God's Time

Elliott Rabin

With the rise and spread of industrialization, and especially the network of railroads transporting people and goods throughout the United States, the dominance of local times became increasingly unworkable. Train schedules were particularly unwieldy, with the amount of time travelled having no relation to the local time upon arrival. An alliance of businessmen, railroad companies, astronomers and mapmakers banded together to create an artificially unified time across a wide swath of territory. People were empowered to override nature, to set the clock as a tool of convenience for the juggernaut of trade and commerce. In some places the clock was reset by more than a half hour as the people experienced two noons in one day.

While this difference may seem minuscule to us, in an age when we are used to flying between time zones and suffering from “jet lag,” the change represented much more than the dialing back of the minute hand. Indeed, many people at the time recognized the significance of this change and chafed at it. In the words of one protester from Pittsburgh, “God Almighty fixed the time for this section just as much as He did for Philadelphia or New York” (Michael O’Malley, Keeping Watch). This observation is, I believe, a profound one, representing much more than the typical American bid for local power against larger outside interests. As the Torah makes clear, time is an essential medium for our relationship with God. By sundering the nexus between time and nature, the railroad magnates made it much harder to experience God through the medium of time. To restore that relationship in ourselves and our students requires us to recapture an awareness that “God Almighty fixed...time.”


To understand the importance of time in Judaism requires reading Genesis 1 with fresh eyes. Despite this chapter’s beauty and simplicity, the magnificent sense of order and structure conveyed by the repeating phrases, it is one of the most difficult parts of the Torah to grasp, as reflected in widely different interpretations. For some, a “literal understanding” demands reading this chapter as a description of the beginning of the world: on day one, God created light and darkness, etc. In seven days, one week, God created everything that exists in the universe out of nothing. Others read this chapter in a more expansive way that meshes the order of “events” with a scientific sense of creation and evolution, the biblical “days” referring to enormous eras during which the world as humans know was formed. Both of these interpretations have in common the notion that the Tanakh is primarily a book of history; Genesis 1 offers a foundation for the history of the world and of humanity.

In a careful reading of the Hebrew, Rashi gives Jews license to interpret this chapter differently:

But Scripture did not come to teach the sequence of the Creation, to say that these came first, for if it came to teach this, it should have written: “At first (barishonah) He created the heavens and the earth.”

The Torah begins not with the word meaning “In the beginning,” barishonah, but “In the beginning of,” bereishit. Rashi explains that the proper way to read the first sentence is thus, “In the beginning of God’s creation of heaven and earth...the earth was unformed and void” etc. In other words, before the events in Genesis 1, there was already something that existed. Therefore, Genesis 1 does not come to teach us the order of creation. It does not need to be read—in Rashi’s view, it should not be read—as a literal statement about history.

How, then, should it be read? Rashi doesn’t answer this directly, but another statement by him provides a clue:

Said Rabbi Isaac: It was not necessary to begin the Torah except from “This month is to you,” (Exod. 12:2) which is the first commandment that the Israelites were commanded.


Rashi quotes his teacher Rabbi Isaac, who is perplexed by the Torah’s beginnings. Who cares about the sun and moon, the animals, insects, fish and trees? The Torah is, as its name suggests, a book of instruction for living; the content of that instruction is the collection of mitzvot. Rashi’s explanation of why Genesis 1 is needed—so that non-Jews should know that the same God who created the world also gave the land of Israel to the Jewish people—is less relevant here than the insight that the Torah is informed throughout by the notion of mitzvah, a vehicle for people to relate to God. That insight is critical for understanding Genesis 1 as well.</p>

In her classic sociological treatise Purity and Danger, Mary Douglas devoted a chapter to the laws of Leviticus that exerted considerable influence in biblical studies. Douglas draws out the relationship between mitzvot and creation:

The precepts and ceremonies alike are focussed on the idea of the holiness of God which men must create in their own lives. So this is a universe in which men prosper by conforming to holiness and perish when they deviate from it. ... Holiness means keeping distinct the categories of creation. It therefore involves correct definition, discrimination and order.

In Genesis 1, God created an order to reality constructed upon a series of distinctions between different categories of objects. The mitzvot are premised upon the idea of kedushah, holiness, requiring a system of separations that are modeled upon the separations that God built into the universe, expanding them into all aspects of human life, personal, familial, and communal. Biblical laws are based on a system of separation that is designed to implant a consciousness of holiness. Lack of differentiation does not register on our minds; distinctions enable us to grasp, to recognize, to attain higher meanings. Distinguishing between kosher and nonkosher animals, for example, provides us with a way to keep a consciousness of God in our minds through the most basic daily activity. God’s creation of the universe and God’s commanding of the mitzvot are thus completely of a piece, the same kind of action. As described below, this understanding is thoroughly woven into Jewish prayer.


The language of separation permeates the description of creation. For distinctions in the heavens between light and darkness, the Torah uses the word le-havdil (5 occurrences). Distinctions between different creatures draw upon the word min, usually translated as “kind” and indicating separate categories of living beings (9 occurrences). Regarding water, which by its nature is not divisible and threatens to overwhelm the neat distinctions on land, God contains its reach through the root word kuf – vav – heh, based on the word kav meaning line. God draws a line to keep the water away from the dry land, and the drawing of lines is the essence of all the activity in Genesis 1.

Through these lines, God creates the dimensions of time and space; and of those two, time clearly predominates. Creation is framed by time: day 1 (the day), day 4 (the moon and sun to rule over day and night, or, according to other interpretations, the year and month), and day 7 (the week). It’s important to note what is created on day 1: not the sun, not a source of light, but time. God creates light and immediately separates it from darkness, naming them “day” and “night.” That is, God defines time as the alternation of light and darkness.

The prevalence of time in biblical creation highlights the notion that Genesis 1 describes the creation of consciousness. Only a conscious being, endowed with sight, can perceive the alternation of light and darkness and then interpret it as day and night, a unit of time. Human consciousness alone is capable of distinguishing larger units of time. The lines that outline and separate different kinds of things enable people to understand the world, to explore and explain it, to perceive patterns and to use things for our purposes.

Moreover, through the system of separations, God has imbued human consciousness with the ability to perceive God in time and space. When people notice the setting of the sun and the rising of the stars, they can recall to consciousness that God has created the universe and can, intuitively or through reflection, perceive God’s presence through their senses and minds. Understanding of the world and consciousness of God go hand in hand, thanks to the nature of creation. This twinned knowledge is what constitutes the biblical conception of wisdom. Solomon’s wisdom derived from the combination of his encyclopedic knowledge of nature together with his fine-tuned sensitivity to God’s planful role in creating “the earth, and the fullness thereof.”

The creation narrative establishes not merely a system of differences. Through linguistic repetitions and the dense weave of verbal patterning, it also introduces similarities that invite comparison, consideration and investigation. Take this striking example:

And God blessed them, saying, Be fruitful and multiply, and [the fish shall] fill the waters in the seas, and the birds shall be plentiful on the land. (1:22)

This verse is repeated nearly verbatim in God’s blessing over humanity in 1:28. One can of course emphasize the differences: only people are commanded to “subdue” and “rule”; and notably, in the order of human conquest, the first creatures mentioned are “the fish of the sea and the bird of the sky,” the same order in the prior verse. Nonetheless the similarities are unexpected and worthy of reflection. Why does God bless the fish and the birds, like people? More pointedly, what does it mean for God to give them a commandment?! If the Bible may not be a founding document of animal rights, it does at times ask people to ponder our similarities with our fellow creatures.


Foundational to Jewish prayer is this notion that distinctions built into the creation of the world provide a vehicle for people to connect with God. This idea governs tefillah at several key points, serving as a framework for the prayers that follow. The first place is Birkhot Hashachar, the morning blessings, which are the first prayers recited together by the minyan. They begin:

Blessed are You our God, King of the Universe,who has given understanding to the rooster to distinguish between day and night.

Our prayers begin giving thanks to God for the distinction between day and night created on day one, a natural cause of praise in one who has just awoken. Fascinating that the prayer thanks God for the rooster, nature’s alarm clock, for giving the rooster this very consciousness of night and day. The prayer thus stresses our links to another creature at the same time that it recognizes division as the basis for consciousness. The next three prayers in the series praise God for “not making me” like someone else: a non-Jew, a slave, a woman. These prayers are among the most challenging and controversial in our liturgy. The main point to observe in this context, however, is that they are meant to flow directly from the first blessing, because the divisions of creation are the source and paradigm for divisions between people. The categories of people referred to in these prayers, all described in Halakhah as having differential levels of religious obligation, these categories derive from the same action in which God separated day from night.

Both the Shacharit and the Ma’ariv services are framed by prayers that connect creation with mitzvot. (Minchah, the afternoon prayer, is much shorter and hence lacks this frame.) After the Barkhu, the call to prayer, the first blessing praises God who “forms light and creates darkness,” proceeding with a long prayer whose main emphasis is God as the creator of light. The second prayer, Ahavah rabbah, praises God for giving the Torah and mitzvot, “the statutes of life.” Similarly, Ma’ariv starts with praise for God who “creates day and night, rolling away the light before the darkness and darkness before the light,” followed by the prayer Ahavat olam, very close in language and message to its morning counterpart: “Torah and mitzvot, statutes and judgments You have taught us.”

The pinnacle of Jewish prayer hearkening back to creation is reached in the Havdalah prayer. As we saw, the verb le-havdil, to separate, is one of the crucial actions that God undertakes in creation. God separates light and dark, night and day to create the day. In addition, the Torah describes the creation of an additional unit of time, the week. Both the day and the week are built by a rhythm of alternation: night-day, everyday-sacred. This rhythm is not intrinsic to a week (nor is it obvious or necessary that a week should have seven days); indeed, our English days that recall the ancient deities and planets imply no difference between Moon-day, Wotan’s-day and Saturn-day. As the sociologist Evyatar Zerubavel glowingly describes the biblical week, in his history of the week in human societies, The Seven Day Cycle: The History and Meaning of the Week:

We can thus view the pulsating week as a cycle of periodic alternation between ordinary and extraordinary days. It is the regular pulsation between the “on” and “off” phases of such a cycle that underlies our very experience of a seven-day “beat.” The essence of the experience of the pulsating week is the fundamental cultural binary contrast between the extraordinary and the ordinary.

The Havdalah prayer commemorates the fact that the Shabbat represents a double separation, and as such, an opportunity to connect to God through a double portion. In the concluding blessing, we thank God for separating “between light and darkness”—namely, the unit of the day—and “between the seventh day and the six days of creation”—the week. This prayer reinforces the bond between creation and all other religious distinctions, “between the holy and profane” and “between Israel and the nations.” As the final moment in the weekly cycle rooted in creation, the Havdalah ceremony furnishes a culmination of the biblical themes before rendering a separation between one cycle and the next.


Here are some ideas for helping your students to turn back the clock before November 18, in an attempt to encounter time as God’s time.

1) The daily schedule of Jewish services depends upon local time, the exact moment of sunrise and sunset. Explore Judaism’s daily clock, the division of sun hours and the halakhot concerning when prayers and services are allowed to be said. The specific times for a given day and city, with explanations for the halakhic concepts along with the differences of opinion by the major poskim, are available on myzmanim.com.

2) Make a sundial and use it to calculate the prayer-hours.

3) During a class trip, in the countryside, spend a day without any recourse to clocks, watches, devices or other means of time-measurement, if possible also without means of artificial lighting, as a means to experience the “world of creation” that all people inhabited before the inventions of standard time and the lightbulb. Draw connections between the words of tefillah and students’ observation of the daily cycle.

4) During a Havdalah ceremony, point the students to the two cycles of time that the prayer explicitly references, the importance of time in creation and time as a medium for experiencing holiness and a relationship with God.

Dr. Elliott Rabin is RAVSAK’s director of project and content development and the editor of HaYidion. [email protected]

Return to the issue home page:
HaYidion The God Issue Spring 2015
The God Issue
Spring 2015