The Day Begins with Night

Bereishit By :  Ismar Schorsch Rabbi Herman Abramovitz Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish History and Chancellor Emeritus Posted On Oct 25, 1997 / 5758 | Torah Commentary

The Mishna, Judaism’s first legal compendium after the Bible, opens with a treatment of the proper times to recite the Shema in the evening and in the morning. The first line reads: “From when to when do we [liturgically] read the Shema in the evening.” The ensuing discussion in the Gemara (Mishna + Gemara = Talmud) asks why the Mishna doesn’t first take up the morning Shema. Since the day starts in the morning, wouldn’t this be the logical place to start? The answer of the Gemara is brief and far-reaching. The Mishna follows the order of creation. Six times the opening chapter of the Torah repeats the poetic refrain, “And there was evening and there was morning,” to signal the completion of a divine day’s work. The Torah seems to be going out of its way to establish the fact that the day does not begin with the crack of dawn, but rather with the setting of the sun (or halakhicly, with the appearance of three stars).

And indeed, this has been the Jewish practice ever since. Our days are reckoned from sunset to sunset. We begin to fast on Yom Kippur the night before and welcome every festival by lighting candles at dusk (on Shabbat, a bit earlier). On the occasion of a Yahrzeit, we recite the first kaddish at the evening service known as Maariv. In short, a major feature of the Jewish calendar rests on an exegetical foundation that elegantly links the first chapter of the Mishna to the first chapter of the Torah.

But is this what the oft-repeated phrase actually means? Not according to the grandson of Rashi, Rabbi Samuel ben Meir, who was in his early twenties when his renowned grandfather died in 1105. In his own biblical commentary, famous for its uncompromising commitment to the plain, or objective, sense of the text (the peshat, or author’s intent), he departed from the long-standing talmudic interpretation. In his commentary on “And there was evening and there was morning,” he noted that the Torah spoke of “evening” and not “night,” thereby avoiding any attempt to define a complete day, the first half of which would have been nighttime. Rather, it wished merely to indicate that with the onset of evening one day of creation ended and with the coming of dawn a new one began.

Modern Jewish commentators have tended to confirm and amplify this independent insight of Samuel ben Meir by pointing out that throughout the Bible the unit of a day actually starts with the morning. Poetic passages have night following day as in the Psalm for the Sabbath: “It is good to praise the Lord…to proclaim Your steadfast love at daybreak and Your faithfulness each night (Psalm 92:2-3).” The daily round of sacrifices in the Temple began each morning with a burnt offering of one yearling lamb and ended at twilight with the sacrifice of another (Numbers 28:3-5). Similarly, narrative portions repeatedly separate the day after from the night before, as in the tale of incest in Lot’s family after the flood. “That night they [his daughters] made their father drink wine… The next day the older one said to the younger… (Genesis 19:33-34).”

Finally, the festival calendar clearly alludes to a division of time that regards the evening as part of the day just ended. Thus the consumption of the paschal lamb, foreshadowing our Seder meal, was to occur at twilight on the 14th of Nisan. The obligation to eat matzot did not begin until the 15th, which evidently started the next morning (Leviticus 23:5-6). Or another striking instance, Yom Kippur, which fell on the tenth day of the seventh month, was actually to begin the night before, which was still part of the ninth day. “…on the ninth day of the month at evening, from evening to evening, you shall observe this your Sabbath (Leviticus 23:32).”

I dwell on this detail for two reasons. First, Rabbi Samuel ben Meir was never excommunicated for the assertion of his scholarly independence. Medieval Judaism allowed for a study of the plain sense of Torah that was not confined by the interpretation of a passage attributed to it by halakhic exegesis. No matter how much midrash (creative rather than critical interpretation) Scripture could bear, the pursuit of peshat (its original meaning) was a valid and unthreatening enterprise. In fact, toward the end of his life, Rashi confessed to his grandson that if he were to compose his own biblical commentary afresh, he (Rashi) would be even more attentive to the peshat than he had been.

This anticipation of modern critical scholarship, that is, the use of all tools and knowledge available to us to recover an author’s original intent, was driven not by a desire to undermine halakhic practice, but to enhance the sanctity of the Torah. The two realms rested on different premises: the study of God’s word on truth, halakhic norms on communal acceptance. Where a specific religious observance has been abandoned by the people, no amount of exegetical authoritarianism can revive it. Interestingly, it was precisely in the heartland of medieval Jewish piety in Franco-Germany that the need for peshat first expressed itself.

Second, the talmudic innovation of reckoning a day from the eve before suggests a larger view of life. While we may never know what prompted the Rabbis to reconfigure the day, the existential benefit is indisputable. By inaugurating the celebration of Shabbat or a festival at sunset, they have framed a stretch of time that can be ritually filled to heighten the religious experience. At the other end of the day, an eventide that does not mark a boundary between sacred and profane time would tend to be anti-climactic, an appendage of time to be endured till sunrise catches us unawares. To celebrate from sunset to sunset is to experience the passage of time each day consciously and bravely.

More deeply still, it is to imbue darkness with light, fear with faith. When envisioned as the start of a new day, night loses its dread. It becomes a time of preparation, renewal and anticipation, a period of incubation before a new birth. Life is punctuated by all too many moments of defeat and despair. Judaism urges us to face them and force meaning from them through context and perspective. To launch our days at night is to muster the courage not to take refuge in denial. Our capacity to master the nightmares that haunt us is greater at the start of a day than at the end. And so each evening we link life to darkness as we pray in the Maariv service that God enable us to retire in peace and restore us renewed to life, sheltered by the wings of the Almighty.

Shabbat shalom u-mevorach,

Ismar Schorsch

The publication and distribution of Dr. Schorsch’s commentary on Parashat B’reishit are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.