Born in Israel in 1948 to parents who worked in international development, he spent much of his childhood abroad. He studied first at the University of Tel Aviv and then received his Ph.D. in sociology from the University of Pennsylvania in 1976, where he studied under Erving Goffman. After teaching at Columbia University and the State University of New York at Stony Brook, he has spent the bulk of his career at Rutgers University. In 2003 he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship.
Zerubavel's first notable contributions were in the study of time, particularly the sociology and standardization of time. His books in this area were Patterns of Time in Hospital Life (1979); Hidden Rhythms (1981); The Seven Day Circle (1985); and Time Maps (2003).
Later he turned his attention to what he has termed cognitive sociology, pointing out how much society rather than human nature shapes our mental lives, and how much the commonalities that mark out social groups involve shared patterns of thinking. His work in this vein includes The Fine Line (1991); Terra Cognita (1992); Social Mindscapes (1997); and The Elephant in the Room (2006).
Zerubavel served for many years as director of the graduate program at Rutgers University and mentor to many graduate students. He became very interested in academic work habits and in time management in writing. His book The Clockwork Muse (1999) gives practical advice to writers, and in particular advice on time management to those finishing books and dissertations. His own writing is notable for its use of examples from everyday life.
He is married to Yael Zerubavel, a scholar of Israeli history who also teaches at Rutgers University.