Of all the units we use to measure things, time has always been the most fluid. 

When you ask someone, “Do you have the time?” People don’t give an exact time.  They say, “It’s about X.”  Or they say, “It’s 7 of,” and they don’t say the hour. 

7 of what?  I don’t even know what “of” means! 

Of course, you can’t really blame those people, because when someone asks you the time, your mind goes blank.  You suddenly forget not only how to tell time, but also how to talk.  You want to just give them your watch and say, “Here; you do it.” 

And then they get flashbacks to all those times where they looked at their watch, looked away, and still had no idea what time it was.  And you’re counting on them for an answer here.

The only way you can get an exact time out of someone is if you ask them multiple times.  Then they’re so certain that they don’t even have to look: 

“It’s 3 minutes since the last time you asked me!” 

Time is also the only unit of measurement that people just make up.  People make up units of time – there’s “soon”, “in a jiffy”, “before you know it”, “sooner than you think”…  People don’t make up units of weight or volume. 

“Wow, I weigh 2 ½ smudgies!” 

“What’s a smudgy?” 

“It’s like 100 pounds.” 

But with time, they make up words you can’t even try to figure out based on known quantities.  Like what’s a jiffy?  How may jiffies are there in a flash or in two shakes of a lamb’s tail?  Why not one shake of a lamb’s tail?  One shake must be too quick.  You can’t measure it.  It’s like a rega, which is an Israeli unit of time that also has no precise meaning. 

Also, doesn’t “before you know it” depend on each individual person and how spaced out he is?  Before my wife knows it is usually way before I know it.

So time has always been pretty fluid.  And as it turns out, Jewish culture takes full advantage of this for Jewish time.

What is Jewish time? 

It’s a specific way of measuring time used by Yidden.  Like we all know that the world can be divided into 24 times zones, but there are actually 25.  The 25th is Jewish time. 

Okay, so technically, there is no separate “Jewish time”.  Jewish time is always just the time of a zone or two to the west of whatever time zone you’re actually in.  And Jews live everywhere, so there is no one Jewish time. 

Like let’s put it this way: A large percentage of the Jews in America live on the Eastern Seaboard.  Depending on how big a seaboard is, exactly.  That term might be made up.  Is it a unit of measurement, as in “2 seaboards”?  Either way, they all live in the Eastern Time Zone.  But they all operate in Central Time.  That’s Jewish time. 

You know when you call somebody and say, “When are you gonna be here already?” and he says, “I’ll be there in five minutes,” and he’s coming from somewhere that’s 45 minutes away and he hasn’t gotten into the car yet?  That’s Jewish time.  Or maybe it’s lying

The term “Jewish time” seems to be used most in connection to simchas, such as weddings, when the chuppah is called for let’s say 7 pm on a Sunday night, and the chuppah actually happens on Monday at 6, and the only reason it doesn’t happen later than that is that they don’t want to have to change the date on the kesubah, because that they wrote ahead of time.  Everything else seems to have been done that day.

But for example, there’s always some time spent waiting for the mesader kiddushin to show up, because the minhag is to have him driven to the wedding by someone who has never driven in this particular country before and has no idea how to get there or even which side of the road he’s supposed to be on.  And the rabbi is not allowed to help.

And it’s not just weddings.  I teach Language Arts in a mesivta, and every single day we start Jewish time. 

It’s a Jewish mesivta.

Yes, it’s true that not every Jew comes late to everything.  For example, as comedian Eli Lebowicz puts it, “There’s an entire nationality of Jews whose whole personality is pretty much described as “They’re the on-time ones!””  But I will say that the Siyum HaShas – which has every walk of Jews present – always starts late.

So anyway, the reason I bring this all up is that my 8th book is finally coming out, as soon as it gets through the port, and it’s called Jewish Time

Now I know what you’re thinking: You’re thinking, “It’s about time!” And you’re right.  Though it’s about other things too.  But the overall theme is the concept of time, particularly Jewish Time, which is a borderline anti-Semitic expression used only by Yidden, I hope. 

“What time is the KKK rally starting?” 

“8 PM.  Jewish Time.” 

The non-Jews do have a term called “fashionably late,” and we start things late too, just not fashionably. 

But maybe every ethnicity has their late faction, and they just call it whatever they are.  Like Cubans call it “Cuban time,” and so on.  Or it goes by religions – Muslims call it “Muslim time”, and Buddhists call it “Buddhist time”...  I don’t think I should be saying any of these. 

But okay, so I looked it up.  In Mexico, turning up a half hour late is entirely acceptable, and in Morocco you can be anything from an hour to a day late without anyone batting an eye.  Other countries that are known to be late are Greece, Nepal, Spain, Ecuador, Georgia, Cuba, South Africa, Philippines, Morocco, France, and South Africa. 

So based on that, imagine, say, a Jew from South Africa.  Those guys are so late that they celebrate Chanukah in the summer.  At like 9 o’clock at night. 

But they make up for it with their early Tisha B’Av.

On the other side of the spectrum, though, are nations like Japan, Germany, and Turkey. In those countries, you’re expected to call if you’re running behind, and failing to do so is considered rude.  Also in Switzerland, because of all the watches.

In fact, some experts have noticed that cultures that value money above all are more punctual, and cultures that value family above all are not.  Though they don’t care about the family that’s waiting – just the family that they’re shmoozing with on the street on the way to where they’re going while their kids impatiently pull at their hands.  But Jews value both money and family, so where does that put us?

Well, for one thing, based on all this research, we still seem to be the only culture where the whole event starts late.

But no, Jews did not monopolize Jewish time.  We probably invented it, though.  Seriously.  Moshe Rabbeinu said, “I’m going to be down in 40 days.  Jewish time.”  And the early Yidden did not know what Jewish time was, because what do you expect?  They had literally just become Jewish.

Get it?  Early Yidden.

Actually, it was before that.  According to the Midrash, the Yidden showed up late to Har Sinai the morning of Mattan Torah.  Enough of us did it that this is one of the reasons we stay up on Shavuos night.  So basically, Jewish Time predates the Yekkes.  I don’t know where the Yekkes’ time habits came from, but they’re not Jewish.

So if anything, the non-Jews stole coming late from us.  But no one else can call it “Jewish time”.  If a non-Jew said, “Jewish time,” he’d have to answer for it.  And he’d be like, “What?!  Jewish weddings start late!” 

The wedding thing isn’t even fair, because most Jewish weddings happen a lot sooner after the engagement than most non-Jewish weddings.  Non-Jews have about a year to prepare for the wedding, so it had better be on time.  Whereas Jews are like, “I got engaged!”  And everyone immediately asks, “Do you have a date?”  Imagine you asked a non-Jew that at their engagement party: 

“Do you have a date?” 

“I… I have a fiancé.” 

Meanwhile, the Jews are like, “Our daughter got engaged 4 weeks ago, so the wedding might start an hour late.  Leave us alone.  We spent more time cleaning our house for Pesach than we did preparing for this wedding, and we only had 25 people for Pesach.” 

But coming late to things is normal for us.  So much so, that we have a whole set of halachos built in about what to do if you come late to davening, because we know.  And we learn them in like third grade.  There are very few halachos of what to do if you come early to davening.  It’s like, “I don’t know; I guess there’s korbanos.  Learn, maybe?”  As far as I know, there are no halachos of what if you accidentally talked during Shemoneh Esrei; it’s just, “Don’t talk during Shemoneh Esrei.”  But there’s no halacha that’s just, “Don’t come late to davening.”  Hashem didn’t make standards for us that we can’t follow.  But there is a whole scale of, “Well, how late did you come, and how fast do you think you can daven?” 

Not to mention the fact that there is a built-in way to catch Barchu at the end of Maariv.  If that doesn’t say that Chazal always understood that we’re going to come late, I don’t know what does.

Anyway, buy my book!  At your earliest convenience, I guess.

Mordechai Schmutter is a weekly humor columnist for Hamodia, a monthly humor columnist, and has written six books, all published by Israel Book Shop.  He also does freelance writing for hire.  You can send any questions, comments, or ideas to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.