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"His Fearless Roar"

Dr. Moshe Simon-Shoshan


Ein Yaakov - The World of Talmudic Aggada

By Dr. Moshe Simon-Shoshan



Lecture 5:  Daf 3a

“His Fearless Roar”



“In Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias,

they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed,

but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. 

In Switzerland, they had brotherly love,

they had five hundred years of democracy and peace –

and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock

                                    Orson Wells, The Third Man



The next sugya deals with one of the underlying issues in the first mishna and in Massekhet Berakhot as a whole: division of the day into units of time.  The way in which a society divides and measures time is one of its most fundamental organizing and identifying principles.  As the great social critic, Lewis Mumford, wrote, “The clock is not merely a means of keeping track of time, but of synchronizing men.” The halakhic divisions of the day organize all (male) Jews into a common pattern of prayer, synchronizing their activities.  A common system of time measurement can connect two different cultures, just as differing systems can divide them.  In addition, many systems of time measurement are based to a greater or lesser degree on the natural cycles of the heavens, so these systems mediate the individual’s relationship with the cosmos.


The most basic division of the day is between daytime and nighttime – light and dark.  Almost everyone can discern the change from day to night.  This division is also central to the creation story.  However, even this division is dependant on social convention and technology.  As we saw in the previous class, the question of when exactly the day begins and ends is far from a straightforward one. 


The progress of the sun across the sky allows the individual to measure daylight hours.  The day can be divided further, into morning and afternoon, based on whether the sun is ascending or descending.  Further division of the day requires a sundial, a technology first developed by the ancient Egyptians, and then perfected by the Greeks and Romans.  The sundial allows people to accurately divide the day into twelve “hours,” the length of which varies throughout the year depending on the length of the day.  The Roman world used this time system, and Halakha also used this system to set prayer times during the day.


But how can we measure time at night? Without the sun, measuring time is more difficult, though in pre-modern times it was also less necessary.  The work day ended at sundown, and people did not venture out much at night, so there was much less of a need to synchronize activities.  Halakhically, measuring nighttime is also less central.  The Temple did not function at night, so the Rabbis did not institute mandatory prayers at night (Ma’ariv was originally an optional prayer.) It is as if the night is not a time for Divine service, and God is not as accessible at night. 


The only mandatory prayer said at night is the evening Shema.  The Mishna mentions two points in time during the night, a “first watch” and “midnight.”  Our sugya opens by referring to three distinct systems of dividing nighttime:



What opinion does R. Eliezer hold?

If he holds that the night has three watches,

let him say: Till four hours [in the night]. 

And if he holds that the night has four watches,

let him say: Till three hours?


The Gemara here actually asks two questions.  First, when R. Eliezer uses the term “first watch,” how many night watches does he assume in total? The Gemara is aware of two possibilities, dividing the night into three or four watches.  Second, why did the Mishna use the ambiguous term “watches” when it could have given a more precise time in hours?  This passage sets out three different ways of breaking down the night: three watches, four watches, and 12 hours.  What is at stake in choosing among these systems? Where do these systems come from?


First, let us turn back to the Bible and examine the way in which the night was divided in biblical times.  On several occasions, the Bible uses the term ashmoret in discussing nighttime events.  Ashmoret seems to be a variant form of the Mishna’s term for the night watch, ashmura.  In Eikha 2:19, the speaker declares, “Arise and cry out at night, at the beginning of the watches (be-rosh ashmurot).”  On two occasions, Shemot 14:24 and I Shmuel 11:11, the text refers to ashmoret ha-boker, “the morning watch,” which seems to be the final watch before sunrise. 


How many watches were there in total?  The answer to this question lies in Shoftim 7:19:


Gideon and the hundred men with him arrived at the outposts of the camp at the beginning of the middle watch (rosh ashmoret ha-tichona) just after the sentries were posted.


This verse refers to a “middle watch,” which means that there was an odd number of watches and a minimum of three.  While it is possible that there were five or even seven watches, most likely there were only three.  This verse’s reference to the posting of sentries also shows us that the term “watches” refers to a practice in military encampments of dividing the night into three watches, with a changing of the guard at the start of each watch.


So the Rabbis inherited the practice of dividing up the night into three watches from the Bible itself.  Most likely, this was the traditional Jewish way of keeping time at night.  Then what is the source for breaking the night into four? This was the practice of the Roman army.  We know from numerous references in Christian Scriptures that Jews in the land of Israel not long before the period of the Mishna used a system of four watches.


So the choice between a three part night and a four part night is not simply a technical one; it is laden with cultural significance.  Choosing a tripartite night means identifying with the worldview of biblical Israel, while choosing a four part night means assimilating into the dominant Roman culture.


Then what is the source of dividing the night into twelve hours? This practice is obviously meant to parallel the twelvefold breakdown of the day using a sundial. 


This takes us back to a fundamental question – given the lack of sunlight to power a sundial, how does one keep time at night? We know that the beginning of the fourth Roman watch was marked by the crowing of the rooster.  We will soon see that the Gemara also linked the various watches to noises made by animals.  Alternatively, time was kept by watching the movements of the constellations throughout the night.  However, keeping precise track of the stars is not a simple matter.  Around 600 BCE, the Egyptians invented a tool called the merkhet which allowed one to accurately track the movement of the stars at night.  As far as I understand it, in order to accurately divide up the night into 12 hours, one needed to possess and know how to use a merkhet.  Lastly, the clepsydra, or water clock, measured time at night through dripping water from one container to another. 


We can speculate that the Mishna does not use the more precise twelve hour measurement system of the night because keeping track of a twelve hour night required technology to which most people did not have access.  The Mishna, therefore, uses the simpler division of the night into watches.


The Gemara now answers its question regarding the Mishna’s system of measuring time at night:


He holds indeed, that the night has three watches,

and he wants to teach us that

there are watches in heaven as well as on earth.


According to the Gemara, R. Eliezer in the Mishna presumes a division of the night into three watches.  We have already argued that this choice shows a preference for biblical tradition over contemporary Roman culture.  By instructing the Jews to use a tripartite division of the night in scheduling their recitation of the Shema, R. Eliezer is calling upon them to engage in an act of cultural resistance.  The Jews must reject the time reckoning of the Roman conquerors and hold fast to their own traditional form of reckoning.  The Jews’ system of time becomes another way in which they become a people apart.


The Gemara then makes a further claim.  The system of three night watches is not merely that of the Jews; it is that of God Himself.  The four watches of the Romans and the twelve hours of the night are essentially arbitrary divisions of the night, imposed by people in order to synchronize human behavior, while the three night watches of the Bible reflect cosmic reality.


The Gemara then cites a baraita in the name of R. Eliezer, the same rabbi who referred to the watches of the night in the Mishna:


For it has been taught: R. Eliezer says:

The night has three watches,

and at each watch the Holy One, blessed be He, sits and roars like a lion. 

For it is written:

“The Lord does roar from on high,

and raise His voice from His holy habitation;

'roaring He does roar' because of his fold (Yirmiyahu 25:30).”


R. Eliezer declares that God Himself roars three times a night, marking each of the watches.  He cites as his proof-text a verse from Yirmiyahu.  R. Eliezer learns from the threefold appearance of the word “roar” in the verse that God roars three times.


In order to better understand the significance of R. Eliezer’s statement, we need to examine the original context of the verse in Yirmiyahu.  Chapter twenty-five of Yirmiyahu records a prophecy that Yirmiyahu delivered in the fourth year of the reign of Yehoyakim king of Yehuda.  Nebuchadnetzar has just taken the throne in Babylonia, and the days of the Kingdom of Yehuda are limited.  Yirmiyahu declares that because of the Jews’ failure to repent, God will bring down upon Yehuda the full force of Nebuchadnetzar’s armies who will lay the country to waste.  Yirmiyahu then predicts that Nebuchadnetzar will ravage all the nations of the Near East as an instrument of God’s wrath. 


At the end of this prophecy, Yirmiyahu declares that, “The Lord does roar from on high, and raise His voice from His holy habitation; 'roaring He does roar' because of his fold.” The prophet then describes a sudden devastation that will descend upon the “shepherds.”  He declares,


Hark, the outcry of the shepherd,

and the howls of the lords of the flock,

for the Lord is ravaging their pasture (25:36).


In their original context, God’s roars are part of an extended metaphor, in which God’s vengeance against Israel and its neighbors through Nebuchadnetzar is compared to the attack of a lion coming from nowhere to devour a flock of sheep.  The “roaring” is a one-time historical event, in which God engages himself in human affairs in order to restore the moral balance of the world.


In contrast, according to R. Eliezer’s reading, God’s roaring is taken literally and refers to a regular, thrice nightly event, which happens with complete regularity and precision.  In this reading, God’s time keeping in heaven parallels the Jews’ time keeping on earth, giving cosmic significance to our actions.  R. Eliezer has also transformed God in his re-reading of the verse from Yirmiyahu.  God no longer appears as an independent moral force who controls human history.  Now God Himself obeys a set of cosmic laws, roaring on cue like a creature from an elaborate Renaissance clock.  R. Eliezer’s God is quite different from the one we are familiar with from the Bible.  He is a more mythic god who stands at the top of the cosmic order, rather than beyond it.


The baraita goes on to tell us more about the ways in which the three night watches are delineated:


And the sign of the thing is:

In the first watch, the ass brays;

in the second, the dogs bark;

in the third, the child sucks from the breast of his mother,

and the woman talks with her husband.  


The baraita explains that the three night watches are also marked by events that happen here on earth.  These events turn our attention away from the technical aspects of nocturnal time-keeping and towards the existential experience of night in the ancient world.  Until the modern era, the night was a time of unseen danger.  Humans left the outside world to the forces of darkness and retreated to the safety of their homes.


The first two watches are marked by noises made by animals – donkeys and dogs.  How did ancient people understand the nighttime braying and howling that they heard through their bedroom windows? There was a widespread belief that animals in general and dogs in particular had the capacity to see spirits and demons, and they responded to these sightings by making noise.  The Gemara on Bava Kama 60b states that, “When dogs ‘cry’ the Angel of Death has come to town.  When they ‘laugh’ Elijah the Prophet has come.” 


The Torah may even refer to the idea that dogs see and bark at the Angel of Death in the middle of the night.  In describing the coming plague of the first born, God declares “not a dog shall move his tongue at any of the Israelites, at man or beast” (Shemot 11:7).  One can interpret this verse as saying that dogs will be silent in the precincts of the Israelites, because the Angel of Death will not be present at all there that night.


I would like to suggest that the Gemara’s description of first the donkey’s braying and then the dog’s barking refers to the mounting powers of the Angel of Death and other demons as the night progresses.  When a person in the Gemara’s time heard donkeys braying and dogs barking outside of his house at night, it reminded him of the great dangers that lurk at night beyond the safety of the home.  This image of the night contrasts sharply to the celestial night in which God roars over his dominion.


With the last night watch, the scene changes.  We move from outside to inside, from the animal kingdom to the human realm.  With the approaching dawn, the dangers of night recede, and humans begin to stir.  While human society on the communal level breaks down at night, night is a time for bonding on the family level.  Freed from the demands of work and society, we find the entire family together in bed.  The mother nurtures her baby, and husband and wife converse.  These bonds formed before the sun rises allow the family members, individually and collectively, to make it through the stresses of the day. 


The Gemara now scrutinizes the baraita’s proposed breakdown of the night:


What does R. Eliezer understand [by the word watch]?

Does he mean the beginning of the watches?

The beginning of the first watch needs no sign, it is the twilight!

Does he mean the end of the watches?

The end of the last watch needs no sign, it is the dawn of the day!

He, therefore, must think of the end of the first watch,

of the beginning of the last watch,

and of the midst of the middle watch. 

If you like I can say:

He refers to the end of all the watches. 

And if you object that the last watch needs no sign,

[I reply] that it may be of use for the recital of the Shema,

and for a man who sleeps in a dark room

and does not know when the time of the recital arrives. 

When the woman talks with her husband

and the child sucks from the breast of the mother,

let him rise and recite.


The Gemara seeks to integrate the baraita’s signs of the night watches with its own concern with precise time measurement.  The Gemara therefore assumes that the three events mentioned refer to precise points in time which demarcate the watches.  The problem with this assumption is that that since the beginning and end of the night are easily observed, one only needs two markers to divide the night into three.  The Gemara resolves this problem in two ways.  The first possibility is that the first and the last sign demarcate the transitions from the first to the second watch and from the second to the third watch.  The middle sign of the barking dogs marks the middle of the middle watch – in other words, midnight.  This interpretation raises the issue that, at first glance, the tripartite division of the night does not mark midnight, a point of central significance.  The Gemara suggests that it does indeed mark midnight. 


Alternatively, the three signs mark the end of each of the three watches.  The end of the final watch is, of course, the dawn.  However, the baraita supplies an additional sign, of the mother nursing and the couple conversing, because people cannot always see the dawn in the darkness of their houses.  This provides a person another sign to mark the beginning of the obligation to say the morning Shema.


It seems to me that the signs of the baraita – the braying of the donkey, the barking of the dog, and the family awake in bed – actually each occur at various points throughout their respective watches.  The baraita’s purpose is not to provide an exact charting of the night, but an account of the experience of night –the mounting dominion of the powers of evil, which eventually gives way to the dominion of humans as they arise and prepare for another day of sunlight and activity. 



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