Transforming “Jewish Time” into Being Punctual

The Powerball lottery and its record $1.5 billion jackpot has engendered great conversation about what we would do with the money if we won. Indeed, money is a tremendous commodity, a critical resource. And yet, there is an even more precious commodity that we waste all too often.

When it comes to money, if we run low, there are ways in which we can try to replenish. If we work harder maybe we can always earn more and, therefore, have more money to spend. But when it comes to time there is nothing we can do to earn more. No matter who we are, how smart or foolish, young or old, rich or poor, we all are bound by the same 24 hours in a day and 168 hours in a week. There is nothing we can do to expand or accumulate or grow more time. Once it has passed, it cannot be recovered. If it is wasted, it cannot be made up. There is a limited amount of it allocated to each one of us and with every passing second we come closer to emptying our account. As badly as we would like to slow it down sometimes, or speed it up at others, we cannot control time; it moves along at a steady pace entirely beyond our control or manipulation.

And yet, despite its preciousness and irreplaceability, we tend to bring a casual attitude towards it, wasting it, and some even choosing to kill it.

Urban Dictionary, a web site dedicated to cataloging modern phrases and idioms, defines Jewish time as follows:

Not perfectly on time; possibly somewhat late, but no harm is done as a result. The implication is that there is no need to be exactly on time, and starting a little late is acceptable.

The term comes from Jewish culture, which is often relaxed about punctuality.

When an event is schedule to take place at 2:00 Jewish time, it could be at 2:05, 2:12, 2:15, or even 2:35, and everyone is satisfied.

“The wedding will start at 6:00 PM Jewish time.” “We will meet in the lobby at 4:30 Jewish time.”

One can debate why historically or sociologically the phenomenon of “Jewish time” being synonymous with being late developed, but whatever the reason, it is sad and unfortunate. Of all people, we are to have an acute time awareness, time consciousness, and profound appreciation for the value of time. Our Jewish lives are informed and directed by mitzvos, many of which depend on time; by prayers, which must be completed by a certain time; and by holidays that are determined by date and time.

Indeed, the very first mitzvah of the Torah, the first commandment that we received as a people, is to value time. “Ha’chodesh ha’zeh lachem rosh chodoshim, rishon hu lachem l’chadshei ha’shanah. Hashem said to Moshe and Aharon – This month shall be for you the beginning of the months; it shall be for you the first of the months of the year.” With this commandment comes the privilege and responsibility to control the Jewish calendar through testimony of the new moon and the determination of the human court of when the month begins and consequently when our holidays fall.

For two hundred and ten years, as slaves in Egypt, our people had no control over their own time or their own destiny. Our taskmasters and oppressors determined how we spent every single moment. It is specifically at that point, when the Jewish people are on the cusp of attaining freedom, explains the Sforno, that we are given the commandment about time. At the core of freedom is the ability to be the arbiters and determiners of our own time. Freedom and time are intertwined. Rabbi Soloveitchik saw the freedom to control time as the very definition of a human being and the very essence of consciousness. The only creature that can experience time, that feels its passage and senses its movement, is man.

Time awareness is at the core of our humanity and is the responsibility of freedom. Being relaxed about punctuality, running late, and having a casual attitude towards start times, is not Jewish time, it is the antithesis of the Jewish notion of time. Wasting time, bitul z’man, is tantamount to burning money, and killing time murders possibility and potential.

In a fantastic article in Forbes, “5 Minutes Early Is On Time; On Time Is Late; Late Is Unacceptable,” Brent Beshore shows how disrespectful, inefficient, and self-centered it is to run late. He writes:

Beshore concludes: “Paying attention to punctuality is not about being “judgy,” or stressed. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. It makes room for the caring, considerate, thoughtful people I want in my life, whether that’s friends or colleagues. Think of how relaxing your life would be if everyone just did what they said they’d do, when they said they’d do it? A good place to start is with yourself and a great motto is something I was taught as a child: ‘5 minutes early is on time. On time is late. Late is unacceptable.’” 

Of course being late will happen. We run into emergencies and unexpected, uncontrollable circumstances. The decision we have to make is, for us, is being late an exception or the rule? Are we chronically late, or does it happen on occasion? Do we anticipate we will be late or do we make every effort to be on time? Are we ashamed when we are late and do we apologize and take responsibility, or have we become so habituated to not being on time that we no longer even notice?

Imagine how much time would be saved and how much good could be done if our simchas started and ran on time, if our classes and programs were punctual, and if we were always true to our word when meeting a friend or attending a meeting.

While we can’t expand or slow down time, we can make the most of it and value each moment. By learning to manage this most precious commodity, we will in fact have won much more than the lottery.

Read Rabbi Efrem Goldberg’s column from last week here.

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