People of the Books

Brian Zimmerman

Examining the world through the microscope and Midrash. By Spertus Institute's Brian Zimmerman.

People of the Books

People of the clock

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It's hard to believe it's already July. In fact, it barely seems possible that the calendar year is more than halfway over. I often wonder what accounts for this feeling of fast-fowarding. Maybe it was this year's long winter (and my willfulness to forget about it) that erased half of the calendar from my memory. With so much time slipping past me unnoticed, I wondered if there was anything I could do about it. Looking for answers, I turned to my good friends Science and Judaism. As always, they had a lot to say.

In his fascinating book A Geography of Time, social psychologist Robert Levine explores how different cultures keep track of time. His temporal pursuits take him to Brazil, where it is perfectly customary for businessmen to be three hours late to an appointment, and later to Japan, where people have a term for the time between syllables (ma), and for the time it takes for two people to agree on a complicated topic (nemawashi). Closer to home, Levine travels to America's busiest cities only to discover that a New York minute actually does feel faster than a Cleveland one, but that neither is as fast as a Boston minute. During the course of his journeys, Levine reaches some profound conclusions on how we humans choose to mind the hours. But at the end of the book, he turns to his own cultural roots in Judaism to learn how to appreciate the time he takes for granted.

"Judaism is very much a religion of time," says Levine in the closing chapter of Geography of Time. Indeed, when you really look at it, Jewish life seems as if it is constructed on temporal increments. In the Torah, we are told to prayer at three specific times each day. On Friday evenings, the Shabbat candles must be lit no later than eighteen minutes before sunset. On Saturday, the end of Shabbat is determined in time - precisely 42 minutes after sundown. The Jewish year is divided into exactly 29 days, twelve hours, and 793 halakim (a unit of time equaling three and a third seconds). "Our connection to time…is woven so much into the very fabric of Jewish life and Jewish death," says Debbie Weissman, director of the Institute for Humanistic Jewish Education in Jerusalem, "that one can say we are not just the people of the book, but of the clock."  

But isn't just the clock that governs Jewish ritual. It's the calendar, too. The male infant has his brit (ritual circumcision) on his eight day of life. The bat and bar mitzvah occur at age thirteen. The Jewish year prescribes eight days for lighting Hanukkah candles, six days for fasting, and eight to eat only unleavened bread. We know what all this time-keeping means for our calendars - they're chock-full of meetings and dinner plans - but what does it mean for our spirituality? Writer and magazine editor Letty Pogrebin, who's quoted extensively in Levine's book, believes that Jews place such high regard on the counting of time because we consider our time on earth to be extremely valuable. As she puts it, "one does not count what one does not value."

But why value time in the first place? Levine thinks it has something to do with how the religion developed. Given Jews' history as a wandering people, says Levine, they never developed the luxury of becoming attached to a place (except Jerusalem) or a sacred object. What Jews did form an attachment to was time. For evidence, Levine directs his readers to the Torah, which includes numerous mentions of perfunctory time off. One of the most famous, of course, is the Sabbatical year, or shmita.

In the Bible, the Sabbatical year refers to mandate of letting the land owned by Jews in their own country lie fallow every seventh year. All the produce of the land that grows by itself must be free to all (even animals have equal access), and all loans are to be forgiven, allowing people sunk in debt an opportunity to start over. The Sabbatical year remains a stirring example of an entire society choosing to live at a lower material standard for a year in order to devote itself to more spiritual pursuits than the daily grind.

After all, it's the daily grind that that seems to take up so much of our lives, isn't it? As Letty Pogrebin writes, "I realize I spend so much of my life producing things…As long as I have something to show for my time, I tell myself I know where the time went and what it was for." I can certainly say that's true for me. Often, I live my life in constant fear of time. Will I have enough time to finish my big article? Will I have the time to work out in the morning? Where will I find the time to travel? Write my book? Learn a new language? Make tomorrow's lunch? How can I get it all done before time runs out?

Sometimes, I find myself wishing I could take a break from producing things and just enjoy time itself. Can it be done?

Sure it can. Enter Shabbat.

"The essence of Judaism's mindfulness of time is the Sabbath," writes Levine. He has centuries' worth of Jewish wisdom to back him up. As is written in the Torah, God devoted six days to creating the heavens and the earth. Then, on the seventh day, God rested. It's such a simple concept, but as Levine makes clear, its implications are extraordinary. After such an astounding feat as creating the entire universe, God could have sanctified the creation with a material object, like a gilded palace in the clouds or a holy shrine in heaven.  Instead, God created a holy sense of time. "The seventh day…is a palace in time," writes Levine. "It is a sanctuary we build - a temporal sanctuary." In this sanctuary, we are more or less free from the fear of having to get things done by a deadline. We are forced to relax, step back, and appreciate the things that really count - like our friends, family, and faith - and the time we are fortunate enough to spend amongst them.   

Shabbat, however you choose to observe it, isn't just a day of the week. It's a mindset, one that can be incorporated into every aspect of our lives. As the hours and minutes tick by, it's important to remember to enjoy time for what it is, to set aside moments of "pure time-serenity," as Letty Pogrebin calls them. These moments enable us to understand not just the value in our actions, but the meaning as well. This concept isn't anything new in Judaism. It's been around for thousands of years. Take the shechecheyanu prayer for example, which thanks God for allowing us to live long enough to reach a special moment. It's an unbridled expression of appreciation for life, and one of the most commonly said prayers in Judaism. Its direct translation is "Who has given us life?" But more often than not, it's referred to as the Blessing over Time.


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