The Seven Day Circle

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 10)

One of the most pervasive features of late twentieth century American life is the emphasis on greater and greater control of smaller and smaller units of time. Elaborate daily planners are no longer the exclusive province of high-level executives. Best-selling books feature titles such as The One-Minute Manager, and advertising agencies are perfecting the fifteen-second television commercial.

This pervasive time-consciousness is one of the subjects of a new field of study, the sociology of time—the specialty of Eviatar Zerubavel, who excels at making the insights of his scholarship accessible to the general reader. While Zerubavel’s first book, Patterns of Time in Hospital Life (1979), was narrow in focus, his second book, Hidden Rhythms: Schedules and Calendars in Social Life (1981), treated such topics as the nature of temporal regularity, private time and public time, and the origin of the schedule, which can be traced to medieval Benedictine monasteries. Hidden Rhythms is a fascinating book, rich in implications, and with his third book, The Seven Day Circle: The History and Meaning of the Week, Zerubavel has produced a worthy sequel.

The Seven Day Circle began, Zerubavel says, in answer to a question posed by his three-and-a-half-year-old daughter: “Daddy, what’s Thursday?” In answering this question, Zerubavel explores the origins of the seven-day week and its sociological and psychological implications.

The very concept of the week, apparently universal, represents a revolutionary view of time. The day is tied to the alternation of light and dark. The month and year reflect the lunar and solar cycles respectively. All these measurements of time are thus tied to the rhythms of nature. The week, on the other hand, is artificial, a man-made construct created to break away from those natural patterns. Zerubavel points out that for many social activities, the day is too short an interval and the month too long—for market days, to cite one example. The solution has been some form of the week, a recurring cycle of time varying in length from five to twenty days.

The seven-day week of the Western world arose from two sources. The first is the Old Testament version of Creation, in which God made the world in six days and rested on the seventh. The Jewish Sabbath commemorating the Creation thus recurred every seventh day, and the six days in between were numbered to show their distance from the previous Sabbath: First Day, Second Day, and so on, a system still used by Jews and Quakers and analogous to the way African tribes measure the intervals between regularly recurring market days.

The second origin of the week supplied the standard names of the days. The ancients knew of seven planets—wandering bodies as opposed to the fixed stars: Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, the Sun, Venus, Mercury, the Moon. According to Babylonian astronomy, each hour of each day was governed by one of these planets, and the ruler of the first hour was called the regent of that day. If Saturn ruled the first hour and hence was regent of that day, the Sun would rule the twenty-fifth hour, or the first hour of the next day. The Moon would then be regent of the third day, Mars of the fourth, Mercury of the fifth, Jupiter the sixth, and Venus the seventh. The eighth...

(The entire section is 1370 words.)