Skip to main content

The Time of Day

Rav Ezra Bick


            We have a lot of big subjects to talk about in this course: Shabbat, holidays, kashrut, prayer, ethics, etc.  But before we get to that, there is one topic I want to discuss that is not actually a halakha in itself.  Since our topic is not halakhot (laws), but Law, the life of halakha, I would like to first discuss the Jewish clock, the way time exists within Halakha.  If it is true that Halakha creates a system in which one's entire life is affected, the fact that time has a different meaning for the halakhic individual may be the most pervasive invasion of halakha into one's existence of all.

            A while ago, I was speaking to a non-Jewish acquaintance on the 'net,' when I casually mentioned that there were only ten minutes until sunset.  I had to go, you see, and daven mincha - recite the afternoon prayers.  Astonished, he asked me how I knew.  Only then did I realize that his clock, his perception of time, worked in a different way than mine.  His afternoon ended at 6:00 PM; mine ended at sunset.  When I mentioned to him (this time not so innocently) that the moon would be full the following night, it did not surprise me in the slightest that he barely remembered that the moon waxes and wanes.  Basic astronomy is a necessary part of Jewish awareness, at least as far as it affects our awareness of time.  My time was in nature, the sun, the moon; his was on his wrist.

            Let me first summarize the facts of halakhic time:

a.  The day: The twenty-four hour period called "day" has two parts, night and day.  In halakha, the "day" begins with the evening.  That is why Shabbat, for instance, begins with what we call Friday night, which in Halakha is already Shabbat, the seventh day.  (Many years ago, I was returning on a Shabbat eve to my dorm room in New York late at night, when I was accosted by two young thugs who informed me that "This is a stickup."  After recovering from my astonishment at the quaint English, I very naturally began to fear for my life, especially since, this being Shabbat, I was carrying no money to give them.  Nervously, I began to explain the intricacies of the Jewish laws of Shabbat, being careful to translate my usual Judeo-English into standard English.  The result was that I said, "Today, sir, is Saturday, and I am not permitted to carry any money."  After a lengthy pause, the larger of my two companions shook his head and said, "You can't fool me - today isn't Saturday; today is Friday!"  At that point, I had to explain Jewish time.  Surprisingly, I succeeded, which is why I am here to tell the tale.)

b.  Day and night: The distinction between day and night is very important, since there are many obligations which can be fulfilled only at night, or only at day.  A circumcision, for instance, is performed on the eighth day, but only from the morning of the eighth day, since it must be performed during the daytime.  On a daily basis, morning prayers can be recited only after daybreak.  This requires that I be aware of when daybreak is, and when the night begins.  Generally speaking, most of us are indifferent to daybreak, since we are sleeping in any event.  But at times, when arising early, one finds oneself counting off the minutes in order to be able to begin prayers.  The end of the day is more relevant.  Mincha, the second prayer of the day, must be recited before the end of the day.  In most synagogues, the time of mincha will be in fact a few minutes before sunset.  When is sunset?  This brings us to a second effect of being on astronomical time.  The length of daylight and night change radically during the year, from winter to summer.  Sunset goes from 4:30 in the winter to 7:30 in the summer.  And of course, the government may institute Summer Time, but that won't change Jewish time - sunset is simply moved up to 8:30 on the clock.

c.  Hours: Various obligations have to be fulfilled during parts of the day.  Thus, recitation of the shema ("Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one") must be completed before three hours of the day, and morning prayers must be said before four hours of the day.  A halakhic hour, though, is not sixty minutes on the clock.  An hour is one twelfth of daytime; i.e., in the winter, an hour can be as little as 45 minutes, and in the summer as much as 75.  This is measured from sunrise (sunrise = 0:00), so that three hours ("three o'clock") can be anywhere from 8:00 AM, standard time, to 9:30.  This is especially relevant to late risers - you must be up before the end of the time, in order to pray properly.

d.  The border: It is necessary to know the exact dividing line between day and night.  Halakha, however, does not offer an exact border in this case.  Day is said to end at sunset, whereas night cannot be said to have certainly begun before dark - "tzeit ha-kokhavim" (appearance of the stars).  The time between sunset and darkness (approximately 20-40 minutes) is called "bein ha-shemashot," and is a kind of nether zone, treated doubtfully as both day and night.  Hence, Shabbat begins at sunset, but doesn't end until the following day's tzeit ha-kokhavim, a period of nearly 25 hours.  A moment's reflection shows that what is happening here is that there are two different definitions of day and night, one based on the sun, and one based on light.  Both are apparently theoretically correct, a situation not unknown in halakha (or in modern physics), which results in contradiction and doubt in the practical sphere.

            Ignoring Shabbat, holidays, and special occasions, like circumcision, which halakhot require me to watch the clock, on a daily basis?  After nightfall, there is the evening prayer (ma'ariv), which is meant to be said between nightfall and midnight (astronomical midnight, the point halfway between sunset and sunrise).  In the morning, starting from shortly before sunrise, there is first keriat shema (the recitation of the shema), which must be said before the end of the third hour; then morning prayers (shacharit), which should be completed before the end of the fourth hour.  The afternoon prayer (mincha) may be recited from one half-hour after noon until sunset.  Tefillin (phylacteries) and tzitzit (ritual fringes) are obligations which apply when there is light, from approximately one-half hour before sunrise until sunset.

            What affect does this have on the observant Jew?  An immediate response might be - a watch ticking in his ear, it probably drives him crazy!  That is not so wrong, in fact.  It does indeed impinge on his consciousness, and changes his awareness of time.  An observant Jew is first of all aware of time, of WHEN he is, because he has always an obligation that requires him to know what time it is.  Secondly, and I think more importantly, he is aware of time in a different manner than a non-halakhic individual.  Not all moments in time are equal.  There is a time for tefillin and a time for shacharit, a time for prayer, and, surprisingly, a time inappropriate for prayer.  Sometimes, you have to rush to finish in time, and sometimes you have to wait - not yet! - because the time is not yet ripe.  Nothing can be put off till tomorrow if it should be done today.  Things that should be done tomorrow are meaningless if done today.  Suppose, for instance, you think it is really important to call your mother on her birthday.  Her birthday though falls on a day when you just cannot get to a phone.  That is not so terrible - you can call a day early, or else one day later.  Suppose though, that Shabbat, a day you wish to commemorate, just is not convenient this week on Saturday.  Perhaps you could fulfill the idea of Shabbat on Sunday, just this once.  The Talmud, discussing what happens if you have missed the time of prayers, uses a phrase borrowed from the Temple service - "avar zmano, bateil korbano" - "its time is past, the sacrifice is canceled."  Sometimes, if you missed the boat, there is nothing that can be done.  Conversely, every moment has an action that is appropriate to it, and to it alone.  I think that time is one of the lost aspects of modern civilization.  Not that we aren't rushed - on the contrary, we are always in a rush.  But every moment is potentially the same.  To take an extreme example, or one that at least seems extreme to most halakhic Jews, when it became apparent that Lincoln's Birthday would be more fun if it would always be celebrated on a Monday, that is what happened.  No longer was Lincoln born on Feb. 12, as when I was a child.  Now he would be born, together with George Washington, on a Monday in February.

            On a personal level, if there is something you want to do, or that you think should be done, then you fit it into your schedule, perhaps today, perhaps tomorrow.  There is no meaning in modern society to trying to determine an appropriate time, because time itself is not a factor, not a phenomenon with character.  It is merely a shell, a framework. Time in Halakha, on the contrary, is itself an object of sanctification, something with value.  There are hours for prayer, and hours for action.  There are days for celebration, and days for mourning.  The two can even meet at the fine dividing line of sunset.  A mourner, suffering the loss of a loved one, sitting on the floor, his head bowed in grief, approaches the sunset bringing on a festival, and gets up, showers, changes his clothes, and joins his community in celebration.  He is now forbidden to mourn.  Why?  Because the sun has set.  The world is different and he must adjust accordingly.

            In Halakha, time is an aspect of life.  The world was created in seven days, each day with a different aspect.  On the seventh day, God blessed the day, and sanctified it - He sanctified the day itself.  The idea of sacred places, places with significance, is still present in modern society, albeit in a weakening form.  Judaism insists on sacred time, on special moments, no less than sacred places.  This is not only for special occasions, like Shabbat and holidays, but for the very flow of daily time itself.  Not only are the moments special, full of meaning, but one is forced to be aware of the flow of time, all the time.  The sun setting in the western sky is not just a pretty sight, but the ebbing of day, which will never return.  What had to be done today will be lost forever if you do not hurry up and do it before the edge of the sun sinks below the horizon.  The new day has its own obligations, its own character, its own opportunities.  Man lives in time.

            The most exquisite example of sensitivity to time is found in a non-obligatory law.  Very often, there are forms of halakhot which are non-obligatory, which go beyond the mere minimum.  One of these is called tefillat vatikin, the "prayer of the ancients."  I mentioned that keriat shema may be said from slightly before sunrise until the third hour.  Shacharit (meaning the shemona esrei, the "silent devotion" of prayer) may be said from sunrise until the fourth hour.  The best way, however, is to say keriat shema before sunrise.  The Talmud says about this practice: You should waken the sun and not have the sun waken you.  (This is not an easy thing for most of us today, so that the term "vatikin" has pretty much come to be synonymous with someone who cannot sleep.)  But since the shemona esrei cannot be said before sunrise, and since it must follow immediately after keriat shema, someone who wishes to pray vatikin must time his prayers so that he finishes keriat shema, the declaration of faith, just before the beginning of sunrise, and then he begins shemona esrei, his prayers, his requests, and conversation with God, exactly as the sun begins to appear over the horizon.  Every time I have done this (approximately once a year), each of the 30 seconds that goes by as we wait for the appearance of the sun, hovering on a spiritual edge, is like watching individual drops of water against the light, my mind totally concentrating on the ticking of each moment.  There is, in this practice, just one moment for the saying of shemona esrei, and you wait in anticipation for that exact split second.

            Now you might think that part of the effect of halakhic time on man is due to the fact that nowadays it is in contradiction to regular time.  In ancient times, before electricity, men, especially farmers, worked from dawn to dusk, and went to sleep when darkness fell.  Their "natural" clock was the sun.  Halakhic time was not unnatural for them.  There is some truth in this claim.  This does not diminish from the meaning that halakhic time has for us.  But it is necessary to emphasize that even if halakhic time is not objectively at odds with my wristwatch, it still insinuates itself into my awareness of time because of its pervasiveness.  Secondly, at least some of the aspects that we discussed were always different from "normal," secular time.  It is natural to think of "tomorrow" as beginning in the morning, when we begin our day anew.  I doubt if anywhere, or anytime, could someone say, "I will see you tomorrow," intending the same night.  Here the halakha is setting up time in a different manner from man's natural understanding.

            For us, the day begins when we begin to act, when we awaken.  At night, exhausted from a day's toil, man falls asleep in response.  The night is the outcome of the day.  The halakha, by starting the day from night, changes the relationship.  Sleep, rest, is not the result of toil, but the preparation for it.  Man should not sleep passively, because he has run out of steam, but purposefully, because he is preparing for his work in the morning.  The order of day and night is derived from creation, from God's work.  Each day in the first chapter of Genesis is concluded with the phrase, "and there was evening and there was morning, the second day ...  the third day...."  God does not rest, exhausted, after each day's travail (God's "rest" is on the seventh day, the Sabbath).  Each day of creating begins with a period of preparation, of watchfulness, of stillness, from which the fruits of creation will spring.  This is not the natural human cycle; this is Divine activity, and it is the tempo imposed on Man by the Halakha.

            I suspect that this halakhic order of the day is not intended to abolish our natural feeling that "tomorrow" is in the morning.  On the contrary, part of its meaning derives from the tension between the two ways of ordering the day.  There is a tendency for man to leave for "tomorrow" the problems that affect him.  In nearly every culture, one puts off problems, avoids them, by saying "tomorrow," "manyana," "bukra," "morgen."  Tomorrow is another day, and I will see then.  In the meantime, I have to go to sleep.  But in halakhic time, the end of the day is not a time to let things slide - it is the beginning of new obligations.  The waning hours of Friday, when you are tired, are when you have to go out and greet the Shabbat.  There is no "comfort" in tomorrow, because tomorrow is today, in a few minutes.  Tomorrow is not another day.  Today (as our bodily clocks measure it) is another day.

            Before I let you go, I must add that I have of course exaggerated shamelessly today.  We have examined one aspect of halakhic life, and drawn, I hope, the proper conclusions.  But, in the fullness of halakha, there is more.  For instance, if you miss a time for prayer (accidentally), there is something called "tashlumin" - reparation.  One can, in the immediately following period of prayer, offer two prayers, one for the proper time, and one in place of the one you skipped.  That cannot be done for Shabbat, but it can be done for prayer, for speaking to God.  You are late, but nonetheless, it is still possible to get to speak to Him.  All is not always lost.  Time has meaning, but is not necessarily a tyrant.  The balance between the temporal and the eternal, or rather the tension between them, is one of the great themes of Judaism.

            One topic I raised above but did not get around to discussing today is the difference between day and night.  We will put this off for a while, and get back to it when we discuss the different prayers of the day, and how they differ in content.  In general, time is a factor in most halakhot that we will discuss, so this topic is far from being exhausted in any event.

            Next shiur we will begin our examination of Shabbat.

This website is constantly being improved. We would appreciate hearing from you. Questions and comments on the classes are welcome, as is help in tagging, categorizing, and creating brief summaries of the classes. Thank you for being part of the Torat Har Etzion community!