath and declared himself to be Lord of the Sabbath.

Prior to Christianity, the week had already been regarded as a sacred institution among the Jews owing to the law of the Shabbat and its association with the first chapter of Genesis. The mixed practices of early Christian groups, which began with Jewish majorities, have been subject to varying interpretations. Many continued Sabbath meetings in synagogues (Acts passim); many celebrated "the first day of the week" (Acts 20:7; 1 Cor. 16:2; cf. Rev. 1:10), also called the "eighth day"; but the seven-day weekly cycle remained undisturbed. Depending on location and timing within the first and second centuries, uniquely Christian meetings may have formed either an annual or a weekly cycle, or both.

The eighth day, according to the Epistle of Barnabas (xv), was "the beginning of another world .... wherefore also we keep the eighth day for rejoicing, in the which also Jesus rose from the dead and having been manifested ascended into the heavens." The Didache directs (viii), "Let not your fasts be with the hypocrites; for they fast on the second and fifth days of the week, but do ye fast on the fourth and on the day of preparation" (the sixth day, prior to the original Sabbath); and (xiv), "And on the Day of the Lord come together and break bread and give thanks." By the time of Tertullian, the first day in each week was regarded as commemorating the resurrection; it has also been suggested that the fourth and sixth days reflect the betrayal and passion of Christ. Over the first four centuries CE, Sunday gradually replaced the original Sabbath as the primary day of religious observances, and, eventually, as the primary day of rest.

In Roman Catholic liturgy, this simple week gave place in time, as feasts were introduced and multiplied, to an annual calendar, but the week, newly dominated by the special status of Sunday, retained its importance; this can be inferred from Amalarius, who preserves the particulars of the arrangement accepted in the Aachen chapel royal in 802, by which the whole Psalter was recited in the course of each week. In its broader features this division was identical with that theoretically imposed by the Roman Breviary until the publication of the Apostolic Constitution "Divine afflatu", November 1, 1911; and the Carlovingian arrangement was apparently substantially the same as that already accepted by the Roman Church. In the sixth century, St. Benedict had also said that the entire Psalter was to be recited at least once in the week, and a similar arrangement was attributed to Pope St. Damasus.

The Catholic church also devoted particular days to particular subjects: the Office of the Blessed Virgin on Saturday, Masses of the Passion on Friday during Lent, and Pope Leo XIII's arrangement of Votive Offices for special week days. In the early Middle Ages, Thursday may have been regarded in the West as a sort of lesser feast or Sunday, probably because it was the day assigned to the Ascension (cf. Bede, Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum, IV, 25). The Breviary approved after the Council of Trent assigned certain devotions, such as the Office for the Dead and Gradual Psalms, to weekly recitations, particularly on the Mondays of Advent and Lent.

Other religions have also set apart a day for particular religious activities within the context of a seven-day week.

The seven-day week became established in both the West and East according to different paths. Hindu civilization used a seven-day week. It is mentioned in the Ramayana, a sacred epic written in Sanskrit about 500 BCE.

The earliest known reference in Chinese writings is attributed to Fan Ning, who lived in the late 4th century, while diffusions via India are documented with the writings of the Chinese Buddhist monk Yi Jing and the Ceylonese or Central Asian Buddhist monk Bu Kong of the 7th century. The Chinese transliteration of the planetary system was soon brought to Japan by the Japanese monk Kobo Daishi; surviving diaries of the Japanese statesman Fujiwara Michinaga show the seven day system in use in Heian Period Japan as early as 1007. In Japan, the seven day system was kept in use (for astrological purposes) until its promotion to a full-fledged (Western-style) calendrical basis during the Meiji era.

The Chinese use of the seven day week (and thus Korean, Japanese, Tibetan, and Vietnamese use) traces back to the 600s CE. The 28 stars were arranged in order of sun, moon, fire, water, wood, gold, earth, and every 7 days were called "qi-yao". The days were assigned to each of the luminaries, but the week did not affect social life or the official calendar. The law in the Han Dynasty required officials of the empire to rest every 5 days, called "mu", while it was changed into 10 days in the Tang Dynasty, called "huan" or xún (旬). With months being almost 3 weeks long (alternating 29 and 30 days) the weeks were labelled shàng xún (上旬), zhōng xún (中旬), and xià xún (下旬) which mean roughly "upper", "middle" and "lower" week. The 7 days "week" in ancient China is mostly kept in astrological purposes and cited in several Buddhist texts until the Jesuits reintroduced the concept in the 16th century. Thus the 19th century Japanese, when adopting the seven day western week, took their own astrological week with names for the days of the week that corresponded to the English names (and in fact were better preservations of the original Babylonian concepts, the English day names having been conflated with gods from Germanic mythology).
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