Guest post by R. Barry Kornblau
Barry Kornblau is rabbi of Young Israel of Holls Hills – Windsor Park in Bayside, Queens, NY, and serves as Director of Member Services at the Rabbinical Council of America. [Section headings added by me – GS]
I. Leap Second
You might not have noticed it, but an unusual event happened at about 7:00 PM in New York this past Shabbat, June 30, 2012: we experienced a leap second. In Great Britain and in other places where it was turning midnight, accurate clocks did not move from 11:59:59 PM to 12:00:00 AM as they usually do. Instead, an extra second was inserted, so that clocks moved from 11:59:59 to 11:59:60 (a time that does not normally exist) and only then to 12:00:00 AM. Here’s what it looked like on a 24-hour digital clock:
In New York, the leap second occurred at the same moment, or at 6:59:60 PM.
I share this with you for two reasons. First, I have always been interested in mathematics, science, and the like, and we geeks are nothing if not evangelical about our geekiness. Second (pun intended), in the months since this addition of leap second was announced earlier this year, I have thought a great deal about the way halachically observant Jews relate to time, and I would like to share one of those thoughts with you.
So first, the geeky part: why did the world’s time keepers add in in a leap second? To understand, we need to think about what a minute or a second is.
II. Changing Conceptions of Time
As you can read here, in ancient times, there was no concept of second at all; in fact, even minutes took a while to develop. Instead, other subdivisions of the hour were used. We Jews recall one of those ancient ways of subdividing hours when we announce the time of the molad (the time of the appearance of the new moon in Jerusalem) during services on the Shabbat before each Rosh Chodesh (the first day of each Jewish month). In so doing, our custom is to mention the time in hours (they had those in the ancient world: think of sundials), minutes (already a concession to ‘modernity’; the Greeks didn’t use them), and chalakim, where one chelek equals 1/1080th of an hour, or 3 1/3 modern seconds.)
Starting in the late 1500s, clocks became accurate enough to allow for the invention and definition of a second, which by the late 1600s was defined by British clock makers as we think it “is” or “must” be defined; i.e., relative to the rotation of Earth. Namely, you calculate the average duration of one Earth rotation on its axis, divide that into 24 equal parts to define an hour, divide each such hour into 60 equal parts to define a minute, and then divide each such minute into 60 equal parts to define a second. (The 24, 60, 60 pattern is an echo of the ancient Sumerian and Babylonian number systems.) That is to say, a second was 1/86400th of the duration of the Earth’s typical rotation on its axis.
Over the past century, though, scientists determined that the duration of the Earth’s rotation on its axis changes over time. This is due to a variety of effects, most notably the gravitational influence of the Moon on Earth. The ocean’s tides are a familiar, visible reminder of that effect on Earth’s seas and oceans; related effects occur on Earth’s solid portions, as well, with the effect of slowing down Earth’s rotation.
To escape that astronomical irregularity, the world’s time keepers made a practical and conceptual change in the definition of a second in the 1950s and 1960s so that nowadays, the official definition of a second is “the duration of 9,192,631,770 periods of the radiation corresponding to the transition between the two hyperfine levels of the ground state of the cesium 133 atom.” Deciphering exactly what that means is beyond the scope of this essay, but the conceptual point is that the definition of a second no longer relates to Earth, but rather to atomic oscillations. And this, in turn, is what gives rise to the need for leap-seconds: every few years (the pattern is erratic), the number of seconds on an atomic clock exceeds the number of seconds on an Earth rotation-based clock, necessitating the addition of a leap-second to synchronize them.
Time has undergone other major conceptual shifts over the past century, most notably a move from conceiving of time as being essentially independent of physical law to Einstein’s integration of it into the rest of physical law in the Special Theory of Relativity. The new concept of space-time allowed him to predict and scientists later to observe that the rate at which time appears to ‘tick’ is not uniform throughout the entire universe but rather varies according to the relative speed of the observer and the clock being observed.
III. Jewish Time
With those conceptual thoughts in mind, I turn to the Jewish experience of time. It has many components: sanctified vs. ordinary time, our solar-lunar calendar, counting the days from Passover until Shavuot, the sabbatical and jubilee cycles of seven and fifty years, and much more. Here, I would like to reflect on how we relate to time on a daily basis as halachically observant Jews. More specifically, I would like to consider one of the many conceptual changes which have occurred over the years regarding halachic time, and to reflect upon its significance.
My example is a move from measuring time according to one’s stomach to measuring it in minutes. The precept of birkat hamazon (Grace After Meals) is a pillar of the daily ritual of an observant Jew. This precept is found in the middle of a long Torah passage (Deuteronomy, chapters 6-11) detailing practical and spiritual challenges which, after concluding their forty years in the wilderness, the Israelites will encounter upon entering the land of Canaan. God warns the people about those pitfalls and seeks to fortify them against succumbing to them. A thrice repeated theme (6:10-12; 8:7-14; 11:13-16, the second paragraph of Sh’ma; see also 32:15) of that passage is the danger of v’achalta v’savata: the sense of physical satiety one feels after eating a large meal. With God directly providing the Israelites’ food, shelter, clothing and water in the wilderness, remembering Him was easy and forgetting Him, difficult. Upon entering the land of Canaan, however, God’s overt sustaining Hand would be difficult to perceive, replaced by a bountiful land and its natural and man-made resources: springs, cities, orchards, vineyards, flocks, minerals, fields, houses, and more. The Israelites could easily come to believe they were self-sufficient and no longer needed God, opening paths to indifference, rebellion, and idolatry.
The Torah’s antidote to these spiritual temptations of prosperity is v’achalta v’savata u’verachta– precisely at the moment of satiety when a full belly might mute one’s sense of dependence on God, the Israelites are commanded not to forget Him but rather to bless and thank Him for giving them the very Land which sustains them and fills their bellies.
Appropriately enough, then, the laws of birkat hamazon require the Jew to maintain precise awareness of his or her degree of satiety. Although rabbinic law mandates recitation of birkat hamazon even after a (relatively small) olive-bulk‘s worth of bread, Biblical law requires one to recite birkat hamazon only after having eaten to satiety. Similarly, the Shulchan Aruch (1500s) rules that one must recite birkat hamazon after concluding one’s meal as long as one still feels fully satiated from one’s meal: e.g., “until the food in one’s belly is digested; i.e., as long as one is not hungry from that eating. From the time one begins to be hungry, even though [the meal] is not yet fully digested – it is considered to be fully digested.” After three different phrasings of the law, the bottom line is: if your stomach tells you that you’re still savata, satiated, you may and must recite birkat hamazon – the antidote to possible feelings of self-sufficiency that are most likely precisely that moment – so you don’t forget that you are actually dependent on God. If you’ve waited so long after your meal that your stomach tells you that you’re no longer savata, satiated, then you are no longer obligated to recite birkat hamazon and may not do so.
In rough concert with the ascendancy of accurate clocks throughout Europe in the 1600s, the requirement to directly consult one’s stomach to measure time for this mitzvah began to change. At that time, European rabbis began to measure this amount of time according to distance (the time it takes an average person to walk 4 mil [around 3 modern miles]) and time (1 1/5 hours). By the turn of the 20th century, they stated this amount succinctly, in the units that made sense to themselves and their clock-oriented flocks: 72 minutes. Nowadays, halachically observant Jews know even from a young age that they have 72 minutes to recite birkat hamazon, often without knowing what that time period signifies. The conceptual change from stomach awareness to clock arithmetic is complete.
IV. Why Time Matters
Does it really matter whether, when deciding whether we must recite birkat hamazon, we consult our cell phone, watch, or clock to calculate whether 72 minutes have passed since we finished eating, or our stomach to see if we’re still full? I believe it does. First, modern man constantly focuses on time arithmetic and precise time measurements: train and plane schedules are posted to the minute; appointment times, to the five minutes;email timestamps, to the second; Facebook update times (“posted 4 minutes ago”), to the minute, and so on. Additionally, halachically observant Jews also mark off the moments of their religious lives in this way: 18 minutes before sunset is Shabbat candlelighting; 6 hours until eating dairy after meat; 42 (or 72) minutes after sundown until Shabbat ends; repeat Sh’ma after (say) 7:42 PM and before 9:06 AM; the list goes on.
Reducing the idea behind birkat hamazon to another bit of halachic time arithmetic masks its intended spiritual effect; namely, to inoculate the Jewish people against the potentially damaging effect of wealth on religious observance and awareness of our dependence on God’s beneficence. Given the historically unprecedented wealth of Western civilization in general and among so many contemporary Jews in particular, the indifference and/or hostility towards traditional observance among large swaths of contemporary Jewry testify loudly to the reality of the Torah’s concerns and the need for its antidote.
Additionally, replacing the satiety awareness required by savata with clock arithmetic is a lost opportunity to address self-satisfied Western man’s habit of overeating and its correspondingly high and rising obesity rates. Recent studies have linked religious participation in general with being overweight. Closer to home, the Orthodox Union has recently highlighted the bad health habits of Orthodox Jews, including overeating on Shabbat and other occasions. Focusing on and maintaining awareness of when we’re actually satiated – just as ve’savata and the Shulchan Aruch require – might be a good first towards learning how to stop eating. As food writer Michael Pollan puts it, a good directive for healthy eating is to “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”
In these ways and others, how observant Jews conceptualize halachic time matters a great deal. Perhaps focusing on these matters more precisely will allow our people to leap forward towards a brighter future.
 http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0091743511004634: Feinstein, M, Lloyd-Jones
D, Fitchett G, Ning Hongyan, Liu K. Incidence of Cardiac Risk Factors and Subclinical
Cardiovascular Disease in Young Adults across Levels of Religious Involvement: The CARDIA Study.
Preventive Medicine; 2012 Feb 1;54(2): 117-21.
For a much broader view of the changes in the rate of rotation of the earth’s crust see
6 hours until eating dairy after meat
6 (or 3 or 1 depending on family origin) hours until eating dairy after meat.
It leads me to wonder: If Jews can be bound by this, why not more? It could even lead to the proposal of about a hundred years ago of adding a day to the calendar (technically removing one) to synchronize days of the week. It was objected to on religious grounds, but hey, in for a second, in for a day.
Of course, Shabbat will come at sunset regardless of the official time. Just a thought experiment here, I guess.
“Of course, Shabbat will come at sunset regardless of the official time. Just a thought experiment here, I guess.”
And seven sunsets since the last one….
How are Jews bound by the leap second? It doesn’t affect halachic observance in any way. Sof zman kriyat shema will come one second earlier, that’s about all. Actually it will come at the same time as in previous years, since the leap second offsets an astronomical change.
IIRC it was the Rogochover Rav who said that time is an illusion. He said”העבר אין, העתיד עדין וההווה כהרף עין”
“The past is gone, the future is yet to come, and the present is but the blink of the eye. The only real time is really Ein Sof,and the
Master of time is היה הןה ויהיה
Thanks for a fascinating post.
It was R. Yedaiah Ha-Penini who wrote it centuries before the Rogatchover was born. I seem to recall in Al Ha-Teshuvah that Rav Soloveitchik said (if taken literally) it is kefirah.
Why would it e considered kefirah? Aderaba it emphasizes that Hashem is “meal lazman” Do you have the quote from RYBS?
Why did it take until modernity for these principles of time-keeping to be applied to birkat ha-mazon. Were they not already there in Hazal?
DT: Because you have to do teshuvah for past misdeeds and prepare for the future yom ha-din.
IIRC R’ YBS didn’t like it although I don’t remember it as kfira, but I always wondered what the context was of the original statement which always sounded harmless to me.
wrt the post itself IMHO while the bentching thing is interesting, aiui it is part of a much broader paradigm shift – going from resonating with natural cycles (e.g. sunrise, seasons…and going outside of the time issue – taste in kashrut) to “scientific” measurements. One might ask for example , why was davening at neitz considered such a big deal and does it retian that character in a society no longer regulated by the day/night cycle, similar issue for neir chanukah and ad shetichleh regel etc.
Much to think about.
s also, IIRC, found in his essay “The Community.”
The past gone by
The future not yet nigh,
The present the blink of an eye.
Im ken deagah minayin.
So worry wonder why?
The Rav also alludes to it in Halakhic Man.
Aren’t those the words (Im ken deagah minayin) to a famous MBD niggun?
Significant response exist for both periods of the French Republics when both days and weeks were digitized into units of ten rather than 24 hours and 7 days.
It did lead, however, to significant population exodus by the religious across to the German states.
Quite fascinating from a hakachic perspective.
Steve Allen: Thanks for the link!
Joel Hecker: The mil-based measurement is a minority opinion in the Talmud, is mentioned in a limited way by Avudaraham and then by in Rema’s commentary to Tur (although he’s silent in his commentary to Shulchan Aruch), but only takes off in 1600s when Taz and Magen Avraham OC 184 cites them. Thanks for opportunity to clarify; I should have done so in body of article.
Joel Rich: Exactly! That’s why I wrote, “one of the many conceptual changes which have occurred over the years regarding halachic time.” In fact, I was thinking on touching on other issues, too, but thought this was enough for one blog post.
Please be sure to include why the chachmei hamesorah of the time (pun intended) decided to make the switch, after all they could have maintained the older gut (pun intended) methods but chose not to. One might wonder whether conciously or not they were affected by the “spirit of the times”?
On a parallel track 🙂 time zones were standardized iirc so the trains railroads could publish schedules without worrying about how the local towns figured time.
1) I remember hearing a 60 minutes program a while back about some tribe in the pacific. They apparently learn to swim before they learn to walk, knew about the Tsunami before it hit because they listened to their elders, etc. They also lacked some very basic ideas. The program ended with the presenter (don’t remember who) ending off something like this: “And now ________ sits there and simply waits. But he doesn’t mind. Because his people simply don’t have a word or conception of time.” I thought that was pretty cool.
2) This should annoy some people: https://www.torahmusings.com/2011/09/the-question-of-time/
There was a nice episode of Nova late last year about the physics of time. I would particularly recommend minutes 18:00 until 27:10 about Spacetime viewable at: http://video.pbs.org/video/2164065493/
Regarding the aphorism העבר אין, I have a long blog post attempting to trace its origins. I’m willing to bet that רבי ידעיה never said it – the earliest source we were able to find for it was seventeenth century, and while it doubtless goes back earlier, there’s no known source:
“6 hours until eating dairy after meat
6 (or 3 or 1 depending on family origin) hours until eating dairy after meat.”
I recently became aware of the fact that this rule may also not necessarily have always been “time based” and that there is a subjective standard – e.g. if one sleeps after eating meat one can eat milk after waking up (i.e. even if less than the “objective” time period). Does anyone know the source for this?
“I recently became aware of the fact that this rule may also not necessarily have always been “time based” and that there is a subjective standard – e.g. if one sleeps after eating meat one can eat milk after waking up (i.e. even if less than the “objective” time period). Does anyone know the source for this?”
Tosofot? The Gemora?
The halacha is “next meal”, the minhag is 6 3 or 1 hours.
It was my understanding the minhag is either 6 or 1 and that 3 was a modern (20th century) pseudo-minhag; but, I defer to the experts.
On the sleeping issue, see the 1st comment in: https://www.torahmusings.com/2012/02/naps-in-jewish-law/
R’ Rakeffet has said that 3 is a modern thing as well. I always thought it was German, but I know a lot of non-Germans who’ve adopted it in living memory.
Those more knowledgeable can correct me:
The sole source for waiting is an Amora who says “My father was much more careful than me; I wait from meal to meal and he waited 24 hours.” The implication is that waiting at *all* is a middat chassidut, not halacha, and that halacha is simply not cooking them together- or, at most, not having it at the same meal. (I can’t imagine that the latter isn’t halacha, but who knows.) The various times are then different definitions of “meal to meal.”
It’s a machlokes how to read the Gemara. The Rambam holds it’s an absolute obligation to wait 6 hours. Tosafos are more lenient.
What is the first textual source for 3, Gil?
“It was my understanding the minhag is either 6 or 1 and that 3 was a modern (20th century) pseudo-minhag; but, I defer to the experts.”
“What is the first textual source for 3, Gil?”
See shorshei minhagei ashkenaz. I read somewhere that this particular claim (possibly by R Feivel Cohen in badei hashulchan) is what got him started on proving that the yekkishe minhagim are the most authentic.
Shaul — does R. Hamburger cite the actual primary source(s)?
See the entry for Three Hours in http://ohr.edu/5206
See also footnote 24 that is attached to this text.
I think the Rambam says “כשש שעות” with the kaf as the source for all variations of 5+ hours.
That seems to me to be the worst of all positions.
” “כשש שעות” ” Could also just mean “close to 6 hours, since that is what we wait between meals as is common practice”, and nitpicking over 6 or 5+ or 6+ or any exact precise time is misreading the Rambam.
Some Physics theories questions the existence of time at all. For us though, humans / animals even if a local illusion, time is a lot: it synchronizes our body parts and systems to work in harmony, and allows the individual people to create one group, a nation. The combination of body clocks and technology clocks is timely – especially in times when some are less able to listen to our inner healthy self.
Kol Ha-Kavod Rabbi for the article.
Thanks for an interesting article. I’ve never thought of relating the concept of time to a full belly.
Your argument of relating time to things that are meaningful rather than making it into abstract arithmetic reminds me of a line in “The Soul of a New Machine” by Tracy Kidder. This book is about a team that is working multiple overtime to bring a new computer to market. At one point one of the engineers turns out to be gone and on his desk there is a note “I’m off to my uncle’s farm. I will not deal with time anymore in units shorter than a season.”
Six hours is too long, in my personal opinion. Such waiting time is a custom of a rabbinic of a rabbinic of a rabbinic interpretation of a verse. The custom is first predicated on accepting that separating meat and milk is the correct interpretation of “Thou shalt not seeth a kid in it’s mothers milk.” This itself strains the limits of orthodox emunas chachamim, I think. Then one has to also accept that chicken counts as meat. The one also has to accept that its not enough not to eat them together, but one must also wait in between. That’s a lot of stretching!
Then, keep in mind also, that even in the Gemara itself, Mar Ukva did not keep the same practice as his father, indicating that the amount one waits is voluntary. And even this Gemara was only speaking about meat and cheese, not poultry, nor even meat and milk.
When you actually think about it, waiting 6 hours is one of the few real stringencies that actually affect people’s lives in modern day society. It means you cant have that cup of hot tea with milk or hot choclate before bed, or that ice cream you’d like. I personally switched to 3 hours a long time ago, and have been much happier since then.
Why 3 hours though and not 1 hour. There is textual support for 1 hour, but not for 3 hours. Sociological, perhaps: 1 is viewed as too easy?
I can only say for me, I went to 3 hours because it was a compromise. 6 hours was too long, 1 hour was too short. The halachic rationale of 3 hours did not concern me, because the halachic rationale for the whole concept of waiting in general is murky. So, 3 it was. And, as funny as it sounds, I have been a happier man since!
(I used to chafe at the halacha when I could not eat something dairy, especially when all I had eaten was a tiny bit of meat or chicken, which I could not feel within me only a short time afterwards. I resented having to be neurotic about silly things like whether I should eat deli on shalosh seudos, knowing I would be still be fleishig on motzei shabbos. It made me feel anger towards the entire religious way of life, especially because, like I detailed above, the idea of waiting six hours is really a big stretch to anyone who investigates it! As I got older I matured and realized that people are constantly changing their practices and ways of observance, sometimes consciously and sometimes not. So, I made the correction, for my family too. There was no slippery slope. Years later, I’m still frum, still put on tefillin every day, still wait 3 hours, still learn in the beis medrash. I’m just a lot happier.)
Chaim Zev: The custom is first predicated on accepting that separating meat and milk is the correct interpretation of “Thou shalt not seeth a kid in it’s mothers milk.” This itself strains the limits of orthodox emunas chachamim, I think.
I applaud your willingness to follow some halakhah despite having doubts about the halakhic system. However, this discussion is based on a presumed acceptance of the halakhic tradition, which means that we accept that meat cooked with milk is biblically forbidden and fowl cooked with milk is rabbinically forbidden.
I have no doubt that life is easier when you adopt a more lenient position. But I resent your calling common halakhic practices “murky”, “neurotic” or “silly”. They are nothing of the sort.
Anyone, regardless of commitment to halakhic practice, is welcome on this blog. But our discussion requires respect, for each other and for Judaism.
r gil — good retort. be sure to save it and recomment as needed on other posts.
I am sorry if I appeared to insult the halachic system. I did not intend to do so. I dont think I called the halachic system itself neurotic or silly, only the advance calculations one must constantly make by waiting six hours.
My respect for Judaism is unbounded, and I kind of resent it myself that you seem to imply otherwise! But halachic observance is not the same as Judaism. You can have great respect for Judaism and not keep a word of halacha, let alone the position I described, which nowhere advocates non-observance of halacha.
It is interesting. What I described was the most minor of minor halachic points – a change in minhag. And yet you react as though I were suggesting disposing of the shulchan aruch altogether. If this blog, which presents itself as “centrist”, cannot abide even this, how can it expect the more right wing of orthodoxy to make the changes or takkanos this blog itself suggests? (If you say you were referring to my doubt of how “though shalt not seeth” is interpreted, then I still wonder – when we say orthodoxy “permits questioning”, do we really mean it?)
There are four issues:
1) The prohibition of cooking meat and milk together is not derived from a verse. It is assumed and then connected to a verse. You don’t find that connection particularly convincing as a DERIVATION, and neither do I. But even if it had not been written at all, not even connected to the Bible, I would still follow it as an oral law. It is one thing to question the connection. It is quite another to suggest that a law that Jews have observed for thousands of years is illegitimate.
2) Waiting after meat makes sense based on the rationales offered in the rishonim. The two main explanations differ between waiting until the end of the meal or waiting until the next meal.
3) We don’t toss out minhagim, especially very old ones that have solid textual bases. Choosing one interpretation over another for convenience after centuries of practice strikes me as invalid halakhic decision-making. Choosing three hours, the least sensible of options (other than 5+ hours), seems me as a little too convenient. I don’t encourage people to adopt stricter practices than is their custom and I certainly discourage people from adopting more lenient customs.
4) There’s a difference between questioning and acting on a question. You have acted on your question, even if not 100%. That is different than asking a question.
You make an interesting point in Number 1. But there is no evidence that anyone ever observed this practice before the mishna/gemara made the assumption. Certainly nothing in Tanach itselsf supports it. The assumption was made for the first time in the Talmud, that the intent of the verse is to not eat meat and milk together. By the way, I didnt say the custom was illegitimate, I said it was based on a questionable reading of the pesukim. You yourself have expressed doubt over the census figures given in the Torah.
If you can’t act based on your questions, even on tiny matters such as a minhag, then there’s really no point in asking questions, is there? And by the way, everyone from the Satmar rav to the Briskers to R. J. B. Solveichik invented minhagim and stopped doing others, based on their own understanding.
Finally – I am truly much happier having made the change? You can’t underestimate that. Please dont say something silly like “you might be happier if you went to the beach on shabbos too.” There is no comparison whatsoever. You have to have shikkul hadass to know what changes are appropriate and what arent.
sorry, above ? should be !
Your point #1 steps into an ancient controversy about how to related to the midrash halacha: which came first, the law or the derivation? Jay Harris’s, How Do We Know This?, analyzes the long history of that debate and lays out some its ramifications for Jewish factionalism throughout the ages. You adopted the position of R. Saadia Gaon and, in more muted form of Rambam; Ramban and others later ferociously attacked that position and argued that midrash halachic derivations in the Talmud are ‘real’, not just an afterthought. R. Schachter and others continue to argue that position today…ve’akmal.
“Why 3 hours though and not 1 hour. There is textual support for 1 hour, but not for 3 hours. Sociological, perhaps: 1 is viewed as too easy?”
The truth is, while it’s entirely possible to keep only 1 hour, it’s also very impractical. It is too easy to accidently mix up your dishes, get meat and milk food touching eachother etc. I’m sure people can do it, but it’s just not a significant enough break in the human psyche IMO.
Also, I will note that modern dieticians often suggest that a person eat once every 3 hours. This to me make the practice of 3 hours make more sense and have more factual support than 6 hours or 1 hour.