Interleaved: A Talmudic Podcast

Berakhot No.1: A Brief History of Jewish Time

March 11, 2020 Netanel Zellis-Paley Season 1 Episode 1
Interleaved: A Talmudic Podcast
Berakhot No.1: A Brief History of Jewish Time
Interleaved: A Talmudic Podcast
Berakhot No.1: A Brief History of Jewish Time
Mar 11, 2020 Season 1 Episode 1
Netanel Zellis-Paley

How did the Rabbis of the Talmud understand how time works, and how does our modern understanding of change how we think about the laws they wrote?

David Zvi Kalman is a fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, co-founder of Jewish Public Media, and owner of Print-O-Craft, an independent publisher of Jewish art books.He received his PhD in 2019 from the University of Pennsylvania with his dissertation entitled “Unequal Hours: The Jewish Reception of Timekeeping Technology from the Bible to the Twentieth Century.

Special thanks  to Avigayil Halpern for her contributions to this episode, and to our executive producer, Adina Karp.

View a source sheet for this episode here.

Keep up with Interleaved on Twitter and Facebook.

Music from
"Midnight Tale" by Kevin MacLeod (
License: CC BY (

Show Notes Transcript

How did the Rabbis of the Talmud understand how time works, and how does our modern understanding of change how we think about the laws they wrote?

David Zvi Kalman is a fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, co-founder of Jewish Public Media, and owner of Print-O-Craft, an independent publisher of Jewish art books.He received his PhD in 2019 from the University of Pennsylvania with his dissertation entitled “Unequal Hours: The Jewish Reception of Timekeeping Technology from the Bible to the Twentieth Century.

Special thanks  to Avigayil Halpern for her contributions to this episode, and to our executive producer, Adina Karp.

View a source sheet for this episode here.

Keep up with Interleaved on Twitter and Facebook.

Music from
"Midnight Tale" by Kevin MacLeod (
License: CC BY (

spk_1:   0:00
Welcome to Inter Leaved, where we take a deep dive into topics from the DA fio me with modern day stages of the Torah in the world on the tunnels and let's pull it on today's episode time, Talmud and Technology e don't know that it never hurts to see ha ha through the eyes of common sense on. I think that's true both for this and for other areas, huh? I think it should not be a black box. Beginning Chapters of Massage Bro Hope first tracked. Eight of the Talmud are rather occupied with the concept of time, the time to recite the chamomile, the time to say the daily prayers. Even the time King David awoke in the middle of the night and reading through these chapters, it seems clear that the rabbis of the Talmud thought of and recorded time quite a different way than we do now. Joining us today to teachers. Exactly how rabbinic time worked is Dove. It's vey common, who recently completed his doctoral dissertation on the history of Jewish timekeeping. David's fee is a fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, co founder of Jewish Public Media and owner of print a craft. An independent publisher of Jewish art books. He received his PhD in 2019 from the University of Pennsylvania with his dissertation entitled Unequal Hours. The Jewish Reception of Timekeeping Technology From the Bible to the 20th century. David's vey welcome to the podcast.

spk_0:   1:26
Thanks so much for having me.

spk_1:   1:28
You're right. In the introduction to your dissertation, you chose to examine the intersection of two fields that rarely overlap the history of technology and Jewish studies. What interests and experiences in your own life brought you to this unusual crossroads and of history of Jewish timekeeping in particular?

spk_0:   1:44
So I'm sure I'm not the only person who likes both Kamara and science fiction. It was actually growing subcommittee of people who not, um, not a growing some community of people who have become interested in those two things but have admitted to being interested in those savings all along. And I think my process towards getting involved in the intersection of technology and Jewish history is really more about coming into something which I realized I always cared about and didn't realize that it was something that was legitimate to study properly. I started out doing a PhD in something that was somewhat different on the intersection of medieval Jewish and Islamic law. And somewhere along the way, as I was pursuing this, I had a realization that questions around technology. We're just very interesting to me. And they're the things that excited me. Um, and that, combined with some strong suggestion from my wife that, hey, you seem to care about this a lot. Maybe you should pursue it more seriously. Led me to change course in my studies, away from Islam and towards technology, which I'm really glad I did, because it turns out that a lot of people care about technology. I'm one of those people. It's been a lot of fun.

spk_1:   2:57
All right, so let's dive into this dissertation, shall we? Learners of the Daf Yomi may recall a discussion on three B two for a About Moses is warning to Pharaoh about the timing of the plague of the first born, in which the camera asks why Moses says got so Delilah or around midnight. What answer given is that Moses was concerned about pharaohs astrologers who are assumed to have been able to calculate the exact time of midnight, Moses feared they would air and their calculations and call him a liar. I found this assumption fascinating, given your discussion of ancient Egyptian timekeeping in the first chapter, which specialized in the nighttime hours. Do you think the Egyptians really believed their timekeeping was that precise, particularly at midnight? Or is that Tom was just making a polemical point about the arrogance of the Egyptians?

spk_0:   3:40
So I want to take a step back and address the question of what does it mean to talk about that sort either and with reference to bid night or mid day? One of the things that I attempt to explain in the dissertation is that this is a term which has undergone a significant evolution from its appearance in the Torah to its appearance in Ameri literature. So in the Torah, when it talks about that, said Khalayleh, it's not actually talking about a specific point in time. Its uses. It's pretty vague. In general, the tourist notion of time is not well structured. It does not have strong systems for keeping track of time beyond things like, you know, the first watch, the second watch and the night, things like that the tour doesn't even use the word our until safer Danielle and then only in the air make portions of saver Danielle. So win the Torah toxin. But that's what I like. That's what I like about whatever version it is. We could just assume that this is not intended in any kind of precise way. A shift happens when we enter the tentative period, basically, because the Romans do use those terms in precise ways. Midnight for the Romans is the beginning of the Civil Day, and it's set, actually, because it's a time when people are asleep. And so it's convenient to kind of start the day when people are asleep, people don't usually stay up on to midnight or anywhere near, but night at midday is also important in that system. So in the tentative period, you start having the term cut so to both for a midnight and from a day being used in a more precise sense. But there's a further shift that happens when we move from 10 attic literature Tamarack literature, which is that the term hot so stops being simply precise and starts being so precise that a human being could not actually define what it is. And there's actually a shift where there are some tentative sources which are rephrased in Emmerich literature, where if it is a human who is responsible for knowing when Hudson is the term had so is replaced with, she showed six hours because that is a phrase that is a time that human beings could be expected to reckon on their own. But it's also a less precise determination than Hudson itself. So there is a slow shift. The circumstance that you're describing is really something that only comes about because of that end stage where hut So it has become so precise that human beings could no longer term in it at all. And so you can then read out back into the biblical text and say, Well, what is going on is that motion is kind of telling the Egyptians, God can figure this out. You can't And so the phrasing is there to kind of provide it out for the Egyptians so that they don't say that God made a mistake. If it's the last thing I'd say is in terms of the Egyptians themselves. One thing with what we know about Egyptian timekeeping is that even though it's, the Egyptians seem to have originated 12 hour night, which then gets extended until a 12 hour day, which is where the divisions into 12 come from. Originally, we don't actually know that the Egyptians had 12 equal parts of the night, you know that they had 12 parts, but those parts might have been of different lengths. We don't actually know how precise they intended those divisions to bay,

spk_1:   6:56
right, And that's exactly the point about the distinction between divine and human timekeeping. That's exactly where I wanted to go with the next question. One of my favorite section of your dissertation is the one who your discussed the contrast between divine and human time, which comes up also a few pages later in the day off in a discussion of God's daily split second moment of rest. So thinking a little more philosophically now, what is that distinction between divine and human time mean to you today in our world of atomic clocks and mayes monem dot com, where we can calculate this mon the time for reciting Shamaa or to pray the Schoharie prayer to the exact second.

spk_0:   7:37
So the first thing, I would say that that notion that God is very good at keeping track of time is something which I've written about. But it's something that Lin K has written about much more extensively. Her dissertation, which is now a book time in the Babylonians home, where she makes the argument that God is frequently described as being able to keep track of time to a much higher degree that human beings are capable of. One useful example of that is the notion that God can say two things at once, and that that idea that you can kind of coordinate speech in that way is another expression of God's great timekeeping ability. But in terms of the question, I've got my eyes, my name dot com, atomic clocks. The rabbinic notion of what it means to keep track of time is I guess we call classical in the sense that the rabbi's imagine that there is a kind of perfect way of tracking time, and what humans can do is attempt to achieve some fraction of that perfect ability. But they can never achieve that perfectibility. I don't know if we have them mindset anymore. One of the milestones in the history of time keeping that comes about in the beginning of the 20th century is human beings create clocks that are so good that they realize that the Earth's rotation, which has been the foundation of that, like that's the thing that that they've been attempting to measure this whole time is actually not itself perfect and that their slight variations in the rotation of the Earth. So one of the shifts that happens as human gets better at keeping track of time is that they realized the thing that they were trying to keep track of was not actually a stable as they imagined it to be. So I don't know how that exactly that fits into the Minds money model, which I think imagines that there is a kind of perfect time that one could possibly keep. I think there's a kind of divergence between that notion in the way that we imagine no metrics keeping with regards time outside of

spk_1:   9:37
interesting. My salon dot com, I think even is some what cognizant of the impossibility of humans determining the exact time there's a disclaimer that says Do not rely on these times to the last moment. I don't know if it's just gonna absolve themselves of helical responsibility. Everyone praying, darkening past the is mon the time or it's a more philosophical point. But that was always interesting to me.

spk_0:   10:05
Maybe the point is that once you're at the point where you can determine the time to the exact second, you actually can't you maybe you can coordinate the time you can't actually coordinate the people meeting. People can't regulate their own behavior to that level through.

spk_1:   10:19
Okay, so now that we're on the topic of Zamani Amore, holla! At times we should talk about time related sections of the first chapter of bra hoat, which probably begins with the words from when Mai Mai tai I want to focus on the first mission A which just the time for the evening recital of the shma as beginning from when the corny um, the priest's entered to eat their trauma there tides. One of the themes from your dissertation is the disparity between the rabbi's timekeeping capabilities and their expectations of lay people's capabilities. To keep time, you write that this could explain the Thomas preference for relative activity bound time markers over absolute ones. Given that gap, what do you make of this esoteric time marker of the co Hahnemann entering the temple to eat there tied and its presence in the very first mission of the Tom would.

spk_0:   11:05
So the short answer is, I don't know. I think the answer lies not with timekeeping, but with the way that the rabbis are thinking about or nostalgic for the Temple service itself. I don't know that it's connected. Thio Daniel is an answer that large within the realm of timekeeping Specifically. What it would say, though, is that in detonated period, there is a kind of slippage between thinking about time in terms of this newly imposed Roman timekeeping system, where their 12 hours in a given day and the kind of more natural cycles which are around the rhythms of the day basically involving. When you get up when you go to sleep, when do you rest and when you eat and those things as it you today sometimes overlap, but you're not always a good example of This is thinking about what is the word lunchtime mate, right? Like so lunchtime, you would say, is probably sometime around the middle of the day and is around the time that people eat meals. So lunch time probably isn't, you know, nine o'clock at night. But which is primary meaning? Is it the with number attached to a lunchtime? Or is it the factory? Reading lunch is a little bit ambiguous in that term. I think this is something that the rabbis were struggling with. A lot is thinking about. To what degree are we hooking ritual practice to the position of the sun in the sky? Which is a kind of abstract notion that people can reckon if they want Thio or do they related to the rhythms of the day? And I think that that first reference to the way to the corny um, eat trauma at night is kind of playing with that.

spk_1:   12:43
So how would a common person, perhaps living for in time and space from the temple, knowing that time is, or is the point that they're not supposed to know? And if so, what does that say about the original audience of rabbinic texts?

spk_0:   12:56
I mean, I guess probably you're asking is for a person who's not exposed to the Temple Service directly, are they supposed Thio have some intuitive knowledge about when the Cohanim would eat their trauma. My suspicion is it actually doesn't matter. They're very much people have a sense of when the evening starts. The rabbis might want to connect that beginning of the evening to this historic act for some reason, but I don't know that anybody is very anxious about it until the tomorrow. That is

spk_1:   13:26
now on the second side of that first page, the Kamara proceeds to lists no fewer than six different opinions as to when the time for the evening small begins. Do you think it's possible that there was such local or regional variation of the definition of nightfall? Or is this a more technical dispute about the meaning of when you lie down? I

spk_0:   13:43
don't know, either through a technical variations, but I would say that it is easier to come up with terms to describe the different parts of nightfall and the different parts of the beginning of the day that it is for other portions of the day or night, because the changing character of the sky or the shifting behavior of animals, or the ability to see certain things happens on a rapid enough level that you can kind of distinction and create terminology. And this is something actually, with Romans do just as much as the Jews do. There's the same kind of set of terms to describe different parts of those sequences in ways that there aren't such great divisions after the sun is up. But beyond that, I think it's probably just a technical dispute.

spk_1:   14:30
Okay, things get even more interesting later in the chapter when the mission talks about the earliest time to recite the Mourning Shima. All four opinions give relative physical measures that are wholly dependent on the eyesight of the individual, such as discerning between a dog and a wolf discerning between blue whoa! And white wool in particular. I find it interesting because this time marker a minute pretty far into the modern era without being associated with an absolute time, such as 52 minutes before sunrise. It was only in the past couple of centuries that rabbinic authorities, especially in Israel, did so associate. The earliest time for putting on the telly didn't Filion 52 minutes before sunrise, when beforehand, they would just use the relative measure of Monsieur here when you discern between different colors when you can recognize your friend and it. Those rabbinic authorities did not necessarily have a sound technological reason for doing so, which brought to mind the question for me other Some other factors at play in the modernization of money. And besides technological advances,

spk_0:   15:33
No, I don't think there are. I think it's all technology in some form. Another beginning in the late 14th century, with the introduction of the mechanical clock across Europe, you start beginning to see rabbis, especially in Austria and Germany and then a little bit afterwards in Poland, become interested in the notion of equinox. You'll hours that is ours, which do not change in duration over the course of the year as a result of the passage of the seasons. That's really where you first started seeing rabbis confront the notion of What does it mean to talk about hours in these different senses? And from there, as those clocks become more prominent, where there's a growing expectation that everybody will have access to this time signals provided by these very public locks, you start having this interest in greater quantification of timekeeping, and then as those timekeeping devices have become more accurate on this happens, especially in the 17th century, when there's a few technological breakthroughs that make it possible to have both more after public locks and then also make smaller clocks both cheaper and more accurate. Once you start having that happened, this process kind of speeds up. The other element, which also is technological in nature, is the development of newspapers and other ways of distributing information about when, as my name's start, when Shabbat starts things along those lines that allow these to become more than just locally reckoned changes but something which you can quantify in advance one where the other It's all

spk_1:   17:07
time also came up in a different context. In the doll Feel Me Recently with the Thomas assertion that women are exempt from time, Bell mitts vote, such as create drama, fill in and, according to some opinions, thrice daily prayer. A common explanation for this exemption is that in the times of the Tom, would women were the primary child viewers and homemakers, and with such major responsibilities, could not be expected to fulfill these mitts vote in the limited free time they had. You think there's an alternative timekeeping related explanation, perhaps pertaining to women's access to methods and understanding of timekeeping.

spk_0:   17:42
So I don't think so, because I don't know that it's gender, that this point meaning. I think, that most women and most men are equally oblivious to exactly what our is. For most hours of the day, where there starts to be interesting, gendered questions around timekeeping is, um, you know what I can think of? Is there some research done by a scholar named Alexis may cross in, who's worked on looking at how clocks show up in kitchens and other domestic settings, other settings that would be populated by women. And she traces how this goes along with changing notions, not just about what women's work is, but a kind of culture of efficiency that was developing around women after the industrial pollution and this notion that women's work should be done as expeditiously as men's work. So that's the only connection that I can think of. But I think it's far away from

spk_1:   18:38
your synopsis article. You wrote why my monitors would later declare that rabbinic hours were always seasonal. Hours showed his money out. That is ours, which are always 1/12 of the length of a given day or night. There is, in fact, no evidence that the rabbi's understood the concept of the seasonal our Nor is there evidence that they understood its alternative sequin actual hour, which is always 1 24th of a day night cycle. Instead, I argue that the rabbinic understanding of the hour was essentially naive. They assumed that ours always remained the same length, but also assumed that there were always 12 hours in the day or night. Can you talk about the process which led you to this conclusion?

spk_0:   19:15
The beginning of the process is just to note that the fresh owes money or just not show up until the Islamic period. Now, my Monty's makes the claim in the beginning of of of his commentary to the mission A that we should not worry about this because we should assume that whenever the rabbis, at least in the mission use the term showed they're talking about shows money that is to say, seasonal hours, that is to say, hours of which they're always 12 in a given day and 12 on a given night, and so that length varies over the course of the year. In examining the corpus of Rabbinic Literature, which uses showboats, which uses that term, it seems that this is a little more complicated. There are many instances where the term Shoate seems to be used in the sense of seasonal hours, and there are many other instances in which the term show it seems to be used in this sense of Equinox Flower's that is sometimes showed. OSHA is used to describe a certain point in the day. Sometimes it's used to describe the duration, and it seems like in the former it's using a seasonal. Our terminology in the second is using Theo Equinox flower violence. The problem is that in neither of the situations has actually used the term, so it's still just us assuming what is the case? What becomes more problematic is that there are a few instances in which the use of the term is just does not make sense using either definition. So, for example, when the Gamarra talks about the length that one can walk in a given day and it says that you can walk five meal from from dawn to sunrise and then another 15 from sunrise to today and the 15 from midday to sunset, another five from sunset tonight fall. Those distances should vary based on the length of the actual day, and yet they don't. The question is what is going on Instant instances like that, and the answer that I argue for is that the rabbis are there. Do not know that there is a difference between seasonal and economical hours, or they don't care that there is a difference. And so what happens is that the hour that is used in the Camara has two mutually exclusive elements. He's both understood to have the same length over the course of the year, and it is understood that are always 12 in a given day in 12 on a given night. So those two things both can't be true. Yet the rabbi seem to think both are true anyways, in my way of understanding, how this can be is basically talking it up to a couple of factors. One is that the rabbi's they're not using the system so extensively in the first place. So yes, the rabbi's do you understand that there is a 12 hour day and a 12 hour night. This is their adoption of the Hellenistic system, but they don't make use of it so extensively. So you know, an hour here, an hour there who really cares? The other part of it is that rabbinic lead antique rabbinic culture is developed mostly in relatively moderate latitudes. I think the most northerly latitude which rabbis are writing is, I think, the 34th pair Little North, which is still pretty far south. I think that's like the Southern United States the equivalent of that, so that those latitudes, the difference between the longest day and the shortest day, is actually not that great. You can actually kind of get away with not caring about this without too many problems. And they should say this is not just a problem that's specific to juice. Islamic culture is also developed a similar latitudes and also comes up with problems. Once they started needing to think about, you know, what does it mean to have five pairs in a day when you're living in Norway or some other northerly place? We already have travelogues and from the Middle Ages that suggests that Muslims living at those latitudes are chafing at the requirements of Islamic law because Islamic law is not really developed for those latitudes, just like Jewish law was not developed for the latitude. So you have the problem. Because of that, the country of the seasonal hour comes to Jews through Muslims. The Greeks had it. The Romans have it, But it seems like the Jews didn't acknowledge that they weren't aware event. But with the rise of Islam and with Jewish exposure to Islamic science, Juice adopted that notion as well. And so show it's money. It first shows up in Judea, Arabic sources and then is translated into Hebrew when texts like my monitors commentary to commissioner are translated into Haber. So really, the time when it becomes popularized in Jewish texts is it's not even with my Monterey's. It's with the translation of my monitors that specifically the translation of my monitors commentary to the mission in the late 15th century and really pinpointed very specifically to the printing of a specific edition of his work after their prison printing of edition. This free show, it's money. It starts to show up first in Poland and elsewhere as a result of the promulgation of that information which connecting with the availability of pretty precise timekeeping devices that point starts becoming relevant.

spk_1:   24:16
Do you think this ought to have ramifications and current understandings of Ha ha or other areas?

spk_0:   24:22
I don't know that it ever hurts to see Holly fa through the eyes of common sense, and I think that's true both for this and for other areas of Allah. I think it should not be a black box, right, and this is an area where it's relatively easy. Toe, um, break open that black box and see what's going on.

spk_1:   24:43
Your dissertation covers until the beginning of the 20th century, but you write in a recent synopsis article that you hope to cover the rest of that century in a future book. What time related Halacha controversy are you most looking forward to studying? That's a Takahara vin debate the debate about the exact time when the three stars come out, Or perhaps the international Dateline controversy, which is a fun one or some other controversy. So I would say that I

spk_0:   25:10
don't see the 20th 21st century is marking any kind of important qualitative shift in the way that you keep track of time. I think it's just this increasing call quantification and precision making. So, you know, I would love to know when Jews, for example, first start using seconds when they markdowns. Money like that. Of the thing that I'm most interested in, which I started reading about in the dissertation already is this weird artifact of Ottoman timekeeping, which has basically been preserved on Lee in the heretic Mindy's in Israel. The Ottomans, when they adopted European clocks, a doctor, the physical clocks but used them in a way that was different from what the Europeans uses, that Europeans used them with a few different conventions. The ones that's most familiar to us is where you said Noon as being 12. You let the clock run for 12 hours, and then midnight is 12 again. And that's you know, that's what we're familiar with today. The Ottomans had something different with the Ottomans. Did is they set 12 as being sunset. The clock run for 12 hours and then another 12 hours, and then when sunset came again, they would make a small adjustment to the clock, such that 12 is always sunset. At that point in this, this something which developed on the court over the course of hundreds of years. It didn't really matter that a few minutes might be lost or gained over a course for specific day. It was close enough. It was accurate enough. And I should say Europeans usedto similar method. The Italians used a similar method for a long time. The Ottomans kept up this version of timekeeping until the beginning of the 20th century. Over time, they used it concurrently with the European system because they needed to keep track of both simultaneously. But this is kind of like this is the official way that the Ottomans kept track of time was used in Israel when the Ottoman set up clock terrorist in Israel, they were set to. This time when the British took over, there was obviously a shift towards just exclusive European timekeeping system. And then the Ottomans, themselves of the Turks, abandoned it themselves shortly thereafter. The kind of funny thing is that even though the Ottomans abandoned the system somehow already communities, they think my hypothesis is as a kind of resistance to state control, kept using the system and continue to use the system today and you can see some evidence of this. In some places. In Israel, for example, there is a shul in usual. I'm pulled. So hurry. Hama, which has two clocks, or usedto, have to a functioning clock come on its front face, and one of the clocks kept European time. One of the clocks kept Ottoman time, originally called the Shoshone RV, and now it's called Show on Earth Israel. So it was kind of like adopted as being this native Israel. I'd thing. Even though it has nothing to do with Israel or Judaism whatsoever today, it's still used. If you look if you go in to make sure I mean you look at the past UV Liam there, you'll see it used on a few of them. The last time I went last summer, I noticed that it was on a possible from the Natori Carta. Now it's not like they actually keep the time. It's not like anybody actually sets their watches that way, but it's a kind of symbolic resistance to the state. And so what you'll see is you'll see that version of time and then in brackets. It'll have, you know, the actual time because people do I need to know when the event actually isn't the ones keeping track of autumn in time keeping anymore? So things like that are very interesting to me. I feel like I don't have the full story there, but I would love to learn more about that.

spk_1:   28:25
Well, that's really fascinating. Good looking. Looking towards the past in terms of development technology, but to look towards the future, the years 3000 and their human colonies on Mars, Jews included. What do you think electric time will look like then?

spk_0:   28:39
So stay with my story and head on. I have no idea. But taking it off, we toy novel comes out.

spk_1:   28:45
Uh, David Spade. Thank you so much.

spk_0:   28:48
Thanks so much for having me

spk_1:   28:51
between episodes. You can keep up with intra leaved on Facebook and Twitter special thanks to Abby Guile Halpern for contributions to this episode into our executive producer. DEA car