Talmudic Issues: Times
Tractate Brachot 2a: “From when do you read the evening Shema? From the hour when the priests go in to eat their tithe [when the stars come out] until the end of the first watch [the night being divided into three watches]. This is according to R’ Eliezer, and the sages say until midnight. Rabban Gamliel says until the dawn.”
In dealing with this topic we will clarify the matter of the times of day and night and, mainly, the matter of “halachic hours” in a day, an issue which has many widespread halachic ramifications during the week, on the Sabbath and holidays, and on matters including the time of a circumcision, the reading of the Megillah, waving the lulav, prayers and the reading of the Shema. We will clearly see here how and when changes in these halachic times occurred. We will also prove to the decent reader that with developments in the understanding of astronomy, sages of recent generations realized that the halachot determined by earlier sages did not meet the simple test of reality! They had no recourse other than changing the halachot determined by their rabbis and we have already written about this in Pamphlet 4; see there. We will also see how the halachic teachers’ courage did not stay with them, and they only made some of the necessary changes in halacha and left the other matters hanging between heaven and earth.
And you, the student who seeks truth, know that these matters are complicated, for they deal with the movements of the heavenly bodies and their calculation. Therefore one who wishes to go in depth into this essay should first get a firm foundation by reading about the solar system and the movements of the bodies within it. This can be found in any good encyclopedia or beginner’s astronomy book. One who wishes to understand will thus prepare himself.
First we will say a word about the Gemara in Berachot 2a, which asks how we know that the priests who became impurified and then were purified could eat their tithe only after the stars had come out. “As is written: ‘When the sun sets, he is pure’ (Leviticus 22:7)…From what do you learn that ‘when the sun sets’ means the entire body of the sun has set, and ‘he is pure’ means it is clean of all daylight [the stars have come out]? Perhaps ‘the sun sets’ refers to the sunset, and ‘he is pure’ refers to the person? Rabbah the son of Shila said: if so, the Scripture would have said ‘he will be pure.’ Why ‘he is pure’? To tell that the day is finished when the stars come out.”
See something strange–how Chazal distort the simple meaning of the text. In Leviticus 22:5-7 it is written, “Or anyone who touches any creeping creature that causes impurity to him, or any person who causes impurity to him, [with] whatever impurity he has. Anyone touching [that person] will be impure until the evening. He shall not eat of the holy things unless he has washed his body in water. When the sun sets he is pure, and afterwards he may eat of the holy things, for it is his bread.” Not only did Chazal transform the ‘holy things’ into the priestly tithe (See Yevamot 74b; we will not expand on that here), but they attributed the phrase “he is pure” to the sun, not the person! Distorting the text in this manner is often found in Chazal’s work, and we have always wondered about this; why did they explain things this way through distortions of the Scriptures? Ibn Ezra on Leviticus 22:7 wrote: “It is known that ‘he is pure’ refers to the person previously impure as ‘and the priest will atone for her, and she will be pure’ (Leviticus 12:8), for there is no reference in the verse to a day. But Chazal learned that even after the sun sets that person should not eat until the light ceases totally [the stars come out], and used this verse as a parable, as I commented on the verse ‘to an alien nation’ (Exodus 21:8). Therefore they said ‘it is clean of all daylight’.” And in his commentary on Exodus 21:8 (in “the short commentary”) Ibn Ezra wrote: “There are certain places in the Torah which Chazal used as parables to laws, known to them [from tradition]…and they used this verse as a memorization tool.” The matter is strange and odd. If Chazal brought it as a parable and did not think it was the actual meaning of the verse, why do they ask about the parable, “Perhaps ‘the sun sets’ refers to the sunset, and ‘he is pure’ refers to the person?” In truth that is the meaning, as Ibn Ezra wrote. We see from the Gemara’s question that this is not a parable but simply a distortion of the Scriptures.
Before we return to the matter of halachic hours, we should first say what is known to us from astronomy. A solar day is the time between one midday and the next. Since it changes from time to time (a difference of some 30 seconds, see astronomy books) it is spoken of the average solar day, which lasts 24 hours. If we divide this day into day and night, then the part of the planet Earth’s revolution on its axis from the time the edge of the sun appears on the horizon in the east until the edge of the sun disappears from the horizon in the west is day. Night is the time when the body of the sun is not seen until it is once again seen in the east. The length of day and night at the equator is some 12 hours each throughout the year. In all other parts of Earth the length of day and night changes based on the position of Earth in its orbit around the sun (and because Earth leans on its axis). We have shorter days in the winter and longer days in the summer, and medium length days in the spring and fall.
But Chazal, who did not know of the rotation of the Earth and who thought that Earth is flat and that the sun revolves around Earth (as we clarified in Pamphlet 4; see there) they divided the day equally into day and night. They named four principle events in the course of the day: dawn, sunrise, sunset, and the stars’ appearance. From these they drew out and determined the other halachic times of the day (such as the middle of the day and mid-afternoon, etc.).
The definition of a day is always from dawn until the stars come out. Thus is it explained in Tractate Megillah, in the mishna, 20a: “And all [the commandments connected to the day] done from dawn are valid.” Rashi explains: “All done–for dawn is the beginning of the day,” and they asked on 20b, “How do we know this? Rabba said: for the Scripture says, ‘And G-d called the light day’ — to that which gives light [dawn] He called day. But if so, that which causes darkness [the sunset] should be called night — yet we have a tradition that night does not begin until the stars come out. But Rabbi Zeira said: it is learnt from here: ‘And so we worked on, while half were holding lances, from the dawn until the stars appeared’ and it says, ‘that we may use the night to stand guard and the day to work’ (Nechemiah 4:15-16). [From here we learn that the stars appearing is the start of night.]” There is no one who disagrees that a halachic day is from dawn until the time when the stars appear.
The day begins for Chazal at dawn; the time of dawn in our days is not calculated on its own, but is based on the time of sunrise. According to the well-known gemara in Tractate Pesachim, dawn is as long before sunrise as it would take to walk four mils (a minimum of 72 minutes). Day ends at the appearance of the stars, which is 72 minutes after the sunset. If we calculate an average day, we will find that according to Chazal’s definition the day is approximately 14 1/2 hours while that night is approximately 9 1/2 hours long.
After we have defined the halachic day and night, we will clarify the halachot connected to day and to night. The Gemara in Tractate Brachot 2a, in the mishna, explained that we read the evening Shema from when the stars appear until the dawn (for this is the period of night which corresponds to what is written in the Torah, “when you lie down”) and the time of the morning Shemais explained in the mishna on 9b: “from when one can distinguish between light blue and white…R’ Joshua said, ‘Until three hours, for tis the manner of kings, to wake at the third hour’.” The matter is simple and clear; these three hours are counted from the start of the halachic day, which is dawn, as the Magen Avraham wrote on Orach Chayim 58:1, and he brings strong and clear proof from the Gemara in Berachot 3a. We will not go into this, but we will rely on those who look there.
But if so, we must clarify: what is a halachic hour? Is it an hour of 60 minutes , or is it a special unit of time called a “halachic hour,” an accepted unit of time in which the length of the day is divided by 12? For example, if on June 22 (the longest day of the year) dawn is at 3 AM and the stars appear at 8 PM, the day is 17 60 minute hours long. But if we divide its length by 12, each “halachic hour” is 85 minutes long, a standard hour plus 25 minutes. Which type of hour did Chazal refer to? The strange thing is that they never clarified this important matter, and therefore it is difficult to know what Chazal meant. But Maimonides in his commentary on the Mishna in Berachot chapter one, mishna three, wrote: “And know that all the hours mentioned in the whole Mishna are halachic hours, that is, hours of which there are 12 during the day and 12 during the night. Therefore, when it is said ‘until three hours,’ it is as though it had been said, ‘one quarter of the day,’ be it a day of the tekufa of Tammuz [when the days are long] or of the tekufa of Tevet [when the days are short].” On the other hand, the Penei Yehoshua wrote in his last pamphlet on Tractate Berachot: “After I scrutinized the Talmudic discourse on the issue, and the rulings of the Halachic arbiters, I have found no place telling that wherever hours are mentioned, the ‘halachic hours’ are meant. The basics of this issue we learn from Maimonides only.” And the Igrot Moshe, Orach Chaim 2, section 20, also wrote: “Concerning those who wish to disagree with Maimonides and the authors of the Shulchan Aruch…who suppose all hours mentioned are halachic hours; but they say the hours are equal [i.e., 60 minutes] both in winter and in summer….though there would be many questions about this, we do not deviate from the words of our rabbis the Rishonim due to questions, even many of them, which we do not know how to answer.”
Maimonides’s approach had been accepted by most Halachic arbiters, and so everyone follows the opinion that the hours spoken of in the Halacha are the ‘halachic hours.’
Maimonides, in The Laws of the Reading of the Shema, chapter one, halacha one, wrote: “‘And when you get up’ at the time when people usually stand, that is, day.” In halacha 13 he wrote: “If he read the morning Shema after dawn…he fulfilled his obligation…one who reads after three hours into the day, even if [he was prevented from reading it earlier] by force, has not fulfilled his obligation.” It is clear that the three hours are from dawn, for did these hours start at any other time (for example, at sunrise), Maimonides certainly would have explained this new idea explicitly. We have therefore to admit that Maimonides and all the other Rishonim and Halachic arbiters supposed the “halachic hours” to be determined according to the length of the day, from dawn to when the stars appear.
And you should also know that according to all the opinions of all the Halachic arbiters (until the time of the Levush and later the GRA), the length of halachic hours is determined based on the length of the day from dawn until the stars appear, divided by 12.
We will now explain the great change which began with the Levush (Rabbi Mordechai Yaffe, 1530-1612) and which ended with the method of the GRA (1720-1797). Rabbi Mordechai Yaffe, author of the Levush, was not only a rabbi and a Halachic arbiter, but he also dedicated himself to the study of astronomy and philosophy; and based on what he read in and learned from astronomy texts, he changed the measurement of halachic hours which had been accepted unanimously by the Halachic arbiters before his time. As he himself testified in the book Levush Malchut, the Laws of the Afternoon Prayers, halacha 233, “It seems to me that it means to say 12 hours from the sunrise until the sunset, for thus it is written in all astronomy texts.” And in paragraph 267 he wrote: “But I say that perhaps in their [the early Halachic arbiters’] times they did not deal with astronomy texts and they thought that the day which the rabbis always divided into 12 hours is from dawn to when the stars appear. Yet it seems to me clear, from the works of the Divine astronomers, that the above view is a complete mistake.” Thus testified a great and courageous Halachic arbiter who stood up for his opinion and changed an explicit halacha simply because the astronomy books taught him that the day and night are not divided as his rabbis told him, but as the gentile astronomers taught.
The GRA also recognized the correctness of the astronomy books, as he wrote in section 459, paragraph 2, “And so 12 hours in an average day is, in their opinion, from dawn until the stars appear, and this is a great error, for thus all the astronomers wrote: ‘In the tekufa of Nisan and in the tekufa of Tishrei, which are the average days, there are 12 hours between sunrise and sunset, and from dawn until the stars appear is 19 hours’.” Yet the GRA had another problem, for according to his ruling the stars appear 17 minutes after the sun sets while dawn is an hour and a half before sunrise (dawn is, according to an explicit gemara, as long before sunrise as it takes to walk four mils, and according to the GRA’s method, this equals an hour and a half). We find that if we calculate halachic hours from dawn to when the stars come out, the middle of the day will not be “when the sun is at its height over all men”! This is opposed to the Gemara in Pesachim 94a: “At five the sun is in the east and at seven the sun is in the west, and since five and a half until six and a half the sun stands over the heads of all men.”
For these two reasons the Gaon of Vilna determined in Orach Chayim, section 459, that the day, based on which the “halachic hours” are calculated, lasts from sunrise until sunset: “But according to what I wrote, that it is clearly wrong that the six hours (of the night) end on an average day with sunrise, the opposite has been proven true: that we calculate it from sunrise.” We find that according to the GRA the time between dawn and sunrise, though it is day, is not included in the calculation of halachic hours of the day! This is most odd, for the GRA takes a part of the day (and according to the Halacha, it is clearly day) and attaches it to the night.
The Levush and the GRA have no real sources upon which to base themselves.
But the GRA wanted his words to be accepted by the G-d fearing public. What did he do? He went and literally forced the words of our rabbis to fit the reality we sense and the knowledge of the astronomers, and he did so with the words of the Tosfot on Pesachim 11b, where it is clearly stated that halachic hours are counted from dawn. In s.v. echad: “For the beginning of the second hour is before the sunrise.” What did the GRA say about this? “The Tosfot also suppose that the calculation of 12 hours is from sunrise until sunset, but there is a copyist’s error in the Tosfot there.” What can we say? That’s what he wrote: a copyist’s error. It is clear that all the Rishonim, and this certainly includes the Tosfot, were of the opinion that it is still day for more than an hour after the body of the sun has set. They all certainly supposed that halachic hours are from dawn until the stars appear. Could the GRA not find a more sophisticated way to distort the words of the Tosfot and channel them to his opinion than the claim that there was a copyist’s error? But come see another way the Gaon of Vilna forces the words of the Rishonim to fit his opinion: according to the GRA’s method the time between dawn and sunrise, which is 4 mils, is an hour and a half, and according to the calculations in the Gemara, Pesachim 94a, “Rabbi Judah says…how far an average man walks in a day–10 parsahs. From dawn to sunrise there are four mils, and from sunset to thcoming out of the stars there are four mils.” A person could therefore walk 32 mils from sunrise to sunset (10parsahs are 40 mils, from which subtract eight mils). A person walks these 32mils in 12 hours (for according to the GRA the 12 hours are from sunrise to sunset). Therefore four mils are an hour and a half in “halachic hours” (12 hours divided by 32 mils, then times 4, equals an hour and a half). This is the GRA’s calculation and thus he determines the words of the Gemara.
But Maimonides, in his commentary on the Mishna in Berachot, chapter one, mishna one, wrote, “And the dawn is the light sparkling in the east before sunrise, some hour and a fifth of halachic hours.” If you think, you will immediately see that according to Maimonides a person walks 40 mil in 12 hours and that these 12 hours are from dawn until when the stars appear, in complete contradiction to the GRA’s method.
This is also the opinion of Ibn Ezra on Exodus 12:6. “And here we have two evenings, one is the evening of the sun, when it goes beneath the earth, and the second is the leaving of its light which is seen in the clouds. There is close to an hour and a third between them.” This is also what he wrote on Genesis 1:18, “The Torah’s day is from when the sun appears until it leaves, and the night is from when the stars can be seen…Know that when the sun darkens it is evening, until an hour and a third later it will look as though there is sun in the clouds, and in the morning the light will be seen before the sun shines.” How does the GRA reconcile the method of Maimonides and of Ibn Ezra so that they match his own method? In Orach Chayim 261: “And this is how I reconcile it so that there will be no contradiction to what Maimonides and Ibn Ezra wrote, that the length of the late night is 20 degrees, the length of an hour and a third [in fact, according to Maimonides it is an hour and a fifth], while according to the Gemara it is an hour and a half…but Maimonides and Ibn Ezra spoke of the measure at the equator, while the sages of the Gemara spoke of their latitude.” Incredible. Not only did the GRA turn the pillars of instruction on their heads, as though they spoke of places our fathers did not know and distance the ruling of Maimonides and Ibn Ezra to the jungles of the equator, he doesn’t even have the slightest hint that this was their intention, since they certainly never wrote one word about the equator. The GRA did all this in order to uphold his words and his method. But all this falls by the wayside, for he missed an explicit Ibn Ezra on (the long commentary on) Exodus 12:31, “And it is now known that there is a distance of 6 parsahs between the old Egypt…and Ramses. They began to leave in the morning, that is, at dawn, when they could see the light of the sun in the clouds, and there is between this time and when the sun shines an hour and one third.” It is known to every child that Egypt is not on the equator line (nor is it close to), and yet Ibn Ezra explicitly wrote “an hour and a third” — so the method of the GRA stands shamed.
Another thing the GRA claims in section 261: “And in countries which are towards the north, where dawn begins in the summer in the middle of the night, there is no appearance of the stars at all in summer.” Therefore he concludes, “Twilight begins when sunset begins,” and his words are puzzling, for this claim about northern countries leaves the problem intact even in his method, for there are northern countries in which the sun does not set at all for days on end, and according to the GRA’s method not only do the stars not appear, there is no sunset and therefore, in this method, the day never ends!
In conclusion, it can be said about the GRA’s method that he did well to change the Halacha based on what he knew about the astronomers’ truths, it is just a shame that he was afraid to say, “The Rishonim erred and we must fix it,” and instead forced the words of our rabbis and distorted what is written. Had he the courage to say that the rabbis erred, he could have even changed the halachic definition of a day and set it from sunrise to sunset. He should have said that what Chazal wrote in Megillah 20a, “And everyone who did it from dawn has fulfilled his obligation,” should have been from sunrise, but the GRA did not dare change such explicit language and also understood that the public would not accept this halachic change though it had truth on its side. Therefore the GRA’s method remained a complete mishmash, on the one hand day is defined as starting at dawn, and on the other hand halachic hours start at sunrise. There are those who connected the GRA’s method about the time of the stars’ appearance to the method of the other Rishonim, and we have already hinted at this in Pamphlet 4, and brought the words of Rabbi Tikutchinski in the weekly Kol Yisrael: “And after a few years, when R’ Isaac Goldberg, rabbi and teacher in Minsk, came to Jerusalem, he wrote me vehement letters about this method of calculation and said, in his letters, that the mistaken calculation is something of a desecration of G-d’s name.”
We still have to delve into the question of when dawn begins. We have already cited Chazal, who say that it is four mils before sunrise (72-96 minutes), but according to Maimonides this period of time is not of a constant length and depends on the tekufa, as he wrote in his commentary on the Mishnah, Berachot 1:1, “And dawn…Dawn is earlier by one halachic hour and a fifth.” That is, since this time is measured in halachic hours, (and each halachic hour is the length of the day divided by 12), if the day is long dawn will be further from sunrise, and if the day is short dawn will be closer to sunrise.
Know that according to factual reality, dusk (both morning and evening) does not change in direct proportion to the length of the day. On an average day dusk is the shortest, in the summer it is the longest, and in the winter it is shorter than in the summer yet longer than in spring and fall (the explanation for this can be found in astronomy books; it is too long to be brought here). What comes out of this is that one cannot say that on the shortest winter day dusk is also shortest. From this you will immediately understand that it is impossible to measure the time of dusk on that day as one “halachic hour” and a fifth, since the time between dawn and sunrise is more than that!
We forgive our early rabbis who did not have the option of knowing these things, for they thought the Earth to be flat and the sun to revolve around the Earth. But what is especially puzzling is the conduct of the later rabbis, such as the Chafetz Chaim, who lived at a time when these things were clear and known; instead of checking matters with astronomers as the Levush and the GRA did, he learned the matter from the Halachic sources only and therefore erred. He wrote in Biur Halacha 261, s.v. shehu gimmel milin: “For even according to Rabbeynu Tam’s method the four mils are measured in halachic hours and in the summer they are longer.” Not only did the Chafetz Chaim write like this, but so did Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef, who could simply have picked up the phone and called some student learning astronomy or surf over to an internet site and check what is currently known. Instead of this he relied upon our early rabbis and wrote in Responsa Yabia Omer, part two, Orach Chaim, section 21: “The measure that they gave, of the four mils, is in halachic hours and not in equal hours, and in any case in the summer this time can be an hour and a half and sometimes even more.” We know what they do not know, and in mathematical terms we can say that there is no constant ratio between the length of the day and the length of dusk (a short day has a longer dusk than an average day) and therefore it is impossible to calculate the length of dusk (“the four mils”) based on some set ratio of halachic hours (for example, 1.2 halachic hours, which is “an hour and a fifth”).
For example, we find that if one who follows the Mishnah Berurah and Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef recites the evening Shema in winter, let’s say on December 22, at 5:25 in the morning, he has not fulfilled his obligation at all. For if we accept the Halachic notion that the dusk (dawn) is when the sun is 16 degrees beneath the horizon (for this is its location on an average day 72 minutes before sunrise, according to the latitude of the Land of Israel), it follows that on that day it happens at 5:18 am — while according to the Mishnah Berurah and Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef dawn on that day is at 5:35, and to the GRA’s method the difference is even greater.
You should remember that on matters of astronomy and the path of the stars it is not possible to say that nature changed, for what was is, and there is no way to escape saying that He who rules made a great error.
Rabbi Mordechai Schlesinger wrote well in “Jeschurun,” a journal of Torah and Judaics, 1923, issue 1-2, page 12: “And if so, how did Maimonides write that halachic hours are always meant?…It seems that in Maimonides’s time the astronomers in those lands thought that the twilight time changes proportionally to the length of the day, growing somewhat shorter in the winter and longer in the summer.” Yet, today we know that it is not so.
Rabbi Schlesinger’s words agree with our opinion, that the rabbis ruled from their knowledge of reality as based on the science of their times, and they received no assistance from the Divine Spirit in these matters at all. As we quoted Maimonides in “A Guide to the Perplexed” part three, chapter 14, inPamphlet 1: “Science at that time was lacking and they did not speak so because they had a tradition of those things from the Prophets, but from the scholars of those generations in those disciplines or they heard them from the scholars of those generations.”
We will bring another proof that the sages say things because it seems correct to them and not because they received it from the Prophets, and that they do not even bother to check reality. The Gemara in Tractate Pesachim 93b says: “From dawn until sunrise is five mils. How do we know this? For it is written, ‘As dawn broke, the angels urged Lot on…’ (Genesis 19:15), and it is written ‘As the sun rose upon the earth and Lot entered Zoar’ (Genesis 19:23). Rabbi Chanina said, ‘I saw that place myself, and the distance is five mils’.”
Think about it. What is the Gemara’s question, “How do we know?” Get up, go outside at daybreak and see when dawn begins! This is what they did in the days of the Second Temple, as brought in Yoma chapter three, mishna one: “The appointed one said to them, ‘go out and see if it is time to do the ritual slaughter’.” Rashi explains: “If the east has become light [if it is dawn], for ritual slaughter is invalid at night.” Not only that, Rabbi Chanina said that he knew the place and the distance from Sodom to Zoar. From where exactly in the city of Sodom to where in the city of Zoar? From where did Rabbi Chanina measure his five mils? From the edge of the city Sodom? And until where did he measure? Until the edge of the city Zoar or until its center? In any case, the Scripture testifies in Genesis 19:15-16, “As dawn broke…Still he hesitated, so the men seized his hand…and brought him out and left him outside the city.” Perhaps Lot hesitated for a quarter of an hour? Maybe for a half hour? And then he still had time to argue and bargain with the angels about the fate of the city Zoar. Moreover, the Gemara on page 94a challenges Rabbi Chanina: “Rabbi Judah said…and from dawn until the sunrise is four mils…So, may we say that Rabbi Chanina has been refuted?” Rashi explains: “That he said from Sodom to Zoar is five mils.” According to Rabbi Judah the distance is only fourmils, and note the Gemara’s answer: “They urged him on” — that is, the distance between Sodom and Zoar is five mils, and even so, Lot and his family covered the distance in the time that normally takes to cover four mils, only Rabbi Chanina didn’t know that Lot and his family walked fast (but the distance between Sodom and Zoar, two cities about whose location we have no tradition, he did know)…
Words of True Knowledge.