People used to believe El Al meant “Every Landing Always Late”. Lateness is said to be a Jewish characteristic; whatever the official time of a meeting or function, “Jewish time” (late!) is when things actually commence. But where did Jewish time originate?
God Himself is accused of lateness; the Psalmist asks, “How long, O Lord?” when he wonders why God does not intervene in history sooner. But since Divine lateness is a human perception and God is outside time, we have to look for a different origin for the “Jewish time” syndrome.
Today’s sidra might be of help, for the Torah says that Israel made the golden calf when “the people saw that Moses delayed – boshesh – to descend from the mount” (Ex. 32:1). The Midrash says Moses was six hours late. It reads boshesh as ba shesh – “he came (at) six”.
Obviously there was something wrong with a people that quickly lost faith in God and patience with their leader, and without asking what had caused the delay wanted a calf to worship. Moses was in communion with the Almighty and wrongly believed the people would be patient.
We find it hard to blame Moses. But as a general rule, Judaism insists on promptness and punctuality. Is there is a mitzvah to be done? “Do not let it become stale”, say the sages. “Those who are eager fulfil mitzvot early”, they add. When it is time for prayer, we are told not to keep God waiting while we attend to mundane concerns. When we should say an Amen, it should not be left to become an “orphan Amen“. If support is needed by a person or cause, now is the hour.
“Jewish time” is not our most admirable invention.