One of the most common and prominent traits, as well as stereotypes, of Yekkishe Yidden (Jews from German lands), is related to punctuality. That they are/do things on time, and are not late. And that that is very important to them. There is, lehavdil, a similar stereotype about non-Jewish Germans (just like the being cold/reserved/unemotional stereotype is similarly shared). As Rav Dessler wrote in מכתב מאליהו (cited by רבש”ה at the beginning of page three here), Jews in various places can share certain traits with, להבדיל, other residents of those locales.
Origins: Minhag Ashkenaz or Menschlichkeit?
Let us stop a minute and think. Where does this association of Yekkishe Yidden and punctuality come from? Is it an ancient minhag Ashkenaz to be exactly on time, from gedolei Ashkenaz of yore, such as the מהר”ם מרוטנברג, מרדכי, מהרי”ל? As far as I know they don’t mention any minhag or halocho about carrying around a watch and making sure to be punctual to the minute. It appears to be of relatively recent origin, perhaps from the last few centuries or so, related to changes as the world modernized and new technology entered into lives.
It seems to be related to the spread of modern timepieces, especially personal ones, such as watches, among the populace. As a magazine issue on on the influence of inventions upon civilization stated over a century ago, before the general use of clocks and watches, punctuality, as it is now understood among business-men, could hardly have been reckoned as a duty. German areas were advanced technologically, so presumably they were early adopters of new timepiece technology and attendant punctuality.
Religious Aspects of Punctuality
But there are religious aspects with regard to being on time as well. For example, if someone has a meeting, appointment, or chassunah scheduled, and it is not on time, and people are kept waiting unnecessarily, it would be seem to be a major issue בין אדם לחבירו, of ‘wasting’ people’s time. Okay, sometimes unexpected things come up which cause delays, but to wantonly waste other people’s time is a serious matter. I will not get into the related issues of the importance of zemanim in halocho, such as zemanei kerias Shema, tefilloh, Shabbos and Yom tov, which are well known here, beyond saying that if people know the importance of being on time from them, they should understand the importance of it in other cases as well.
If a wedding invitation, for example, says that the chupah will be at seven o’clock, how could it considered acceptable to actually have it one or two hours later, in good conscience? I realize that in some places people understand that such times are not to be taken literally, that they are לאו דווקא, loose, suggested, general ballpark figures, but 1) not everyone knows that, 2) even if they know it, they may not know if the ‘custom’ in that place is to be one hour late or two, and 3) there is another problem of writing a time which you know will not be adhered to, namely that of למדו לשונם דבר שקר.
So it seems that there are issues of wasting (or theft) of people’s time, as well as sheker. גנבה\גזילה along with שקר – sounds scary!
Not Just A Yekke Thing
It should be noted that there are others who are known to be makpid on punctuality as well, such as some Litvaks (Telz being one prominent example), and Oberlander Yidden, among conscientious fine people from other groups as well.
מעשה רב – Lessons On Punctuality From מורנו הרב לוי יוסף ברייער זצ”ל, Rabbi Dr. Joseph Breuer z”l
In the recently released issue of ירושתנו, there are a number of stories in the great English section article by Rabbi Yaakov Lorch שליט”א on Rav Breuer z”l, relating to punctuality, which can help us see how a great Jewish leader, a גדול בישראל, dealt with it.
First, of course, let us mention perhaps his most famous teaching on the matter, namely, the famous statement that just like being late is not on time, being early is not considered on time either (cited on p.54 of the article, see there for more info).
Additionally, we learn the following -
1) “He ignored the clock when it came to learning”. He learned overtime, not stopping, even when the time for lunch arrived and was announced. So Torah was docheh punktlichkeit for lunch (p.42-3) (I assume he wasn’t too late, just that he didn’t feel obligated to stop on a dime, when he was in the middle of an important piece of learning לכאורה).
2) How he handled a talmid suspected of sleeping late and missing davening (p.30, top).
3) His criticism of lack of punctuality and general disorder at chassunahs (p.33, top).
4) His practice was not to be mesader kiddushin in Brooklyn, after an incident in which he got lost/delayed en route to a wedding there (p.71), and how embarrassed/uncomfortable he was when he walked in late then.
So we see that punctuality was very important to him. But he realized that it had to be combined with שכל and חכמה as well.
א גוטען שבת און א גוטען חודש