Rule the Day

Like it does in the solar system, our sun rules the halakhic system, the structure of Jewish law. Our yearly calendar is often referred to as lunar, but it is actually a combination, guided by both the sun and the moon. For example, we are in a leap year, which adds an extra month, the current Adar II, in order for our holidays to match up with the seasons that follow the sun. If the Hebrew calendar was purely lunar, the upcoming holiday of Passover could be celebrated in the dead of winter.

The sun also determines the weekly Jewish schedule, centered around Shabbat, which begins at sundown each Friday and ends when three stars are visible on Saturday evening. Even daily routine is tied to the sun. The three prayer services incumbent upon Jews must be recited at specific times of the day. Shacharit, the morning prayer, can only be said after sunrise (mostly, although there are some prayers that can be said after dawn). Mincha, the afternoon service, is recited between noon (when the sun reaches its highest point in the sky) and sunset. Maariv, the evening service, has the longest interval; it can be said anytime between the appearance of three stars and dawn.

Because the time of the rising and setting of the sun varies throughout the year, the times for prayer also vary. For most of human history, this fact was a basic part of life. There were no wristwatches and few clocks. People looked up at the sun (or guessed when it was cloudy) and decided when to pray. Nowadays, we have precise times for Jewish prayer as well as apps on our phone to tell us those times based on our exact GPS location.

In the modern world, we rely less on the sun for much of our routine. Work is 9 to 5 regardless of the movement of the sun, and yet our bodies still crave sunlight. As a result of the standardization that comes with modernization, we developed the need for time zones and ultimately daylight savings time to give us more chance to enjoy the sun’s rays.

In an agrarian society, daylight savings time is unnecessary. The farmer wakes up at dawn and works till dark no matter what the clock says at those times of the day. It is office workers who enjoy extra daylight to run errands and play with their kids after quitting time in the spring and summer. And so every year it seems we debate the question of whether to keep the yearly daylight savings time change, extend it to the entire year, or eliminate it altogether.

There are arguments for and against all of these positions, but if the US Senate has its way we will operate by daylight savings time all year round. The bill they passed still must make its way out of the House of Representatives and then be signed by the president, but it has already activated opposition from Orthodox Jewish organizations. With daylight savings time, the sun will both rise and set later. That is great for getting in an extra round of catch with the kids, but not so great for Jewish prayer.

These groups are worried that observant Jews will not have a chance to pray the shacharit service before work. If the sun doesn’t rise until 9am and you have to be at work by then, how will you be able to recite the morning prayers? In addition, Shabbat would start and end quite late in certain areas, especially those in northern latitudes that are at the extreme western edge of their time zone, for example Michigan.

Someone joked that permanent daylight savings time will be great for some people who won’t have to worry about leaving early from work on Friday. On the other hand, it will destroy the Saturday business of kosher pizza parlors that used to be open after Shabbat ends. This dichotomy illustrates the challenge of trying to manipulate time. You can solve one problem, but in doing so create others. If the sun rules the day, why fight a heavenly body? Perhaps it’s better to just submit to its dominance and keep things as they are.

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