Finding Meaning: Judaism and Time

Adina GerwinApril 11, 2022Time and SpaceInterfaith Connections

In many ways, Judaism as a whole is a celebration of time.

We sanctify and mark passages in time with the acute awareness that every moment is uniquely precious. There is a framework to life, a structure every day, every week, every season, every year. While that might seem daunting or even a little overbearing, this framework of time is a prime example of the richness being observantly Jewish brings to life.

A famous Jewish scholar, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, described the teachings of Judaism as learning "how to consecrate sanctuaries that emerge from the magnificent stream of a year." Judaism instructs us how to complete the essential yet difficult task of marking and commemorating the plentiful river of events that every year and every lifetime contains. This challenging job of deciding which moments, days, and hours in life deserve to be singled out has already been completed for us. Even in the rare moments when an important life event does not have religious instruction, it's easy to apply the same knowledge and therefore find a meaningful way to celebrate or simply mark that passage in time. Personally, I find this really special because it relieves a lot of pressure around trying to best commemorate or celebrate something and instead adds richness to the year. In short, while completing the lifelong search for meaning and holiness, Judaism places an important emphasis on time.

On the most basic, routine level, there is daily prayer. Every morning we mark the beginning of consciousness by thanking God. As we pray, we thank God for "removing sleep from our eyes and slumber from our eyelids." We recite the Hebrew words,

ברּוְך ַ אָּתה יְיָ ֱ אֹל ֵהינּו ֶ מ ֶלְך ָ העֹו ָל ַ ם הַּמֲע ִב ָירה ֵׁשנָ ֵ ה מ ֵעינַי ּו ְתנּו ָמ ֵ ה מ ַע ְפ


While this might seem like a tedious and unimportant marker in time, the act of deliberately giving thanks helps ground us and set a daily intention. The day is much more meaningful when we understand its importance and value in the grand scheme of time. Furthermore, it's not just the act of marking every morning; it's the specific ritual that starts the day. Judaism teaches us to routinely give thanks for the removal of slumber and the opening of one's eyelids. Praying helps humble me and forces me to be aware of all of the things I take for granted on a daily basis. This expression of gratitude for a specific bodily function is an important daily reminder of all the precious ways our bodies serve us.

Another series of things we say daily is the blessing of food before eating. We mark the moment before nourishment with a prayer. Every prayer varies depending on where the food comes from, and it's not just a careless expression of gratitude. Instead, we are taking time out of our day to acknowledge an essential gift to the body: nourishment and fuel. These daily rituals help us mark constant moments in time and add intentionality to our daily routines.

Perhaps the most commonly practiced Jewish sanctification of time is the Sabbath or Shabbat. Every week, we mark the seventh day by exchanging the rules of chaos we live under during the regular week for a new set of divine instructions. This comes from the belief that, while creating the world, God rested on the seventh day, and God themselves separated this day from the rest of the week. Every Shabbat ritual is designed to create a process in which we find holiness by marking and singling out this unique day. As Rabbi Heschel put it, "on the Sabbath we try to become attuned to holiness in time." Shabbat is the constant search for holiness and the meaning behind the divine creation of time. On this seventh day, we stop all work, abstaining from technology and everyday tasks like cooking. Although it can be challenging, I love Shabbat because it forces me to stop and take a rest from the chaos of life. There will always be more work to do, a constant stream of emails to write, food to cook, and math problems to solve. I think that having Shabbat and the ability to abstain from all that chaos keeps me sane and is really wonderful and special. I truly believe that the greatest gift God or Judaism gives me is this weekly break and would not want to live a life without ever being able to fully pause from technology and various everyday tasks. Moreover, the conversations I have on Shabbat tend to be the most intimate, interesting, and best of the whole week, because there are no distractions like technology or school work. These rituals allow us to both commemorate another week in life, and in many ways, put a stop to time. The separation of the day, search for holiness, and observance of a different set of divine instruction allows the Jewish Sabbath to become a unique bubble of sanctity and serenity.

Many personal life events happen suddenly and are not a part of the progression of established holidays in the ritual year. For example, one of the saddest but inevitable parts of life is death. We can't often plan ahead for death, and we don't need to, because Judaism teaches what to do and how to approach this sudden sad time. We commemorate these movements by saying specific prayers, lighting special candles (Yahrzeit candles), and other various traditions. Moreover, we observe multiple mourning periods, depending on the familial closeness to the deceased. The most frequent one is called shiva, which consists of a week-long mourning period for first-degree relatives. The deceased's family members generally stay at home and are visited by friends and loved ones bringing condolences, comfort, and food. There are also many specific rituals like reciting certain prayers, covering mirrors, or tearing one's clothing that help establish the moment of mourning and this tumultuous period in time. When both of my grandmothers died and I experienced shiva, I learned many concepts, including one about the importance of showing up and how important community support is. A week-long marking in time allows for the news to spread and provides a place for people from all different parts of the community or the deceased's life to show up and offer support. I also like the way that shiva forces you to mourn and and actually take time, at least a week, to heal and grieve. Furthermore, I cannot imagine having the tremendous pressure of deciding how to mourn and honor a loved one. Having to choose things to say or commemorative events to have seems like a tremendous burden, in an already very difficult time. These specific Jewish practices and traditions help not only mark an extremely unpredictable and sad event, but also provide a lot of meaning and support to the people going through that kind of difficult life event.

An important related example of applying Jewish rituals to sudden and very unpredictable events happened almost 75 years ago. This is the ending of the Holocaust and the creation of Holocaust Memorial Day. When given a day to figure out how to commemorate the mass genocide of our people, we already had the instructions of how to mourn. Many of the rituals done, prayers said, and traditions observed on that day are taken directly from shiva and Jewish mourning practices, thus removing any burden or pressure around choosing how to perfectly commemorate. There was a straightforward way to mark this terrible moment in history, and every year we carve out time to remember.

Jewish law also provides the tools to create new markings in time for joyful events. For instance, while Judaism does not instruct how to celebrate a college or high school graduation, it has a clear message about joy and how to celebrate a happy occasion, or a simcha in Hebrew. On various holidays like Purim, Simchat Torah, or even Shabbat, we are taught about traditions relating to alcohol, noise, music, food, dance, and simply how to be joyful. One of my favorite traditions around joy is having something called a Purim seudah, which is basically a big meal with lots of different foods, special songs, and cheers, and just learning how to gather around a table and connect with others in a really joyful way. In the same way that we mark this holiday of Purim with a feast and celebration, we can easily take those concepts and traditions behind a seudah and apply them to a high school or college graduation.

Judaism is full of exciting and important traditions that all serve a specific purpose and add deep meaning to life. These rituals help us mark time and answer the essential question of which life events deserve to be singled out and, if so, how we should mark them. We are all just trying to find meaning in the grand scheme of time, and for observant Jews, religious tradition and laws can do just that.

Adina Gerwin is 15 years old and lives on the upper west side of Manhattan in New York City. She is a student at the Abraham Joshua Heschel High School.