Book Review

The Seven Day Circle: The History and Meaning of the Week by Eviatar Zerubavel, University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, 1989; 206 pages, ISBN 0226981657, paperback, $22.00.

Most of us organize our lives around the seven-day week, but unlike the day, month, or year, it is a fully manmade cycle. In this book the author explores its origins in the Jewish week, centered on the recurring Sabbath, and in the astrological week where each day is ruled by one of the seven planets, as still seen in the English names of the days. The astrological week most probably originated during the 2nd century BC, since

It was only in Alexandria [Egypt] that three distinct practices that had evolved quite independently of the Chaldean planetary theory -- an astronomical practice of arranging the seven planets in a certain invariable order, a mathematical practice of subdividing the daily cycle into twenty-four hours, and an astrological theory known as the doctrine of "chronocratores" -- were nevertheless integrated with it so as to produce the astrological seven-day week in its final form. This cycle is therefore the product of the successful Hellenistic fusion of astronomy, astrology, and mathematics, as well as of the great cultural heritage of Egypt, Babylonia, and Greece. -- p. 14

Julius Caesar's conquest of Egypt in the 1st century BC introduced this planetary week to the Roman Empire, which still used the Etruscan eight-day week. Since the astrological and Jewish weeks were both seven days long, by the 1st century AD the day of Saturn had become identified with the Jewish Sabbath. After Christianity became the state religion, the Church integrated both cycles to produce our present week, used also by Jews and Moslems.

Dr. Zerubavel examines other "weekly" cycles, such as the African four-day week, Chinese three- and twelve-day weeks, the Baha'i nineteen-day week, and the ancient Central American twenty- and thirteen-day weeks, as well as a very complex Javanese calendar which contains several overlapping weekly cycles of different lengths. Particularly interesting are two European attempts to abolish the seven-day week: the ten-day week imposed in France after the Revolution (1793- 1805) and the Soviet five- and six-day weeks, imposed from 1929-1931 and 1931-1940 respectively. Other twentieth-century proposals to regularize the calendar by inserting "blank" days with no day-name assigned to them failed to be implemented, despite powerful support from business and political interests. The reason: Sundays would not always have been exactly seven days apart, thus interfering with the religious obligation of some groups "to observe the Sabbath precisely every seven days with no exception whatsoever" (p. 81).

The author also explores the sociological and psychological dimensions of the seven-day week in various contexts, showing it to be a necessary, powerful, but arbitrary human construction. An extensive bibliography provides avenues for exploring issues of interest. -- Sarah Belle Dougherty

(From Sunrise magazine, August/September 2003; copyright © 2003 Theosophical University Press)

World Spiritual Traditions Menu