The Great Disappearing Act: Black Holes of Time

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21 Sep 2011

(Earlier in 2011, NASA’s Swift detected intense X-ray flares thought to be caused by a black hole devouring a star. The video model above and all photos below are courtesy of NASA multimedia productions.)

Have you ever experienced the black hole of time? I have, and I am sure you have as well.

What is a black hole of time? It is a period of time that mysteriously disappears into thin air. In the past century, scientists have discovered black holes in the spatial dimensions of the universe, but I’ve not seen any literature on black holes of time. No matter! I have experienced this phenomenon, and I know, with certainty, they exist.

While black holes of time are unsettling, some are innocuous, and their psychological effect is transient. Other black holes are of far greater consequence and can be very frightening.

First, let me relate two relatively mild experiences.


As a young child, I was profoundly influenced by a charismatic young man, who often studied Torah with me. One day, my mentor moved away, and we completely lost touch. Nonetheless, I would often recall his warmth, youthful smile and vitality. I recently met him once again. More than a half century had passed since we last saw each other. He was bent over, wrinkled and frail, limping with the aid of a cane. I was stunned by what appeared to me to be an abrupt change. It seemed as if only yesterday we had been studying together, a young man and his student, yet now an old man stood before me. As we move through life, we usually observe changes that occur slowly with the passage of time. However, because I had not seen my friend for over five decades, I experienced his transformation from youth to old age in one moment of time. Intellectually, I knew his frailty was due to a process that slowly unfolded, but in my mind, there was no time lapse at all. It was as if fifty years had vanished. Where did it go? It was swallowed in the black hole of time.


Even more upsetting was the passing of the Rav of my father’s shul. When my mother, of blessed memory, passed away in 1987, I sat shiva with my father in Yerushalayim. The Rav of the local shul paid a shiva call and left a beautiful hand-written note of condolence about my mother. I was moved by the Rav’s warmth and sincerity. Though I met the Rav for only a brief time, I felt as though he were a close friend. It was 10 years before I traveled to Israel again, and I looked forward to greeting the Rav once more. I walked into shul with my father and was surprised to see a new person in the Rav’s chair. “Where is the Rav I met 10 years ago?” I inquired. My father’s eyes dropped as he replied, “He was ill and passed away”. I was shocked. “When did that happen?” “Seven years ago”, was my father’s response. I was shattered. For years, this Rav was not among the living, yet I was unaware of his passing during that entire period of time. Seven years passed in one moment. Where did they disappear? They vanished into a vacuum, into the black hole of time.

Yet as unsettling as these two episodes were, they did not affect me in any profound way. Other encounters with the black hole are much more troubling.

As I grow older, I look back at my life and I cannot believe how old I am, nor can I clearly account for all the time that has passed by. Where have all the years of my life gone? How did they disappear? In my mental image, I am about twenty five years younger than I really am. Where then are all the missing years? They evaporated into emptiness, into the black hole of time.

I am not alone in experiencing this sentiment. For example, I wonder why people are often saddened by nostalgic recollections. Why doesn’t the memory of the past bring happiness? To me, the answer is clear. Man struggles to hold onto the memories of his passing moments of life. We not only remember events, we capture them on film or video. No matter what the occasion – births, bar and bas mitzvos, weddings, children’s plays, family outings and vacations, we feverishly snap pictures so that these moments will live on. Alas, despite these valiant efforts, time relentlessly marches on, never to be repeated again. In our heart of hearts, we recognize that the past has disappeared in the black hole of time. Not surprisingly, nostalgia often results in emotional pain.

Is the eradication of time inevitable? Are we helpless to prevent this phenomenon from occurring? The Torah provides a way to halt this process.

“And Avraham was old, he came with his days.” (Bereishis 24:1). What does “came with his days” mean? A profound truth lies within this phrase. When time is squandered, the present immediately vanishes into the oblivion of the past. However, when we infuse time with meaning and value, we transform ephemeral time into eternity. Avraham was old, but “he came with his days.” Are not the episodes of the Akeidos Yitzchok and Avrohom’s hachnosas orchim still every bit alive today, 3,500 years after they took place?

These thoughts plague me, specifically, during the High Holy Days. On Rosh Hashana, we take inventory of the past year as it comes to an end. Had I been a perfect tzadik like Avraham Avinu, I would review the past year with a sense of pride, knowing that “I came with my days”. Truth be told, this is, unfortunately, not the case. The older I become, the more I am troubled on Rosh Hashana by a disappearing past that quietly slips away into the black hole of time.


Rabbi Yechezkal Landau, the brilliant 18th century Talmudic scholar, put these thoughts into a striking perspective (Tzlach, Yoma 86b). The Talmud (Rosh Hashana 16b) relates that G-d opens three books on Rosh Hashana; tzadikim (the righteous) are inscribed in the Book of Life, resha’im (the wicked) are inscribed in the Book of Death, and beinonim (those on the fence) are held in abeyance. The commentaries are perplexed by this apparently simplistic formulation. Clearly, not every tzadik is guaranteed to live, nor will each rasha perish in the coming year. Rav Landau therefore explains that the Books of Life and Death are not lists of who will live and who will die the following year. Rather, these books are G-d’s records of the passing time in each person’s life. The Book of Life captures “living” time, the moments that remain with a person forever because they had purpose and meaning, while the Book of Death records “dead” time, moments that perished in the black hole of the distant past.

If we follow this thought through, everyone’s time on earth is divided into a Book of Life and a Book of Death. For the tzadik, the Book of Life is far more extensive than the Book of Death, while for the rasha, the reverse is true. It is frightening to consider the relative size of our own two books. Can we confidently assert that the majority of our time is well used and is not included in the Book of Death?

Age is generally computed on the basis of one’s date of birth. Yet, do people truly know how old they are? While chronologically our age calculation may be accurate, it includes time that is both “alive” and “dead”. A more meaningful calculation of age is the sum total of moments found in the Book of Life. Although a person may have been born a century ago, he may in fact be only an infant in the Book of Life.

This idea provides new insight to an enigmatic verse in Bereishis 23:1. “Sarah’s life was one hundred years, twenty years and seven years; the years of Sarah’s life.” The conclusion of the verse, the years of Sarah’s life, seems redundant. In light of the above, one can suggest that the beginning and end of the verse refer to two distinct calculations of age. The beginning phrase records Sarah’s biological age and informs us that chronologically Sarah was 127 years old. In contrast, the conclusion of the verse relates to age in the Book of Life. The repetition, the years of Sarah’s life, emphasizes that Sarah was indeed 127 years old even in the Book of Life, because she made the most of each moment. The verse is structured to highlight Sarah’s greatness, for there was no dichotomy between her biological and spiritual age.

Is it possible for us to retrieve time from the black hole? Can one somehow resuscitate dead time and bring it back to life? Rabbi Landau (ibid) maintains that through the teshuva process, time recorded in the Book of Death can be transferred to the Book of Life. He infers this concept from the following Talmudic text: “Teshuva is great, for it lengthens the years of a person’s life.” (Yoma 86:b) Rabbi Landau contends that the Rabbis do not mean that the reward for teshuva is longevity. Rather, through teshuva the dead past is redeemed. In this manner, one’s life is extended because he now “comes with his days”.

How can this be? After wasting so much time, how can the process be reversed? Although teshuva erases past sins, can teshuva retroactively transform years wasted in frivolity into periods of meaningful existence? Rabbi Landau supports his position with an amazing statement found on the same page of the Talmud about teshuva me’ahava (repentance driven by love of Hashem). “Great is repentance, for intentional sins become zechuyos (merits).” This idea too seems to defy logic. How is it conceivable that a transgression is converted to a positive deed?


A penitent is haunted by his estrangement from G-d. The pain of separation is so profound that it drives the sinner to re-establish his love of Hashem. The transgression becomes a positive force to repair his relationship with G-d, and it is thus converted to a zechus (merit). A good analogy is that of an addict who struggles unsuccessfully to control his addiction. His life unravels until one day he hits “rock bottom”. That realization can become the pivotal moment, as the addict finally commits to put his crumbled life back in order. Ironically, the very descent to the abyss ultimately saves the individual. For the sinner as well, the very same transgression which tarnished his soul can eventually elevate his neshama and result in the restoration of kedusha. In an identical process, when one honestly faces the bleak emptiness of a hollow past, the ensuing anguish serves as a powerful impetus to make the most of each future moment. By serving as a motivational force, the past is invested with value, and through the teshuva process, dead time is revived.

Life is comprised of millions of moments. If a person lives to the age of 70, he or she will have experienced over 2 billion seconds of time. Each second affords a possibility of achievement. What a wealth of opportunities! So much can be accomplished in a lifetime. The Talmud (Avoda Zara, 17a) comments,”Yesh koneh olamo b’sha’ah achas – There are those who acquire their World [To-Come] in one hour.” In one hour we can perform an extraordinary act of chesed, courageously act with integrity and conviction, or pray with unusual fervor. If it only takes one hour to do something remarkable, we have hundreds of thousand chances to achieve greatness and acquire “our world” over and over again. Let us not squander our great fortune on trivialities and forever lose the precious moments of our lives in the black hole of time.

It is often said, “Time is money”. No sane person throws money away, but most people kill much of their time. If we waste one day, 86,400 moments have been lost, and it only takes 11.5 days for a million seconds to pass us by. When the stock market dips, investors are frantic and distraught. Yet, who calculates the loss of time.

I often heard from my illustrious Rebbi, Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz zt”l, the Mirrer Rosh Yeshiva, that time is our most precious possession, for time is life itself. Time is a gift of potential from the Almighty to mankind. If we use time wisely, the moments of our life will endure for eternity in the Book of Life.

Black holes belong in outer space, not in our world of time.

For more OU Holiday Content, please visit the Pearl & Harold Jacobs Holiday Resource CenterRabbi Yaakov Luban is an Executive Rabbinic Coordinator of the OU Kashruth Division and the Rabbi of Congregation Ohr Torah in Edison, N.J.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.