Mishpatim, Exodus 21:1−24:18
My son ogled the watches glittering in the store’s display. Most were bejeweled, some were tiny, a few triangular, and many were too large for any wrist. We admired them, observing which had transparent escapements or lunar calendars or millisecond chronometers. Their fancy prices were as impressive as their minute (pun intended) technology. As we turned to go, we agreed that even an expensive watch could not make someone punctual.
That discussion a few weeks ago made me wonder about the value of time and punctuality and their importance. I stumbled upon this issue again when reading the religious stipulations listed in this week’s parashah. One of our obligations to God is:
“You shall not put off (lo te’aḥer) the skimming of the first yield of your vats. You shall give Me the first born among your sons.” (Exodus 22:28)
What does “not putting off” mean and why does God care about it?
Three medieval commentators offer different interpretations of this notion.
In the 11th century, Rashi insisted that it meant one should not alter the prescribed sequence: first give this stuff and then give that stuff. In short, order matters.
A generation later, the French scholar Yosef Bekhor Shor understood this verse as teaching that “lest you make My portion after yours, the first of your offerings you shall give to Me and only afterwards you shall take for yourself.” To Yosef Bekhor Shor, making others a priority matters.
Around the same time, the Spanish philosopher Ibn Ezra, reflecting marriage and family norms of his time, extrapolated on this passage and said that one should not delay getting married. Because humans’ windows of fertility are relatively short, time matters. Seize the moment.
Contemporary notions of punctuality intertwine with these medieval ideas. While people who are neurodiverse sometimes find it harder than others to meet societal norms around timeliness, punctuality is frequently understood as an expression of one’s values rather than merely one’s habits. Those who are chronically late are incorrectly judged as not valuing their and others’ time. It is thus important to think carefully about timeliness and how we individually and culturally value it.
This is particularly true about the promises and vows one makes.
- “When you make a vow to Adonai your God, do not delay (lo te’aḥer) fulfilling it, for Adonai your God will require it of you, and you will have incurred guilt” (Deuteronomy 23:22).
- “When you make a vow to God, do not delay (lo te’aḥer) fulfilling it, for [God] has no pleasure in fools; what you vow, fulfill” (Ecclesiastes 5:3).
Timeliness, in some cultures, is no small virtue. It can protect one from the guilt of failing to fulfill one’s promises, and it can shore up one’s reputation as someone who is trustworthy. No wonder the rabbis admire punctuality! Rabbi Asher ben Yehiel in 13th Century Rhineland opined that one should prepare an hour before shul for prayer, hasten to be among the minyan, and be ready with one’sand . A century before him, Maimonides ruled that teachers should be God-fearing, punctual, and conscientious of their duties. Punctuality demonstrates your organization, preparation (in time), and respect for others (those who are expecting you).
The significance of timeliness in some religions is understandable. As David Landes observes in “Revolution in Time: Clocks and the Making of the Modern World,” showing up at communal worship at the right time allows for simultaneity: “To sing along is to sing together. That was the point of community: the whole was greater than the sum of the parts”. This helps explain why Jewish congregations wait until a full minyan is present before launching into the, the first major prayer in the service.
However, one can take punctuality to an extreme. In 1924, Gandhi warned fellow Indians about respect for time in the newspaper “Young India.” “One who is too late is admittedly behind time. But it is equally true to say that one who is four hours [early], is also [late]. He has neglected a hundred things to enable him to be four hours [early].” Showing up too early is no better than being too late. Either extreme is wasteful. In his view, time is like other resources in that it cannot be personally owned. “You may not waste a grain of rice or a scrap of paper, and similarly, a minute of your time. Time is not ours.”
The fact that many believe that human punctuality concerns God is ironic. Why should an eternal deity care about timeliness? What does an extra hour or day or decade mean to the immortal realm? The ancient sages imagine that God does not squander time but instead fills divine days with studying Torah, making matches, bringing business partners together, rendering judgments, and sustaining the natural world (see Targums Jerusalem and Jonathan on Deuteronomy 32:4; Vayikra Rabbah 8.1). It’s not that God is punctual, but rather that God takes time seriously. Time should not be wasted.
Perhaps these teachings about not delaying articulate a divine acknowledgment that humans are mortal creatures bound to temporally, spatially, and materially limited existence. God cares about how we prioritize things and other people. Since God takes time and timeliness seriously, then kal vaḥomer, all the more should we.