We think we know what time is. Scientists have defined one second to be 9,192,631,770 oscillations of a hyperfine transition in the 133 caesium atom—at least if we’re all in the same inertial reference frame. Einstein’s Special Relativity taught us that it’s not that simple. Hermann Minkowski’s spacetime gave us a very different perspective on the very large scale. But here at home, a day still has 24 hours, an hour has 60 minutes, and the garbage goes out Thursday morning. Most of contemplate the meaning of time in our lives far more than the implications of spacetime for the universe. Steve Jobs said: “My favorite things in life don’t cost money. It’s really clear that the most precious resource we all have is time.” More than two centuries earlier, William Penn said: “Time is what we want most, but what we use worst.” And twenty-one centuries earlier, Pericles said: “Time is the wisest counselor of all.”
This week’s double portions, Behar and Bechukkotai, has something to say about time. Among the many subjects it takes up is shemittah, the sabbatical year. As an ancient and extraordinarily progressive eco-friendly and anti-poverty institution, shemittah is unsurpassed. It’s remarkable. For one in every seven years, the land was permitted to lie fallow to renew itself—a sabbath for the land. All those who had sold themselves into slavery to pay off debts was released and sent home. Land that was sold outside a patrimony due to economic hardship was returned to the original owner. The shemittah is a great leveling institution: the poor were given a new lease on life, an opportunity to begin anew. It turns out that Behar offers us even more wisdom: a principle to live by that speaks to ever facet of life. Tracing the path of that principle, we begin with Chanukah.
The Babylonian Talmud records a famous argument between the Schools of Hillel and Shammai concerning how to light the Chanukah menorah.
Bet Shammai say: On the first day eight lights are lit and thereafter they are gradually reduced. But Bet Hillel say: On the first day one is lit and thereafter they are progressively increased.
We know who won this one because we light one candle the first night and increase by one each night. But did you ever wonder why the School of Hillel held this opinion and why the School of Shammai held the opposite view? Talmud provides two explanations, one attributed to R. Yose b. Avin, and another according to R. Jose b. Zevida (see Shabbat 21b below). The first R. Yose understands the candles in the menorah to be a counting mechanism, a candle-calendar for keeping track of the festival. The difference is that Bet Shammai want to count how many days remain which, given the story of the miraculous cruse of oil that lasted eight days, makes sense; Bet Hillel want to count each day of the festival as it occurs. The second R. Yose tells us that Bet Shammai is concerned with the sacrifices, which makes sense since Chanukah is about the rededication of the Temple and reinstitution of the sacrificial rites; Bet Hillel, however, is aiming for a far more general principle that applies well beyond Chanukah: “we promote in sanctity but do not reduce.” For Bet Hillel, this principle bespeaks not only the story of Chanukah, but all of Torah and Judaism: it is all about increasing holiness in the world.
Bet Hillel has framed the principle of increasing holiness in very general terms, but it has concrete applications. Tractate Rosh Hashanah (daf 9) considers the situation of holy time. If we want to add to holy time, where do we draw that extra time from? Clearly, from ordinary time. For example: Shabbat begins at sundown Friday and ends at sundown Saturday, but… we light the shabbat candles 18 minutes before sundown Friday and do not make havdalah until at least 42 minutes after sundown Saturday. Therefore, while in theory Shabbat is 24 hours long, in reality we keep it for 25 hours. We take 18 minutes from Friday and 42 minutes from Saturday to—in the words of the Rabbis—“add from the ordinary on to the holy.” We convert “ordinary time” into “holy time.”
In tractate Rosh Hashanah, the Sages want to know what the basis in Torah is for this principle. A baraita (Mishnah-era teaching that didn’t make it into the Mishnah) is brought that offers as the basis the verse Exodus 34:21: …the seventh day you shall rest; in plowing time and harvest time you shall rest. This is a surprising verse to bring because it’s about shabbat and, in context, merely means that even during the pressured seasons of plowing and harvest, one must nonetheless cease from work on shabbat.
Talmud then records the differing views of two Sages: R. Akiba and R. Yishmael. R. Akiba understands the verse from Exodus to apply to the shemittah (sabbatical year) because in our Torah portion, Behar, we already find the prohibition of plowing during the sabbatical year: You shall not sow your field (Leviticus 25:4). Therefore, the reference to plowing and harvesting in Exodus 34:21 must refer to something else (since, for R. Akiba, Torah never repeats itself). R. Akiba explains: in the sabbatical year, we are to stop plowing even before the year begins, and refrain from harvesting even after the year ends. In this way, we lengthen the year by a few weeks or perhaps months on both ends, enlarging it, “adding from the ordinary on to the holy.”
R. Yishmael offers an alternative view. For him, the verse from Exodus pertains to Shabbat. He learns the principle of “adding from the ordinary on to the holy” from another source: the commandment concerning Yom Kippur. Specifically, he cites Leviticus 23:32: It shall be a sabbath of complete rest for you, and you shall practice self-denial; on the ninth day of the month at evening, from evening to evening, you shall observe this your sabbath. R. Yishmael, noting the peculiar wording of the verse, explains that, in fact, we begin fasting before sundown on Yom Kippur, and do not eat until after sundown at the conclusion of Yom Kippur. And so it is: we stop eating prior to sundown and arrive in synagogue prior to sundown because Kol Nidre must be chanted before the sun sets. At the other end, after Yom Kippur, we must pray ma’ariv (evening prayers) and then make havdalah before we break the fast. The “day” of Yom Kippur is stretched out at both ends, “adding from the ordinary on to the holy.”
For the Sages, holy time provides a unique and unparalleled opportunity. Let’s return to the observations of three wise people, and imagine that they were talking, specifically, about holy time. Pericles: “[Holy] Time is the wisest counselor of all.” Holy time calls us to stop our normal activity and consider our impact on the world and the lives of others. Holy time carves out space in our lives for meditation, reflection, and prayer: Who are we? Who do we wish to be? What are we doing with our lives? William Penn said: “[Holy] time is what we want most, but what we use worst.” Holy time affords us the opportunity to live in eternity and to contemplate what might be, on the one hand, and on the other to be wholly in the moment with our thoughts, with those we love, and with all creation. But for that to happen, we need to consciously and purposefully sanctify the time. The Jewish mechanisms for that include lighting candles, kiddush, and other rituals that help us savor holy time. Steve Jobs: “My favorite things in life don’t cost money. It’s really clear that the most precious resource we all have is [holy] time.” Imagine holy time as a resource to help us infuse our lives with purpose and meaning, pleasure and joy, reflection and direction, community and eternity. And it’s free. Hey, if it’s free, “add from the ordinary on to the holy” and enjoy! There’s a principle to live by.
© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman