The Jewish Case for Daylight Saving Time

This past Sunday was one of my favorite days of the year, the day we set the clocks forward for Daylight Saving Time. And while, yes, I did lose that hour of sleep like everyone else, and yes, I was a bit groggier for Sunday school that morning, I still always look forward to the time when we gain that extra hour of daylight.

More and more, it seems, I’m in the minority. It seems that this year at this time there are more and more articles decrying the practice and more and more calls to abolish it altogether. From The 10 Things We Still Hate About Daylight Saving Time in USA Today to Time to Kill Daylight Saving in The Atlantic to John Oliver’s funny take on “Why is This Still a Thing” on his Last Week Tonight television show, the chorus is growing to get rid of this anachronistic practice.

And I will admit, it is outdated. One popular myth is that it was instituted to help farmers, when in reality it was instituted in the wake of World War I to save energy. But with how we use energy ever changing and no longer dependent on sunlight, energy consumption has stayed the same and even increased in places where Daylight Saving was instituted more recently. And plus, studies have shown that the time change can have a detrimental effect on one’s health. So why keep doing it?

Daylight Saving seems to be one of those quirks of the calendar that Jews should be used to. I remember growing up confused that the new year begins not on the first month of the year, but at the seventh month of the year. And the first month of the year, Nissan, is actually half-way through the year, the month in which we celebrate the holiday of Passover. I continually need to explain to people how the Jewish “day” begins in the evening at sundown. And as Diaspora Jews we especially have an odd relationship to time as our holidays “change” every year in relationship to the Gregorian calendar, requiring a constant adjustment between our spiritual and civic lives.

In the story of the Exodus in the Torah, which we will retell around the Passover Seder table soon (during this first month of Nissan), God describes the ancient Passover sacrifice. The offering has a practical purpose in the story—it is to provide the blood to mark the Israelite homes to avoid the final plague of the death of the first born, the plague which will finally convince Pharaoh to free the slaves. But the offering is meant to be something that will continue into the future, a remembrance of these events.

At the beginning of the description, God says, “this month shall be to you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year to you.” (Exodus 12:2) In the text, God is telling the Israelites that they will do this sacrifice again in the future. But there is a deeper meaning here. We are being told to mark time, to find significance in the season, and to count the months in a particular order. The months themselves are divine; it is through human endeavor that we order them and grant them significance.

Indeed, the medieval Italian commentator Sforno (1475-1550) says this verse means: “from now on these months will be yours, to do with as you like.” That is, we have the power now to create our own calendar. Why? Sforno continues, “this is in contrast to the years that you were enslaved, and you did not have control over your time.”

So perhaps Daylight Saving Time is arbitrary. Maybe the original justification is no longer relevant. And yes it is annoying to lose some sleep and have to adjust to a slightly altered cycle. But I will keep “falling back” and “springing forward” because it is another way we can create meaning in our world by giving order to the chaotic (I see it as another ritual marking the coming of spring), and as another reminder of, as we say at Passover, “once we were slaves, now we are free.”

The cycles of the world happen naturally—the earth rotates on its axis, the moon orbits the earth, the earth orbits the sun. But we create “days,” “months” and “years” to describe these phenomena. Daylight Saving may be arbitrary, but it is our arbitrary, a reminder of how important liberation is.

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