Monday 13 June 2011

Daylight Saving the Jewish Way

One of the unique things about living in Israel, is how seemingly every-day things are done in a slightly different way to accommodate the Jewish calendar or Jewish way of living. The most obvious example of this, is the fact that the work week begins on Sunday and that Saturday is the day of rest. Even though there are some businesses open on a Saturday (particularly restaurants and other places of entertainment in certain parts of the country), it continues to amaze me how Israel has succeeded in bucking the world trend by preserving the Sabbath day as a day of rest for large swathes of the economy.

Another example of things being done the "Jewish way" is the calendar of the daylight savings clock over the summer months. When I first arrived in Israel nearly 13 years ago, the daylight savings clock was linked entirely to the Jewish calendar. In that year, the total number of daylight savings days was 170. This compared to more than 200 daylight savings days in the USA and Europe. At that stage, I quite liked the fact that daylight saving time was implemented immediately after Passover (to avoid the Passover Seder meal having to begin too late in the evening), and that the clocks were returned to standard time prior to the Jewish New Year. The change to winter time accommodated those religious Jews who have the practice of rising very early in the period prior to the new year, to add slichot (special prayers of forgiveness) to their morning routine. This is prior to the day of judgement on Rosh Hashanah, when it is believed that each person's fate for the ensuing year will be determined. Because of the large numbers of people rising early during this period, it was determined appropriate to ease their plight, and to give them an additional hour of sunlight in the morning. It also accommodated those who believe that the 25-hour fast on Yom Kippur, which follows soon after the period of slichot, is easier to negotiate if it ends earlier. The fast begins at sunset and ends at sunset of the following day. The fast is always 25 hours no matter if the clocks are set to summer or winter times. In the winter mode, however, the fast begins earlier and ends earlier. In the opinions of some, this is an easier option than beginning later and having to fast later into the next day.

Despite the fact that the Passover Seder meal and the fast on Yom Kippur are the two events in the Jewish calendar that are observed by the most number of Jews (in Israel the numbers are well above 50% of the population for both of these events), the demand that the daylight savings clock be linked to the Jewish calendar has been regarded by some as another way for the religious community to impose their will on the rest of Israel. There are two main reasons why many have opposed running daylight savings in this way. Because the Jewish calendar is a lunar calendar, it does not coincide in a predictable way with the solar-based Gregorian calendar. As such, it is difficult to work out exactly when daylight savings will begin and end. Microsoft was forced to remove the option for Israeli users of Windows to automatically change the time on their computers when daylight savings comes in and goes out, due to the lack of predictability of the dates. Additionally, the number of daylight savings days is consistently substantially less than other countries. It has been calculated that daylight savings days save the country significant sums of money in terms of lower use of electricity in the evening, and save lives on the roads by making visibility better during the evening rush-hour. This saving is reduced when the number of days is less, and Israel has certainly paid the price for reducing the period of daylight saving.

In 2005, it was decided to go half way towards accommodating the opposition camp by enacting that daylight savings will begin at the beginning of April each year, and will continue until the weekend before Yom Kippur. This allowed the period to be a little more predictable (at least we can determine a date on which the daylight savings will begin), while also extending the period of the daylight savings. In 2011 the number of daylight savings days will be 184 days, not quite over the 200 mark like in the rest of the world, but better than was the case previously.

The announcement last week by the Interior Minister Eli Yishai that he has decided to accept the recommendations of the special Knesset committee formed to review the policy for daylight savings, will be lauded by many. Going forward, the period of daylight savings will be determined by the civil calendar and no longer by the Jewish calendar. In the future, the period of daylight savings will begin at the end of March and will run until the beginning of October. This decision adds approximately 10 extra daylight savings days a year to the calendar, while making the dates easy to predict.

It is somewhat ironic that the decision to make this change has been made by a minister from the religious party, Shas. It would seem as if he is going against the constituency that he represents in making the change. Arguably, it is only a religious minister that could implement the new daylight saving calendar without being accused of being anti-religious. Either way, Minister Yishai has made a brave decision that is the right one for Israel.

Even though I know that this is definitely the right decision for Israel, I feel more than a touch of nostalgia about the disconnect from the Jewish calendar that this creates. I guess, what is more important for the Jewish nature of Israel is the fact that people continue to participate in the Passover Seder and Yom Kippur. I feel sure that the change in the daylight saving clock will not affect this in any way.

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