Should you ever have had the good fortune of being invited to a Stamford Hill wedding you will know that of all the songs belted out at these affairs, get me to the church on time is one you will not get to hear. The inoperative word being not so much the church as the ‘on time’ because if anything can be guaranteed it is that the affair will kick off at least an hour late. And that’s early. This is not only a Stamford Hill affliction but one that applies to chasidim in general wherever they happen to dwell. If an explanation were ever needed of this rather unpleasant habit (with which yours truly is equally hampered) the days of selichos which we have just put behind us are as good as any.
During the selichos days men rise earlier for the pre-shachris service which commences at about 6.15-6.30a.m. Not terribly early one would think, and not much earlier than many a working person rises to get to work on time. Not everyone gets up that early as there are later services but most will rise earlier than usual for the additional prayers. And those that don't will be home later than usual having to fit in those extra bits to find favour with the Almighty during the days of judgement.
Nothing terribly unusual as the Jewish calendar constantly calls for changes to schedules. The difference with selichos however is that unlike the Holidays when the world largely comes to a halt as far as we are concerned, the selichos disruption is on regular work days and once prayers are over life continues as usual. The extended prayers are followed by work or kolel, schools teach, shops trade and stuffing our gullets with food is not a religious obligation. Yet, and this is the point I'm getting to, as a result of this minor disruption the boys' schools' entire timetable is rewritten. The poor Hebrew teachers have to get up a few minutes earlier and the school bell ringing in the start of the school day must wait. And this is the first lesson kids get on the malleability of time.
These are of course the same schools that keep their charges indoors in front of desks for most of the day, where sports and exercise classes are largely unknown, half term unheard, holidays kept to a minimum, and the only days off are Fridays, when parents are not generally available and Shabbos preparations occupy most of the time, and Saturdays, when life comes to an abrupt halt like a lift stuck between two floors. This is so ostensibly because Torah study is paramount and bitul Torah, neglect of Torah study, is widely deprecated in the classical texts. Yet during the Days of Awe when we are supposed to try and curry favour with our Creator precious study time must give way to the poor rebbes' sleeping habits and even more time wasted for everyone to go and torture some chickens for kapores. To top it off the rebbes then jet off to see in the New Year or spend Yom Kippur with their Rebbe leaving their little charges with a substitute of little aptitude other than a rimmed hat, bearded chin, white shirt and long coat.
This attitude to time and discipline is no less apparent throughout the year when there is often a race between boys and their teachers at who can be later in the classroom. It was a standard excuse during oral examinations, 'I wasn't well that day', or, 'I had to go to the dentist'. This would be met with the sarcasm typical of Hebrew teachers, 'did you also not eat your lunch that day?' or some other attempt at wit which earned him a muffled snigger from the classroom. Once inside the class many of the the rebbes will mess with their –banned- smart phones or leave the class to take calls. I once walked in on my boy’s rebbe counting a wad of £10 notes while the children in front of him were reciting the morning prayers.
Interestingly enough, this does not happen in girls' schools where discipline like handing in homework on time, or being assigned homework at all, requiring a note when off or late and being dead on time come what may is ingrained. Little wonder then that while men treat time keeping as something for wimps and rules for shmeckles, it is the women who are so much better at anything from writing a letter, paying bills on time or holding down a job and earning an income. For if, as Woody Allen contended, 80% of success is showing up, us men find even that a chore unless it’s a couple of hours late.
One might think that this lax attitude to general timekeeping is offset by meticulousness where time forms part of religious observance. After all our lives are governed by arcane rules which we go to extremes to observe in the minutest detail and from which we are never offered a break. In fact that could not be further from the truth. It often appears as if they read the mishnah There is not a man who has not his hour as a commandment to ignore the hour for the remainder of the time.
The three-times-a-day prayers all depend on time yet walk into a chasidic shtibel and morning prayers are recited till as close to noon as one can get without bumping into it, and mincha which can be said all afternoon only gets going at dusk and stretches till well after what is generally called nightfall. Come though to the evening prayers of mariv and the clock spins in the other direction. You and I may swear it's night with a sky full of stars but along come the chasidim who will tell you that they're the wrong type of stars. Even Network Rail would struggle with that one.
Sabbath is no exception either. From sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday all work is prohibited on pain of death and yet chasidim regularly carry out forbidden tasks till well after sunset because to them the sun of halacha sets at a different time. Perhaps they're still making adjustments for when it was stopped in its tracks by Joshua but the end result is that we have our own solar system in which the sun, moon and stars rotate according to when we mandate them to and not according to the observations of promiscuous eyes and calculations of brains confined in uncovered heads.
With chasidim rules are truly honoured in the breach since a breach is afforded far more respect than compliance. It is as if breaking rules is so ingrained that even the one rule of time to which our entire universe is subject must be stretched and bent when not snapped and broken altogether. Chasidim even have a concept known as 'lemalo min hazman' which means above or beyond the realm of time. A Rebbe need only disregard the chronometrical hands and dare recite morning prayers in the afternoon or celebrate the departing of the Sabbath on Sunday morning and he is immediately elevated to a saint and a mystic. For while to the wider world being ahead of one’s times is considered visionary if not a sign of genius, in our reverse-looking eco system it is being behind time that marks one out for greatness.
All of which explains why a mere school bell is not going to do something that even the constellations struggle to contend with.