That is to say, something is starting late. Or someone is arriving late. It must be on Jewish Time, we say! In other words, of course it is starting late – we Jews don’t do anything on time, why should this be different?
I’ve thought about why this expression exists, because the fact of the matter is we aren’t really late all that often. Most of the meetings I go to for Jewish agencies and organizations start on time. At my synagogue we start services precisely on time – a service scheduled to start at 6 starts at 6, and rarely a minute later (although you can ask my time keepers in the congregation, and they’ll tell you we do start a minute or two late every once in a while – I can see them actually checking their watches!). On the other hand, the one major organization I am involved with that is not all Jewish (the Institute for Christian and Jewish Studies) tends to start things a few minutes late, almost as standard operating procedure. So why ‘Jewish Time?’
The one answer I can think of is not connected to when things start, but rather when people arrive. Services are the perfect example. On a Shabbat morning many of our congregants (the regulars) arrive from 15 – 30 minutes late. And I don’t think my shul is alone in this. I know when I see a group of quiet, serious looking people sitting in their seats at the exact time the service is about to start that there is a good chance they are not Jewish. Then the Jews start to trickle in after the service has been going on for a while, usually stopping on the way to their seats a few times to kibbitz with friends. A Jew sees a bar mitzvah invitation and the service is called for 10, they know they can sleep late and plan to arrive around 10:30. That is Jewish Time.
I’ve often wondered what would happen if we started our services with the sermon. People would be surprised to find out that the sermon had been given first, right at the time the service was supposed to start, and what they’ve arrived for will actually be davening and Torah reading, the real bread and butter of synagogue services. I suspect what would happen is this: after a few weeks, people will begin to arrive on time. But then they would leave early! Maybe we’ll just keep things the way they are. After all, there aren’t too many places that can run on Jewish Time and get away with it.