Ask the Rabbis | What Is the Jewish Relationship to Time?
Time is an invitation. Both words share the same root: z’mahn. It is written: “The life of man is like a breath exhaling; his days are like a passing shadow” (Psalms 144:4). The midrash adds, “Not like the shadow of a tree, but like the shadow of a bird while she is flying”: The shadow of a tree vanishes when the sun shifts, but the shadow of a bird moves with the bird in flight.
“We journey with and within time,” my teacher, the late Rav Efraim Zeitchik, taught. “We ride the waves of time, whether the tides are high or low. We eat time, we drink time, are shadowed by time. How can we truly know life when whatever happened is already past, and what is going to happen is yet unknown, and we are oblivious to what is happening?” The missing link is the “invitation,” the knowledge of time in the present, the shadow of our wings while we are in flight. Otherwise, “We can live even a thousand years and still feel like it’s been only a single day” (Zohar, Vol. 1, folio 223b). Time is the thread, and we are the weavers. And our lives are the fabric waiting to be woven.
Rabbi Gershon Winkler
Walking Stick Foundation
Cedar Glen, CA
From creation until the end of days, Jews have been and will forever be fixated on time. Historically and traditionally, we locate ourselves on a continuum from the six days of creation until the Messianic or Apocalyptic end of days. In principle, and often in practice, we parcel out time into smaller pieces: a continuum of weeks with their Sabbaths, months with their new moons and years with their new beginnings.
Once we marked time by the stars and the moon and became expert observers of the skies. But we had a problem when the lunar year lagged behind the solar year and the holidays threatened to rotate untethered away from their seasons. So we developed a sophisticated calendar that periodically adjusts lunar and solar timetables with our own Jewish version of a leap year. This system gave rise to another quality of our relationship with time: flexibility. Some years, we say, the Jewish holidays are early; some years they are late. But one thing they are not is on time. And so we have to adjust ourselves constantly to this slippery timetable. Whether time rushes on or stands still, we have a choice: to live in the past, in the future, in the moment, or maybe even in all three phases simultaneously!
Rabbi Peter H. Schweitzer
The City Congregation for Humanistic Judaism
New York, NY
Jewish practice gives me the opportunity to start over each day, each month, each year. What a gift! I get to wipe the slate clean and begin again. And while the whole world is complaining about not having enough time, I have Shabbat, the experience of timelessness. On Shabbat I shrug my shoulders and say, “Oh, well! Can’t get anything done.” I turn off my computer, put my to-do list aside and wait for the kiss of the Infinite.
I get some respite from the seemingly relentless engine of my ambition. And I do return—renewed, refreshed and sometimes even laughing, with a wider perspective, a deeper breath. Shabbat is my teacher, showing me how to relax and giving me a larger context for my life. It teaches me to engage with my time-bound work differently. The experience of timelessness gives me access to a different source of creative energy.
Each Shabbat, we are invited into that place beyond the confines of time, as we commemorate the Exodus from Mitzrayim (narrow places). Shabbat sets us free from the narrow places—in this case, our addiction to the time-bound world of achievement, consumption, buying and selling, quantifying and comparing.
Rabbi Shefa Gold
Center for Devotional,
Energy and Ecstatic Practice
Jemez Springs, NM
One of the great insights of Einsteinian physics is that time is the fourth dimension. One of the ancient insights of Jewish and other religious traditions is that time has a sacred dimension as well. In ordinary or secular time, one moment is just like the next. In Judaism, there are times that stand out, times when the past, present and future meet. These are holy times or, as Marilynne Robinson wrote in Gilead, the time of “the eternal breaking in on the temporal.”
The first mitzvah in the Torah commanded to the Israelites as a people is about making time holy. “This month shall mark for you the beginning of the months; it shall be the first of the months of the year for you” (Ex. 12:2). “For you,” the sages teach, meaning it is you, human beings, who have the power to make time holy. You set the calendar. You can live according to the dings and dongs of your phone or according to the flow of sacred and ordinary time. Traditionally, Rosh Hodesh (the beginning of the Jewish month) has to be declared by witnesses who see the new moon. It doesn’t just happen. We have to commit. Those moments, whether they mark passages in our lives, mark the week with Shabbat or mark the year with holidays, are made by our attention to them. They are also made in community. The word in the Torah for sacred time, moed, is also the word for gathering place, moad. When we gather together at our appointed times with a full heart and full awareness, we can experience “the eternal breaking in on the temporal.”
Rabbi Caryn Broitman
Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center
Vineyard Haven, MA
The Talmud states that each Jew is obligated to say 100 blessings a day. This compels a person to mark discernible sacred moments—giving thanks before and after eating, or taking notice of beautiful sights such as a rainbow or a majestic tree—as well as those we might not normally consider sacred, such as using the bathroom or hearing distressing news. Each hour of our day, each day of our week and each week of our year presents us with occasions to find the holy in the quotidian. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught that when Jews lost our collective connection to sacred space, the Temple in Jerusalem, we had to shift our collective focus to sacred time. Our holidays align with the seasons of the year; our prayer life aligns with the rising and setting of the sun as well as with the generations of those who lived before us and will live after us. Many Jews joke about living on “Jewish standard time,” which is to say that we always run ten minutes late. But in fact, to live on Jewish time is to see each day as sacred and worthy of blessing.
Rabbi Laura Novak Winer
Sadly, I sat down to answer this question just after sitting shiva for my oldest brother, David Ira Wallk. It made me remember how Judaism uses time as a tool. In Judaism, time brings focus, structure and meaning to our weeks (Shabbat), our years (Passover, Shavuot, Sukkot) and our lives (Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur). Besides these communal experiences, Judaism also uses time to guide the individual. Long before modern psychology discovered “grief work,” the rabbis established a staged series of steps to manage mourning. There are six basic phases of the bereavement cycle. Each has a specific time period and rituals that assist the mourner through the grieving process. The nature of our relationship to the deceased varies, but Judaism assumes that there is something universal about grief.
I have been a mourner three times: My father died 25 years ago, my mother two and a half years ago and my brother last month. In all three instances, I have greatly appreciated how my experience was grounded by Judaism’s use of time to mourn.
Rabbi Amy Wallk Katz
Temple Beth El
Jews practically invented time, or at least its significance and meaning. Jewish religion broke from the pagan and Stoic-Hellenist understanding that time loops in endless circularity, going nowhere, in an eternal recurrence. Judaism taught that time has a positive direction. The world is moving from its present state of conflict, suffering and war toward an ultimate redemption—a Messianic state where war, conflict, oppression and poverty will be overcome. (The Bible teaches that humans, in partnership with God, must do their share to make this happen. The purpose of human life is to build a just society and repair the world.)
Other cultures taught that the sequence of history was decline—from an original golden age to a silver to a bronze/copper era, to the present time which is the lowest ever. Judaism, as it were, invented progress. (Thomas Cahill pointed out that Jews gave the gift of “new and improved” to the world.) The end of days would outstrip the present. The world would become a Garden of Eden.
For 2,000 years of exile, Jews lived in time—in history and in their sacred calendar—without the rootedness in space that normal nations require. In our time, wholeness was restored as Jews became grounded again in space and homeland, alongside our roots in time and eternity.
Rabbi Yitzhak Greenberg
The first time God spoke to the Jewish people as a community, he gave them a mitzvah that had to do with time, hachodesh hazeh lachem rosh chadashim, the commandment to identify the time of the new moon. This meant that human beings were going to call the shots. If they needed to delay a month, or add a new month to the year, they had that ability. God seems to be telling them, “Not only am I going to redeem you from the mindset of slavery, I’m also going to help you transcend what seems impossible to transcend, the last frontier, time.” The fact that time only works in one direction is a bit of a mystery to us. We’re used to every other physical movement or reaction going in two directions; time doesn’t. It’s a dimension of life we can’t get a handle on at all. But Jews assert that it’s not natural, that it was created and that the God who created it can transcend it. Stick with me, God says, and you can transcend time.
Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein
Loyola Law School
Los Angeles, CA
Time has always been essential to Jewish practice. There are specific times to pray, to welcome Shabbat, to rejoice and to reflect. But there is also a deeper relationship between time and Jewish practice. In explaining why a missed opportunity to fulfill a mitzvah can never be made right, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the founder of Chabad Hasidism and author of the Tanya, explains that each positive mitzvah at each particular time draws a unique energy into the world. So an opportunity to sanctify any given moment which is missed
is an opportunity forever lost. The world will permanently be lacking that unique gift of divine light.
It was 50 years ago that his successor, the Rebbe—Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory—launched the mitzvah campaigns encouraging his Hasidim to reach out to Jews, including individuals they would likely never meet again and who might never engage Jewishly again, and offer them the opportunity to perform a mitzvah. These campaigns are credited with bringing Jewish pride and important Jewish precepts into the public consciousness. But equally important, the Rebbe taught us in a very tangible way about the intrinsic value of each and every moment. Each point in time has infinite potential, no matter what may have occurred before or what is to come after.
Rabbi Chaim A. Landa
Brooklyn, New York