I come from a culture (the Netherlands) where, if you ask someone if he’s hungry, s/he’ll look at his/her watch. Dutch Jews developed a unique and very beautiful word for non-observant: free of the clock (klokvrij). It is obvious that at a certain moment, it definitely must be Shabbat already and certain things became forbidden — which helps us to feel its holiness. And therefore, Jews with a fear of Heaven know how to end forbidden activities hours beforehand or to run. (In Winter, Shabbats start early, so we hurry. In Summer, they begin late, and we hurry too.) Shabbat as the holiest of times. It doesn’t just need to pass by or be used well or be killed (Heaven forbid) — it can be sanctified. This is so important that it found its place in the universal Ten Commandments. A non-Jewish colleague of mine in Amsterdam once asked me: “Why do Jews already run? Don’t you also have 24 hours in a day like everyone else?” Sharp observation! I think it’s because we know the value of time, not just life.
Yet, a teacher of mine when he was doing army service here in Israel, once looked at his clock and then said: “O no, Minchah” — he still had to say the Afternoon Prayers and sundown was fast approaching. To which a fellow soldier said mockingly: “You’re more afraid of the Shekia’ [dusk] than of the Shechinah [the Divine Presence].” Reb Shlomo Carlebach was once asked how he could still conduct the Afternoon Prayers many hours after sundown. He replied: “Chassidim [pious Jews] are not afraid of the dark.”
It is clear that the Torah is very precise and strict with honesty. So, when we made an appointment with someone, we shouldn’t be late because that’s a form of stealing. A foreign Jewish teacher at a Jewish school in Amsterdam once got his salary reduced (is such a thing possible at all?) for systematically coming late to class. Not only did he steal from his employer — he taught the kids bad morals about time. But did the Jewish tradition otherwise really set out for Jews to be so precise with the clock?
Certain Festivals you can only start at nightfall. Which is a problem for when one is in countries where the sun sets late outside of wintertime. Kiddush for Pentecost in the Low Countries is after 11 PM. It can’t be earlier because the Torah says to first count seven full weeks. Even 99% of a day is not a full day. The Torah tells us that we should hold the Passover Seider at night. That’s not easy for the very young and very old. (Yet, then you’ve more time in the afternoon to nap to be fit for the whole night.)
Our Rabbis have decided to keep half an hour between when we could still say Morning Prayers and when we may say the Afternoon prayer already. This, since the human eye cannot discern more precisely when the sun is at its highest point indicating midday. But now, we treat midday to the second as a cutting-off point. Just as the couple of which one spouse came from a Jewish community where one is notoriously late and the other from one where one is obsessively on time. Before the wedding, they decided that from now on, they’d always come everywhere strictly two hours late.
Jokes aside, how strict are we to be with time when we don’t keep others waiting? There is a concept of zerizut, which is often regarded to mean speedily. However, it’s not really hastily. It more means immediately. Trying to execute a Commandment as soon as its time has arrived or as soon as it became in force. Strike while the iron is hot, or: seize the day.
But do we need to stand with the stopwatch in hand to see to it that we say the center of Morning Prayers at exactly the time of sunrise? Do we show our love of G-d when we drag it out or rush it to arrive at that point in prayer on the dot? Religious Jews that I know do so. But talking to my Ethiopian elderly bus driver yesterday, that seemed a cultural and not a Jewish thing. He said he didn’t take part in the races or competitions. He set out when he needed to and he’ll see when he’ll arrive. All the stress is not worth it. We talked about farming in Ethiopia. Lives run by the sun, not the clock. No hurry but long days — they work hard, from sunrise to sunset.
I once met an impressive guy who committed to speaking super-slowly always. He was special in many ways, a Jew, Gay, from a wealthy US upbringing, and brilliant. You wanted to hear what he had to say or he liked to say anything? Only word; by; word. Patience can be learned too.
So, could we maybe tone it down a bit, the rush to be in time for G-d? Once I coined this idea: “Every yawn adds a day to your life.” I don’t know if it’s true at all. But just thinking about this (or: doing it) gives me a glimpse of the possibility to live more in the present — talking about time.
Tu biShvat sameiach! (See the timely video clip on top.)