Some days are disorienting and our timing is off, like the ones when the sun rises and immediately vanishes into grayness. Those are days like the ones we spend on planes—liminal days, if not performative ones, generally wasted. Steinbeck knew about this feeling, writing in “East of Eden,” “From nothing to nothing is no time at all… it is the dull eventless times that have no duration whatever.” These are the days that we just kind of survive, stumble through, and fuzzily adapt to, the days that we might eat breakfast at midnight, or die trying.
And we’ve been feeling that vibe in spades for the better part of a year. Since last year, when it rained just about every weekend from spring until fall, and including the flooding rains and snows of this winter, not only has our sump pump kicked into gear just about permanently, but day after day seems to pass under a drab curtain of charcoal in which the line between night and day, and night again, is ambiguous, at best.
Shocking no one, our tradition has something to say about the edges of darkness and light.
The Mishna famously begins with a discussion of when it is time to recite the morning Shema, with a consensus reached about it being when there is enough light to discern the difference between the white and blue (-ish) fringes of the tzitzit.
Which then begs the obvious question of how to know when it’s light enough to do so without the necessary ritual garment. But, fear not, we have been adequately prepared for such a contingency. Cue the Talmud (Berachot 9b:12):
Rabbi Meir says that the day begins when one can distinguish between two similar animals, e.g., a wolf and a dog.
Rabbi Akiva provides a different sign, and says that the day begins when there is sufficient light to distinguish between a donkey and a wild donkey.
And while I’m always here for donkeys ex machina, and especially wild donkey references, in these parts we generally don’t run into wolves and donkeys (especially wild ones) in our liminal predawn hours. Happily, we get a more relatable measurement mechanism as well.
And Aḥerim say: When one can see another person, who is merely an acquaintance from a distance of four cubits and recognize him.
Now while one cubit is not necessarily equal to another, we can reasonably peg it at around 21 inches, so four cubits…84 inches…seven feet…that feels like a good frame of reference as night fades to light and the world comes into focus. Of course I am now wondering at what distance one could safely observe the wolf/dog or donkey/wild donkey situation, but really, ein ladavar sof…there would be no end to that matter.
This being New England in winter, there’s no reason to believe that we will escape this dreary cycle anytime soon. Luckily, unless there’s a blackout, we won’t need to chase down any wolves or wild donkeys to help us keep track of sacred time.
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