Ask The Rabbi

For the week ending 3 November 2012 / 17 Heshvan 5773

The Jewish Midnight

by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman -
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From: Vladimir

Dear Rabbi,

I have heard various teachings about the Jewish midnight which are intriguing. Could you please elaborate? Thanks in advance.

Dear Vladimir,

I'd be happy to shed some light on the Jewish midnight.

First, unlike the well-known song in Fiddler on the Roof which goes, "Sunrise, Sunset…", the Jewish day starts at night and continues through the day – sunset, sunrise. And since sunset and sunrise are constantly changing, so is the length of the night. This affects the reckoning of midnight, since in Judaism, midnight is not artificially and arbitrarily fixed at 12 AM but rather is literally at the mid-point of the night, and hence it is called "chatzot" in Hebrew from "chetzi" which means half. Therefore, in the winter, when the nights are long, midnight is generally before 12 AM; in the summer, when the nights are short, it is generally after. In any case, it changes from day to day throughout the seasons of the year.

Also, since according to Jewish thought there are spiritual forces behind everything in the physical world there are specific qualities associated with the different parts of the night. There are generally three parts of the night, whose quality progresses from the physical to the spiritual. The first part of the night is affected by the noise of the activities of the day whose echo reverberates into the evening – referred to as the "mule braying". This is a turbulent time when the world transitions from material to physical. The next part is affected by the transcendence of the mundane into the spiritual, but at the initial lower level, negative spiritual forces are at "play" and have sway – referred to as "dogs howling". The last part of the night is characterized as a peaceful and tranquil time where the world is recharged and rejuvenated for a new day – referred to as a "suckling baby".

This understanding has several ramifications regarding our daily rhythms. If we focus on your specific interest, namely midnight, this is a time of the night which is poised between the physical and spiritual, where harmful forces and impurity reign. People who are awake at this time and interested in spiritually detrimental activities will unfortunately find many opportunities. People who are asleep at this time will also be affected, and it is at this time that the impurity of death associated with sleep settles in. Dreams that people have at this time of night are also generally unpleasant and disturbing.

It is for these reasons that according to Jewish teachings, a person should ideally sleep during the first part of the night, but be awake by (the Jewish) midnight in order to engage in Torah study, prayer, meditation and reflection. In this way one avoids the harmful effects of sleep at this time and mitigates the harmful effects of impure forces and the activities of the people under their sway, on the world. In fact, the Talmud describes that King David had a type of magical, mystical harp whose chords, when caressed by the nightly, northerly breeze, would sound a melody to awaken David before midnight. He would then spend the rest of the night learning Torah, praying and composing the Psalms until dawn.

The Talmud also discusses that at night generally, and particularly at midnight which is the apex of night, G-d Himself mourns the destruction of the Holy Temple of Jerusalem. This corresponds to the depth and darkness of exile in which we yearn for the dawn of Redemption. It is considered a very praiseworthy and beneficial thing for one to be up at this time to express mourning over the Destruction as well, thereby empathizing, as it were, with G-d's sorrow over our exile. The special prayer service that was composed for this time, to be recited by individuals or the community, is called "Tikkun Chatzot" – the Rectification of Midnight – whereby through repentance, yearning for G-d and our return to Israel, we will merit the rebuilding of the Temple and the final Redemption.

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