A non-Jewish coworker once asked me why Shabbat and our holidays all begin at sundown. My first response was that in the Jewish calendar, days begin at sundown, but after he happily accepted that easy answer, I thought about it a bit and realized his question was actually a pretty profound one.
In the Western calendar and world, days begin with sunrise and end at sunset and night is somehow this dark, disconnected time. It’s a realm belonging not really to one day, but also not really to the next. It’s always difficult to tell within the night where the demarcation actually happens between calendar days, but functionally, it’s a no-man’s land in time. Everything important happens during the day, for the most part. Night is for staying in and sleeping or going out and causing trouble and there is this idea that light is always preferable to darkness. Night is the time of nightmares, monsters, and death.
In Judaism, this is flipped on its head.
Day begins with the setting of the sun and the darkness that comes with night and that darkness is embraced as an essential part, not of the day that just passed, but of the one to come. There must be darkness before there is light, it is the womb in which potential is incubated until it is ready to see the world. The halakhic basis of this is in the very beginning of the Torah. G-d says, “Let there be light!” This has to mean that there was not light before those words were spoken on the very first day, which the Torah then says is completed when the sun sets. The night is that space before light, before creation in which the Creator paused, pondered, made a decision, and then created.
This all fits very neatly with the Jewish idea that not everything important can be easily seen in the light of day. Some things, particularly very holy things, are separated and set aside, kept hidden. It’s in dark hidden places that the potency of the sacred is concentrated and intensified, whether it’s the sacredness of physical intimacy or the rules around when a Torah scroll can be brought forth from the ark. Judaism is a religion of holding back things from the mundane, like withholding time from the work week, setting it aside for a sacred day of rest or separating a bit of dough to take Challah.
Baked into Judiasm there is the idea that not everything is for everyone and not everything is for all times and places as well as the idea that the secrets the darkness holds aren’t always malicious. They can be miraculous or even just not quite ready to face the world.
We live in a world addicted to the light to such an extent we have something called “light polution” in our major metropolitan areas. It’s a necessity for safety for sure, but it says a lot about how far we have yet to perfect ourselves that we still aren’t safe in the dark and that we still try to push away the night into dark corners. We also live in a society where everything is for everyone, any time they like, living our lives bathed in a narcissistic glow. We’ve forgotten that to really see stars, we need to get out to where it is really dark, not stare into the glow of a screen.
In Alaska, which is always a land of extremes, we are quickly in the time of year when darkness becomes scarce which has given me a new appreciation for night, real night, where the sun does set before you sleep and doesn’t rise long before you’ve woken. Without darkness at night, humans struggle to regulate our internal clocks. It’s easy to forget to eat on time or to go to sleep because your body begins to doubt its feelings. Many people suffer from sleep deprivation in the endless days. Everyone feels the need to fill those hours of sunshine, doing as much as possible to make up for the long nights of winter that barely allow an hour of sunshine to weakly peek through.
In a way, our summers are a microcosm of modern life, even as we rush out into our outdoor pursuits. Everyone is always on the go. Plants grow really fast because they get more hours of sun. Time flies by in a flurry of activity and we wonder why we’re so tired until we look at the clock. And everything is done outside, without the embrace of privacy. At least we have fewer people up here to watch us rushing around.
Night comes before day and is a powerful reminder of the importance of the darkness. It came first and it comes first, reminding us that rest is also important, that sharing is good, but privacy also has a place, and that sometimes, it’s good to be hidden because that is where, once your eyes adjust, you can really feel the awe of the size your small precious place in creation.
I hope everyone else has a wonderful Shabbat! I am hoping to stay awake a bit later and look up more before the sun steals our nights away for summer.