by Anthony Woodrow, Member, Kingston Liberal Synagogue

Anthony Woodrow

Anthony Woodrow

A couple of people at my Kingston Liberal Synagogue recently mentioned Yiddisher Mean Time (YMT). As I am sure many of you know, this is half an hour either side of Greenwich Mean Time (GMT).

When I was growing up, it was generally agreed that being Jewish meant arriving late for social engagements. Punctuality was imitation of the gentile.

I have also had a birthday recently. How many years? As my parents used to say in Yiddish, ‘Fraig nisht!’ ‘Don’t ask!’

Suffice it to say, I am more than halfway towards earning my Queen’s telegram. So it has made me think a bit about my attitude to time.

I remember learning about the Jewish calendar at cheder when I was a child: the lunar months and the cycle of 19 years with seven leap years, with an extra month.

More recently, I have been reading the Bible again and noticed its representation of time.

Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are referred to as occurring in the seventh month. I wondered why the New Year was not in the first month.

I am probably notorious for pestering rabbis with irritating questions.

The next time there was a rabbi in the vicinity, I asked him. He explained there were actually four ways of starting and counting the New Year: the administrative and taxation year, the spring festival, the harvest festival etc.

I found that many events were described in the Bible as occurring in a certain year of the reign of a king. ‘In the eighteenth year of the reign of King Jeroboam son of Nebat, Abijah became king of Judah’ (1 Kings 15:1).

When the king died and was replaced, they started again with the first year of the reign of the new king.

I understand the date system of numbering years through the reign of the sovereign is still in use in Japan. When Emperor Hirohito died, the ticket-stamping machines on the Tokyo metro all had to be replaced.

The Bible is not the only book I have been reading recently.

Kitchen Blues by Lionel Blue consists partly of recipes and partly of other bits of wisdom. He says: “I don’t think the ancient Hebrews were hot stuff at calendars, because the scriptures describe different dates and calendars which do not tally. In the end, they adopted the system of the Babylonians who were great star-gazers (they worshipped them) and were much better at it.”

In a nutshell, for us time is a straight line and in the Bible it was a circle. Modern time is linear, whereas ancient and biblical time is cyclical.

It was informed by the cycles of nature: the cycle of day and night, the cycle of the four seasons, the cycle of the phases of the moon and so on.

These cycles were understood and universally familiar. The world we live in is a very different place from the world we were living in 10, 20 or 30 years ago. We expect life to be very different 10, 20 or 30 years in the future. The iPod and the DVD were not part of the world in which I grew up.

In Biblical times, the population was roughly stable. Nowadays, we expect the population to grow. Rightly or wrongly, we believe in progress.

We think we are always moving forward on many levels. We think our politics, our laws, our education, our science and technology, and our belief systems are always improving. We also have a concept of history. We have the same belief in progress, when we think about the past. We assume people were living in a very different world before us.

The concept of history seems absent from the bible. Some helpful ideas appear in another book: The Art Of Happiness by the Dalai Lama and Howard Cutler.

The spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism has this to say about happiness and time: “The acceptance of change can be an important factor in reducing a large measure of our self-created suffering. So often, for instance, we cause our own suffering by refusing to relinquish the past.”

Lionel Blue recounts what he learnt from an old lady in a hospital waiting room: “On her advice, I decided to accept the present moment, and live in it. This isn’t as easy as it sounds.”

So two religious leaders agree how important it is to be present.

That way, I suppose, we avoid too many expectations of the future and regrets about the past.