You wouldn't know it from attending a Jewish event, but Jews take time very seriously.
Indeed, we are guided our entire lives by Jewish measures of time. And much of Jewish observance is dependent upon the precise marking of time.
All of which is kind of ironic, since the notion of "Jewish time" refers to the fact that if you call a Jewish meeting for 8, everyone knows you don't even think about leaving for it before 8:15 or expecting it to begin before 9.
That looseness about time, that almost compulsive need to make sure things don't start on time, is, I think, a reaction to how much of Jewish life is regulated by being exactly on time.
Every week, the Sabbath starts precisely at sundown. Do a proscribed act even a second later and tradition says you've desecrated the day.
So it is with the holidays. There is no specific time one begins marking the Fourth of July or Thanksgiving. But for Succos (Tabernacles) and Passover and Rosh Hashanah, the times they are to be observed are calculated to the minute.
As is so much of Jewish observance. Jewish law dictates that morning prayers must be said before a specific time each day. Matzah is only able to be used during Passover if it's baked within 18 minutes. Not a second longer.
The need to pay very careful attention to the clock is one that comes into play the moment we are born. For starters, Jewish tradition teaches that no one will live more than 120 years, the age at which Moses died. Thus, the minute we enter the world, we know exactly the outer limits of our stay.
And we know when we are to be part of different customs and rituals. For a boy, precisely eight days after being born, he is to enter the covenant by undergoing a brit. At exactly 12 years old, a girl has her bat mitzvah, becomes an adult in Jewish eyes.
Each phase of Jewish life is hinged to a specific time. Pirkei Avos, the Ethics of the Fathers, teaches that "A 5-year-old begins scriptures; a 10- year-old begins Mishnah; a 13-year-old becomes obligated to observe the commandments; a 15-year-old begins the study of Gemara; an 18-year-old goes to the marriage canopy; a 20-year-old begins pursuit of a livelihood; a 30- year-old attains full strength; a 40- year-old attains understanding; a 50- year-old offers counsel; a 60-year-old attains seniority; a 70-year-old attains a ripe old age; an 80-year-old shows strength; a 90-year-old becomes stooped over; a 100-year-old is as if he were dead, passed away, and released from the world."
And speaking of death, we mark time even after we're gone. The time of mourning is called shiva (seven) for the precise number of days it is to encompass.
That personal sense of Jewish time is echoed by Jewish history, which is full of references to time, an emphasis on the importance of how long things took.
The Torah, in fact, starts with a time reference, "In the beginning," and tells us first thing that the world was created in exactly six days, with the seventh being one of rest. And from there on it goes to tell us all sorts of things about time, from the 40 years the Jews spent wandering in the desert to the 40 days Moses spent up on Mount Sinai. Indeed, it was a miscalculation of time that led to the sin of the golden calf.
And time has continued to play a pivotal role down through the life and times of the Jewish people. Chanukah is a holiday that commemorates the fact that one day's worth of oil lasted for eight. When the Land of Israel may be cultivated is governed by seven-year cycles. When a husband and wife may be intimate is governed by a woman's menstrual cycle. There are 10 days of awe, not nine or 11.
And on and on. There is nothing approximate about any of this, with the idea clearly conveyed that Judaism sees time as a very sacred thing, something that must be scrupulously minded and from which lessons can be learned.
Indeed, it is fair to say that we are a people obsessed with time, with dates and their meaning. We even have a day designated as the saddest day of the year, Tisha B'Av, a day that, in fact, has, as the years have gone by, seen an incredible number of tragedies, from the destruction of both temples to the beginning of World War I.
Coincidence? You be the judge. But coincidence or not, dates are an important element in providing a sense of both continuity and a mission to Jews and Judaism. The calendar, it has been said, is the most powerful tool of conveying Jewish heritage.
But the essential Jewish message about time, I think, has much more to say to us about our everyday lives.
Judaism takes time so seriously, is so precise about time, marks everything important in terms of segments of time, because we are to see not only that nothing is more precious than time, but understand that every moment, every second of our individual time on this earth is precious.
More precious than anything. The Talmud poses the hypothetical example of a 100-year-old man, chronically ill, who the doctors determine could have his life extended for one minute if the Temple in Jerusalem were to be destroyed. And so, the rabbis ask, are we allowed to destroy the Temple to add one minute to an old sick man's life?
The answer is that not only are we allowed to, but that Jewish law requires us to.
While such a case could not, of course, occur, it is the Talmud's way of illustrating what Jewish priorities are. And clearly, the top priority is every minute of life, which is more important even than the existence of the Temple.
That's something for us to very much take to heart. For it will help us not to waste time. And will help us to make us feel how important each moment of our lives is, how valued it is.
And in feeling that, we hopefully will come to understand how important it is to make the most of each moment of life, and how grateful we must be at every moment.
And that will add much meaning and purpose to our lives, to all the times of our life. Which, come to think of it, is exactly, precisely what Judaism is all about.