Timezone clock
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JEWISH TIME

Q. Why do Jewish events often begin late?

A. We have a word for it – "Jewish time". When I mentioned this to a Roman Catholic friend, he said, "What are you talking about? It’s called ‘Catholic time’!"

I didn’t bother to ask people from other religious faiths because they’d probably tell me there is also "Methodist time" and "Anglican time".

The truth seems to be that some people have a habit of being unpunctual and they blame it on their religion, their political party, etc.

Amongst Jews there is even something called "Sephardi time". Apparently the Iranian Jewish community used to have a habit of advertising an event for a certain time but starting an hour later, ostensibly to confuse the Adversary – otherwise known as Satan – and to prevent him from affecting the event and the audience with the evil eye.

I don’t know how true it is that the Iranians are at fault, but I do know that weddings in Israel almost always start an hour late (strangely, funerals seem to start on time).

As a general rule, Judaism insists on promptness and punctuality. Is there is a mitzvah to be done? "Do not let it become stale", say the sages. "Those who are eager fulfil mitzvot early", they add. When it is time for prayer, we are told not to keep God waiting while we attend to mundane concerns. When we should say an Amen, it should not be left to become an "orphan Amen". If support is needed by a person or cause, now is the hour.

Someone needs to start teaching the virtues of correct timekeeping. Years ago when people told me that their wedding would start late because that was "Jewish time", I used to say, "There’s no such thing. I abolished it!"


WHERE SHOULD I PRAY?

Q. Where should I pray?

A. The Midrash Shocher Tov (paralleled in other sources) says on Psalm 1, "Pray in the synagogue in your city; if this is impossible, pray in the field. If that is impossible, pray in your house; if necessary, pray in your bed. Should this be impossible, pray in your heart wherever you may be."

One might add that there are two ways to pray – in your words, and in your deeds. Living a righteous life is also a form of worship.

GOD-GIVEN SPIRIT

Twelve spies were sent to check out the land (Num. 13). Ten came back with a negative report: "The people who dwell in the land are fierce and the cities are fortified and great" (Num.)

The spies feared that any attempt to enter and settle the land would not succeed because "they are stronger than us" (Num. 13:31).

The Hebrew for "than us" is "mimennu", which – as the Talmud notices (Sotah 35a) – can also mean "stronger than Him (God)".

The ancient notion was that stars and deities determined whose adherents would prevail. Victory depended on who your god was and how much power he had. Jewish thought said that God was strong and a warrior (Ex. 15:3) but it was not He but His people who handled the weapons of war if belief in Him instilled in them the capacity for victory.

On this verse in Exodus, Ibn Ezra says that when Israel had to fight an enemy the deciding fact was whether the Israelites had enough God-given spirit.


WHY NOT THE PRINCES?

Who were the spies? Every tribe was represented in the team of twelve, but it was not the tribal heads themselves who carried out the mission.

Admittedly, each of the spies, according to the Torah narrative, was a "nasi", a prince (Num. 13:2), but in this context the word "prince" does not necessarily mean "a man of royal lineage" but "a notable person". The twelve were all possessed of national standing, personality and spiritual potential.

How then could the majority bring back a pessimistic report? At that moment their spirituality deserted them. Otherwise they should all have recognised that if God was with them they could be certain that their mission would succeed.

Nachmanides quotes Kohelet 8:5, "Whoever keeps the commandment shall know no evil thing".


FLYING FRINGES

The final section of the sidra is the passage about fringes which we call the third paragraph of the Shema (Num. 15:37-41). The purpose of the fringes (tzitzit) is "that you may look at it and remember all the commandments of the Lord" (verse 39).

The way the sages understood this verse was that the thread of blue which was originally part of the fringes (deriving from the "chillazon", a sea creature which some authorities believe they are able to identify, enabling them to restore the thread of blue) suggests the water of the sea, and the sea suggests Heaven, in which is the locale of the Divine Throne of Glory.

Thus the fringes are a reminder of the duty to look up to and obey the will of the God of Heaven and Earth.