Not Your Father's Talmud

Rabbi Adam Chalom of Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in suburban Chicago explores the Talmud from a Humanistic perspective, one page a day.

Location: Highland Park, Illinois, United States

Rabbi Adam Chalom is the Rabbi of Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in suburban Chicago. He is also the Assistant Dean for the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism.

Sunday, June 05, 2005

Defining Twilight - Shabbat 34

From our rather entertaining excursion into Second Temple Rabbis like Hillel and Shimon bar Yohai and their speculative philosophy on life and death, today’s page returns to the more expected exploration of the rules of observing Shabbat by expounding on the Mishnah – in this case, the last-minute “checklist” just before Shabbat begins of tithing from food, setting up a courtyard eruv [public food that makes public space private for carrying objects], and then lighting the candles. The Mishnah also specifies what to do is there is doubt whether it is fully dark or not, but this kind of question opens up miles of commentary for the Talmud.

What IS twilight [beyn ha-shemashot – literally “between the suns”]? Keep in mind that the Rabbis were trying to define this concept without the benefit of clocks or a strict sense of universal time – today we could just define it by something like 6:15-6:42pm. Imagine you were camping without a watch or a computer and had to decide when it was nighttime – the sun setting is a very gradual process, and while there is clearly a difference between a red glowing sunset and nighttime under the stars, what is the dividing line between one and the other? Rabbi Judah claims that while as the eastern sky has a reddish color, and while the lower horizon is “paler” than the upper, it is still twilight; once the upper and lower horizons are of the same color, it is night. To my mind, this is as good a definition as any other.

The reason defining twilight is important for the Talmud’s rabbis is based on another question: does twilight count as day or as night? That is, on a Friday evening, how can you know when it is Shabbat, or not yet? On one hand, twilight is considered a “doubtful” time, where one can be flexible in assigning blame for not completing tasks like the eruv in time – “a doubt in Rabbinical law is judged leniently.” On the other, because it is an uncertain time, the rabbis would rather be safe and put in effect the more strict requirements – just in case. This is why in traditional Jewish practice there is a “margin of error” around candlelighting times for Shabbat. Because at that time of day, one has entered. . .the twilight zone.

Rabbi Adam Chalom