A three-hour drive into rural Guatemala leads you to Tikal, the largest excavated pre-Colombian site in the Americas. It was a center for the Mayan civilization 1200 years ago, so as a lover of history, Tikal was a place I had to go during my honeymoon. And as we hiked through the jungle, the guide explained to us how the Mayan calendar was based on a 20-year cycle, and then he led us through the multiple sets of twin pyramids that the Mayans had built in order to mark the end of one cycle and begin another.
As I stood among ruins that belonged to a culture so different from my own, I was struck by just how deeply-rooted our need to mark time is. From the 10th anniversary of 9/11, to the beginning of the Jewish year of 5772, to the ways we observe birthdays and anniversaries, there are some moments that simply seem to call for ritualized recognition.
Indeed, in every culture, there are certain times that need to be “set apart” from others. We generally call them “holidays,” because the word “holiday” literally means “holy day” — in Judaism, in fact, the word “holy,” kadosh, truly means “separate” or “set apart.” And that’s a major reason why peoples as diverse as the ancient Mayans and the ancient Israelites sought to create accurate calendars — since some times were more significant than others and needed to be recognized, it was essential to know precisely when those special times were to occur.
But it’s important to remember that the way we measure time is often very different from the way we experience it.
We tend to measure time using physical phenomena. Originally, we used astronomical rhythms like the earth going around the sun or the earth rotating on its axis. Today, with a scientific need for more precision, we use the cesium-133 atom to define a “second,” and then base other units off of that.
In contrast, we tend to experience time psychologically — and that experience is often not in sync with physical realities. We all have had those days when we’ve thought, “Wow — it’s 4pm already?” or have gone, “Ugh — it’s only 11 am?” We’ve had moments when we’ve wished for an extra few days to prepare for that test or presentation. And just ask any 6-year-old if they can wait for their birthday!
So as Philip Zimbardo explains in his book The Time Paradox, “A fundamental difference between physical laws and psychological laws is that physical laws are unchanging, but psychological principles are elastic: They bend and change according to the situation and frame of reference.” (Zimbardo, 13) And that disconnect is especially apparent when it comes to significant moments.
Indeed, when significant moments arise, we often intentionally change our frame of reference, seeking to make them last as long as possible — we build up to them, fully immerse ourselves in them, and repeatedly talk about them afterwards. It’s the same whether we’re talking about days of memory like September 11th, religious holidays like Passover or Christmas, or our own personal life-cycle events like a wedding — none of these pass by without significant anticipation, a deep emotional experience, and a lasting imprint.
As Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman explains: “Matters of the heart and spirit…cannot be squeezed into a convenient time-slot and then quickly put on hold…otherwise, we rob ourselves of the full depth of these events that mark time’s passing.” (Israel: A Spiritual Travel Guide, 49)
That’s why one of the first prayers we will say in the year 5772 will be the prayer that is said at every holiday, as well as at every joyous life-cycle moment — the Shehecheyanu. It’s a prayer that is designed to remind us to “set apart” this particular day, and it ends by thanking God for “giving us life, for sustaining us, and for enabling us to reach this moment.”
The Hebrew word for “moment” in this prayer is z’man, which has a particular connotation to it. As professor of linguistics Dr. Joel Hoffman explains, z’man is used to describe “the time of the year when something of note happens or has happened.”
So z’man, in other words, is when physical and psychological time intersect. When the calendar tells us that it is time to return to this sacred time, we are also reminded that we have to fully engage ourselves in it.
Indeed, at a recent interdisciplinary conference run by Discover Magazine and the Foundational Questions Institute, one of the participants noted that “[f]rom a…psychological perspective, the time measured by atomic clocks isn’t as important as the time measured by our internal rhythms and the accumulation of memories.”
After all, while the calendar can remind us when sacred moments happen, we are the ones who have the power to truly make them significant.