Lecture 9: Daf 3b-4a - Blowin' in the Wind

  • Dr. Moshe Simon-Shoshan

Ein Yaakov - The World of Talmudic Aggada

By Dr. Moshe Simon-Shoshan


Lecture 9:  Daf 3b-4a

Blowin' in the Wind


“How many times must the cannon balls fly
Before they're forever banned?”

-Bob Dylan


The Gemara continues its discussion of King David’s nocturnal activities:


But did David know the exact time of midnight?

Even our teacher Moses did not know it!

For it is written:

About midnight I will go out into the midst of Egypt (Exodus 11:4)

Why ‘about midnight?’

Shall we say that the Holy One, blessed be He, said to him:

‘About midnight?’

Can there be any doubt in the mind of God?

Hence we must say that God told him 'at midnight,’

and he came and said: 'About midnight.’

Hence he [Moses] was in doubt;

can David then have known it?


The Gemara questions the claim that David arose nightly at midnight. How did David know exactly when midnight was? As I have mentioned previously, the ancients lacked the precise time measurement tools that we have today. Calculating a particular time to the second would have been difficult, if not impossible, in those days. This is particularly true at night, when there is no sun to power a sundial. In order to divide the night, people had to use the stars, a complex endeavor. As we have said, this is part of why in the ancient Near East, people made do with dividing the night into three parts. The Romans increased the precision of this measure by adding a fourth watch. The practice of dividing the night into twelve hours, known already to the ancient Egyptians, was not used widely because of the difficulties in making these measurements. Calculating the exact point of midnight would have been extremely difficult, if not impossible, in those days. As Ibn Ezra writes in his commentary (arukh) to Shemot 11:4 (cited above): “It is known that the scientist can only calculate the exact moment of midday with great effort and large copper instruments. Calculating the middle of the night is even more difficult.”


I also wonder if knowing the exact time of midnight had some magical or mystical significance to the rabbis, perhaps giving the knower certain powers.


Furthermore, the Gemara is concerned with the Torah’s implication that Moshe himself did not know how to calculate midnight. How could David know something that was beyond Moshe Rabbeinu himself? This problem emerges from the verse in Shemot in which Moshe announces the coming of the tenth plague, the slaying of the first born: “Thus saith the Lord: About midnight I will go out into the midst of Egypt.”  We should first note that while the phrase ka-chatzot ha-layla is generally rendered by commentators and translators as “about midnight,” as it is here, Rashi understands it otherwise. He renders the phrase as “when the night divides in half.” Part of Rashi’s motivation for favoring this reading is that it eliminates the peculiar ambiguity in the more common interpretation of “about midnight.” Why should Moshe give only an approximate time for the plague? Does God work on a precise schedule? 


The Gemara deals with this problem by asserting that there must have been a gap between what God said to Moshe and what Moshe declared in His name to the Egyptians. God must have said “at midnight” exactly. However, Moshe could not know exactly when midnight is, so he said “about midnight.” This answer is not very compelling. Moshe speaks here in the name of God. How could he change what he heard from Him? Why is Moshe’s ignorance of the exact time of midnight relevant, as long as God knows when it is? I suspect that this is why, later on in the passage, the Gemara cites another, more compelling interpretation. But first the Gemara expands further on David’s midnight awakenings:


Hence he [Moses] was in doubt;

Can David then have known it?

David had a sign.

For so said R. Acha b. Bizana in the name of R. Shimon the Pious:

A harp was hanging above David's bed.

As soon as midnight arrived,

a North wind came and blew upon it and it played of itself.

He arose immediately and studied the Torah till the break of dawn.


The question remains, how was David able to calculate the time of midnight, when even Moshe was not able to do so? The Gemara now answers that David did not possess any superior celestial knowledge. Rather, he had a “sign,” essentially a piece of technology, that allowed him to determine the time of midnight without complex measurements. This mechanism was a harp, which was presumably hung in a northward direction, as Rashi notes. At midnight, a north wind would come and cause the harp to make music, like a wind chime, awakening David. Rashi explains the principle behind this mechanism as follows: “As he said, four winds blow each day. The first six hours of the day, an east wind blows. From noon through the second six hours, a south wind. From the beginning of the night, a west wind. From midnight, a north wind.” According to Rashi, we can determine time, not only based on the movements of the celestial bodies, but also based on another daily cycle. Each quarter of the day is marked by a different wind. If one can determine when the wind changes direction, one can accurately mark the four cardinal points of the day: sunrise, noon, sunset and midnight. David’s harp is calibrated to be set off by the coming of the north wind, thus alerting him to the moment of midnight.


I cannot find the source for Rashi’s idea about the winds. Tosafot note that the most relevant source is Bava Batra 25a, which presents an extended discussion of the nature of the four winds. Rav is quoted as saying, “four winds blow every day, and the north wind blows with all of them. For if this were not so, the world could not exist even for a moment.” Though the Tosafot attempt to reconcile this passage with our passage, Rav does not seem to suggest an equal four part division of the day between the winds. This passage does, however, attribute a special, life sustaining quality to the north wind. This fits well with our text associating the north wind’s music and King David’s study of Torah. However, later on in the Bava Batra passage, it states that the north wind “deflates the value of gold.” Rashi explains that this means that the north wind is a dry wind that brings the sharav, causing famine, which results in a weakening of currency values.  This would suggest that the north wind is, in fact, a malevolent force. The whole issue of the four winds in rabbinic thought requires further study. Tzarikh iyun.


We must now investigate the idea of the self-playing harp. The source of this image is, in part, the verse from Tehillim 57:9 cited later on in the sugya: “Awake my soul, awake harp and lyre! I will awake the dawn.” This verse describes David, along with a harp and lyre, awakening before dawn. In light of the previously cited verse, which says that David awoke at midnight to study or pray,  it would be natural for the rabbis to interpret “before dawn” as meaning, not a little before dawn, but midnight. Hence, according to the rabbis, this verse describes David’s awakening at midnight along with a stringed instrument. But where did the rabbis get the idea that the harp played itself? The most logical understanding of this verse is that David himself played the harp, as he was famous for doing, throughout the night.  Other versions of this aggada cite a verse about the prophet Elisha, Melakhim II 3:15. They interpret this verse as describing a self-playing harp which inspires Elisha to prophesy. However, this does not appear to be the simple meaning of the verse here either. Still, in this context, the wind-activated harp does appear to be an image of divine inspiration. It is like an antenna tuned to resonate at the holy frequency of the wind. The music created inspires the prophet to prophesy.


In our context, the rabbis may have created this image in order to resolve the tension between prayer and Torah study in the verses and traditions about David’s nocturnal activities. As we have mentioned, the sources are unclear about whether David spent his night in study or prayer or some combination of the two. The relationship between prayer and Torah study is an important theme in the first chapter of Berakhot. The image of the harp seems to suggest that David was praying, not studying. However, as we shall discuss shortly, the rabbis thought it was important to portray David as involved in study. The idea of the self-playing harp allows us to resolve this contradiction. David was involved only in study.  He did not play the harp; rather, it made music independently, and this music accompanied David throughout the night.


The image of David, studying throughout the night, is part or a much broader tradition in which the Midrash anachronistically portrays the great figures of the Bible observing mitzvot and acting like great rabbis. The rabbis of the Midrash show the Biblical heroes as precursors and precedents for their own activities and teachings. In this particular case, however, David’s commitment to and love of Torah is clearly described already in Tehillim 119, from which most of the verses cited above are taken.


David’s image becomes much more complex as the story continues:


After the break of dawn

the wise men of Israel came in to see him and said to him:

Our lord, the King, Israel your people require sustenance!

He said to them: Let them go out and make a living one from the other. 

They said to him:

A handful (others translate “a single locust”) cannot satisfy a lion,

nor can a pit be filled up with its own clods. 

He said to them:

Then go out in troops and attack [the enemy for plunder].


Previously, David appears as a rabbinic sage, totally devoted to Torah study, inspired by the image of David in Tehillim. Now, David appears as a political leader, absorbed in economic and military issues. This picture of David seems more consonant with the picture found in the book of Shmuel.  Therefore, we may see this story as an attempt to merge these seemingly contradictory images of David. Previously, when we saw David studying throughout the night, we assumed this meant that he studied even at night, and how much more so during the day, fulfilling the verse “and though shalt meditate upon it [the Torah] day and night.” Now, David seems to study all night because he is absorbed in the affairs of state during the day. This story comes to answer the question: How could David have been a great Torah scholar and a great political leader at the same time? The answer is that he didn’t get much sleep.


The details of David’s policies, to be sure, are not in line with contemporary values.  By any definition, solving the people’s economic problems through wars of conquest conforms neither to modern economic theory nor, more importantly, to modern ethics of warfare. I find it disturbing that the Sages thought that the Jewish state should enrich itself through plunder and pillage. I would, however, like to place this story into two contexts which may make it more understandable. The first is the biblical context. The book of Shmuel tells of how David engages in a series of wars and conquests against the neighboring nations. The Sages are not making this up, but, rather, interpreting David’s expansionist military policy as being rooted, not in a desire for glory, but in a desire to meet the basic needs of his people.


The second context is the historical context in which the rabbis composed this story. It is difficult to know for certain exactly when or where (the land of Israel or Babylonia) this story was first composed. Almost certainly, however, the rabbis wrote this story at a time when the Jewish community lacked the capacity to execute its own independent economic and military policies, whether under the Romans and Byzantines in the Land of Israel, or under the Parthians and Sassinians in Babylonia.  At some points, such as in the Land of Israel in the third and fourth centuries C.E., the economic situation of the Jews was particularly harsh.  This story may be seen as a rabbinic fantasy of power, saying, “if only we had political and military independence, we could take our destiny into our own hands and solve our economic problems.”


The story now goes on to transform the image of David once more,


They at once took counsel with Achitofel

and consulted the Sanhedrin

and questioned the Urim and Tummim.

R. Yosef says:

What verse [may be cited in support of this]?

And after Achitofel was Yehoyada, the son of Benayahu, 

and Evyatar; and the captain of the King's host was Yoav.

'Achitofel', this was the counselor.

And so it is said:

Now the counsel of Achitofel, which he counseled in those days,

was as if a man inquired of the word of God.

'Benayahu the son of Yehoyada', this means the Sanhedrin.

'And Evyatar', these are the Urim and Tummim.

And so it says:

And Benayahu the son of Yehoyada was over the Kreiti and Pleiti.

Why are they called 'Kreiti' and 'Pleiti'?

Kreiti, because their words are decisive [kortim];

Pleiti, because they are distinguished [mufla'im] through their words.

And then it comes 'the captain of the King's host Yoav'.

R. Yitzhak b. Adda says: (Some say, R. Yitzhak the son of Addi says)

Which verse?

Awake, my glory; awake, psaltery and harp; I will awake the dawn.


Until now, as we have seen, the rabbis have placed David in the context of three or four different interpretive horizons: David as political and military leader, as described in the book of Shmuel; David as seeker of God’s word, as described in Tehillim; David as Torah scholar who is totally committed to the study of Torah; and, possibly, David as responding to the rabbis’ contemporary social-political situation. Now, the rabbis introduce a new perspective on David – David as the idealized halakhic king as described in Masekhet Sanhedrin. This king cannot always act on his own; he is subject to numerous checks and balances. The Mishnah (1:5) states that a king may not go off to a discretionary war, such as the war of conquest described in our story, without the consent of the high Sanhedrin of seventy-one judges. The Gemara there (16a) states that the king also needs the permission of the Urim Ve-tummim, the divine oracle associated with the high priest. The Bible, however, does not portray David as operating under such constitutional restrictions. The story, therefore, cites verses from Shmuel and Divrei Ha-yamim which describe David’s cabinet, reinterpreting them to refer to the Sanhedrin and the Urim Ve-tummim.


In conclusion, this story is a complex effort to bring together many different aspects of King David’s life and personality as they appear in various sources in the Bible and rabbinic tradition. David is at once sage and commander-in-chief; he is a man of private spirituality who also operates in a political and legal context.