It’s About Time

Quiz Question #1: Whose bris is first?

Mrs. Unger* gave birth to two healthy twin boys, both of whom had their brissin on the first day that halacha mandates, yet the younger Unger had his bris several days earlier than his older brother. How can this happen?

Question #2: Isn’t he too late?

I have often wondered why my chassidishe brother-in-law davens mincha after sunset, when the Mishnah Berurah rules that one should not daven this late!

Question #3: Frum receptionist

“My sister and I live in the same yishuv (community), and the nearest hospital is Laniado, in Netanya. She went into labor on Shabbos and left for the hospital. Immediately after Shabbos, I phoned the hospital to find out how she was and if she had a boy or a girl, and was told by the gentile receptionist that she could not put the call through until after ‘Rabbeinu Tam’ time arrives, which would not be for another half an hour. Why was the non-Jewish receptionist so frum?”

What does our parsha have to do with time?

This week’s parsha includes the mitzvah of establishing the Jewish calendar, providing an excellent opportunity to discuss what to do when there is an uncertainty what day it is.

Bein Hashemashos

As we know, observing bris milah overrides even Shabbos. However, this is so only for a bris bizmanah; that is, a bris that transpires on the eighth day of the child’s life, but not a bris that is delayed. A bris that is delayed should take place at the earliest opportunity that halacha allows, but not on Shabbos or Yom Tov (see Shu’t Dvar Avraham 1:33; 2:1-3). One reason why a bris may be delayed is because of a medical concern, a topic we will leave for a future article. Another common reason why a bris is delayed: The baby was born during bein hashemashos, a halachic “twilight zone,” a time when we are unsure if it is already Shabbos or not, since we are uncertain whether this period of time belongs to the previous day or the next.

The Mishnah (Shabbos 137a) addresses this issue:

A child is circumcised on the eighth, ninth, tenth, eleventh, or twelfth – no earlier and no later. How can this be? The normal circumstance is the bris is on the eighth. If he is born during halachic twilight (bein hashemashos), his bris is on the ninth. If [he is born]on Friday’s twilight, he is circumcised on the tenth [that is, Sunday]. If Yom Tov falls on Sunday, he is circumcised on the eleventh [Monday]. If Rosh Hashanah falls on Sunday and Monday, then he is circumcised on the twelfth [day after birth, which is Tuesday].”

We see that the only time we perform the bris on Shabbos is when we are certain that the baby was born on Shabbos. If a baby was born during bein hashemashos on Friday evening, then he was born at a time that we are uncertain whether it is still considered Friday or it is already Shabbos. As the Gemara (Shabbos 34b) expresses it: We are uncertain whether bein hashemashos is day or night… and we treat it strictly regarding both days. Therefore, when a baby is born during bein hashemashos on Friday evening, we cannot perform the bris on Friday, because maybe the baby was born on Shabbos, and Friday is only the seventh day, too early to perform the bris. We cannot perform the bris on Shabbos, either, because maybe the baby was born on Friday, and Shabbos is the ninth day, not the eighth, and only a bris bizmanah, a bris performed on the eighth day, supersedes Shabbos. Since there is no choice, we are forced to postpone the bris to Sunday, as the first available opportunity. However, if a Yom Tov falls on that Sunday, the bris cannot take place on that day, either, since only a bris bizmanah supersedes Yom Tov, and not a bris that is postponed to a time after the eighth day. As a result, the earliest day to perform this bris is Monday.

Rosh Hashanah Starting on Sunday?!

Continuing the explanation of the Mishnah: If Rosh Hashanah falls on Sunday and Monday, then he is circumcised on the twelfth. If the baby was born during bein hashemashos of the Friday evening ten days before Rosh Hashanah, and the two days of Rosh Hashanah fall on Sunday and Monday, then the bris is postponed until Tuesday the day after Rosh Hashanah, which is the twelfth day from the Friday on which the baby was born.

But one minute: the first day of Rosh Hashanah cannot fall on Sunday! How does the Mishnah say differently?

Although our calendar is set up such that Rosh Hashanah cannot fall on Sunday, so that Hoshanah Rabbah does not fall on Shabbos and thus does not jeopardize observance of Hoshanos, at the time of the Mishnah, Rosh Hashanah could and did sometimes transpire on Sunday. When Rosh Chodesh and Rosh Hashanah were determined by the testimony of witnesses who observed the new moon (Rambam, Hilchos Kiddush HaChodesh 1:1, 7; 5:1), it was halachically more important to have Rosh Hashanah fall on its more correct day than to be concerned about having Hoshana Rabbah fall on Shabbos (Ha’emek She’ailah 67:22; Gri’z, Hilchos Kiddush Hachodesh). Only once it became impossible to declare Rosh Chodesh on the basis of observation, and Hillel Hanasi created a permanent calendar, did he include some innovations, including making certain that Hoshanah Rabbah does not fall on Shabbos, by making sure that the first day of Rosh Hashanah does not fall on Sunday (Rambam, Hilchos Kiddush Hachodesh 5:2). (There is an alternative approach, that of Rav Saadiya Geon and Rabbeinu Chananel, to explain this subject, which will be left for another time.)

Why Did the Younger Baby have an Earlier Bris?

At this point, we already have enough information to answer Quiz Question #1 above: Why would a younger twin have his bris earlier than his healthy, older brother? The answer is that the older twin was born during bein hashemashos on Friday evening — at a time that we are uncertain whether he was born on Friday or on Shabbos. Because of this uncertainty, we cannot perform his bris on either Friday or Shabbos, as explained above, and his bris is postponed to Sunday. However, his younger brother was born at a time that is certainly Shabbos, and therefore his bris takes place on Shabbos.

When is Twilight?

This explains the fundamental principles, but still leaves a basic question: When is bein hashemashos?

Answering this question requires delving into the following issue: We all are aware that the Jewish date begins at the beginning of the night. But at what exact moment does one day end and another begin? Do we know the precise instant when one day marches off into history, and its successor arrives with its banner unfurled?

A verse in the book of Nechemiah might help resolve this question. There, it describes the unenviable circumstances in which the Jews were rebuilding the Second Beis Hamikdash, while protecting themselves from the enemies determined to thwart its erection: And we were continuing the construction work from daybreak until the stars come out [tzeis hakochavim], while half our men were holding spears… and at night we were on guard, while in the day we could proceed with the work (Nechemiah 4:15-16). Nechemiah implies that “night” begins from when the stars emerge. The time of dusk, before the stars are visible, is still considered the previous day (see Berachos 2b; Megillah 20b).

However, we still need more definition. Which stars? Can we pinpoint the moment that the stars come out since the stars of the firmament do not all become visible at the same time?

Additional confusion is caused by a different verse that implies that the day ends when the sun sets, as the Torah (Vayikra 22:7) proclaims: And when the sun sets, he shall become pure, stating that the final stage of purification from some types of tumah is the sunset after immersion in a mikveh. However, at sunset, no stars are yet visible, and the halacha is that this taharah transpires at nightfall, implying that the changing of the day transpires at sunset, not when the stars appear (see Berachos 2b).

What a Phenomenal Dusk!

Is there any discussion in the Gemara that can “shed light” on our question? Indeed, there are several passages, and much literature is devoted to understanding them. One passage (Shabbos 34b) describes certain celestial phenomena that define when bein hashemashos begins and when it ends. The commentaries debate exactly what occurrences are being described, and, unfortunately we derive little usable information from this passage.

When Three Stars Appear

Another passage indicates that the end of the day is determined by the appearance of stars. When one star appears, it is still day. When two appear, it is bein hashemashos, and when three appear, it is night. Not large stars that appear even in the day, and not small stars that appear even at night, but middle-sized stars (Shabbos 35b).

Now the job appears easy. Let us look at the darkening firmament this coming evening and count stars!

I am sure at times you have tried. Ever spent Shabbos on a camping trip and attempted to determine the end of Shabbos by stargazing? How did you decide which stars are considered “small,” “large” and “middle-sized”? And this is assuming that one does not need to deal with light pollution!

Perhaps locating a Gemara discussion that indicates more objective criteria, such as units of time, can be more helpful in our search to determine the end of day. Does such a discussion exist in the Gemara?

Yes, it does — and not only one passage, but two. However, the two passages appear contradictory.

Conflicting Gemara Passages

The Gemara in Pesachim (94a) states that the time between shekiyah, a word usually translated as sunset, and tzeis hakochavim equals four mil, which we will assume is 72 minutes. (This concurs with the more obvious way of explaining the opinion of the Terumas Hadeshen [#123] and the Shulchan Aruch [Orach Chayim 459:2; Yoreh Deah 69:6 with Shach] that a mil, used as a unit of time, equals 18 minutes.) However, a different passage of Gemara (Shabbos 34b) quotes a dispute between Rabbah, who states that nightfall occurs three-quarters of a mil, or 13½ minutes, after shekiyah, and Rabbi Yosef, who rules that it transpires a bit earlier, two-thirds of a mil, or 12 minutes, after shekiyah. Obviously, we need to explain why one Gemara states that nightfall occurs 72 minutes after shekiyah, and another states that it occurs only 12 or 13½ minutes after shekiyah!

Rabbeinu Tam’s Explanation

Among the many resolutions to this conundrum, the two most commonly quoted are those of Rabbeinu Tam and that of the Gra. Rabbeinu Tam contends that these two passages of Gemara are using the word “shekiyah” to refer to two different phenomena which occur about an hour apart. The Gemara in Pesachim uses the term shekiyah to mean sunset — when the sun vanishes beyond the western horizon. Rabbeinu Tam refers to sunset as techilas shekiyah, literally the beginning of shekiyah. However, when the Gemara in Shabbos refers to “shekiyah,” it does not mean sunset, but a point in time about an hour later when virtually all light of the sun’s rays has disappeared from the western horizon. Rabbeinu Tam refers to this later time as sof shekiyah, literally the end of shekiyah, and in his opinion, until sof shekiyah occurs, halachah considers it definitely day, notwithstanding the setting of the sun and the appearance of hundreds of stars in the firmament. All these stars are considered “large stars,” whose appearance does not demonstrate that the day has ended. Only at sof shekiyah does it become bein hashemashos, the time when we are uncertain whether it is day or night. At sof shekiyah, bein hashemashos has begun, meaning that now there are two, but not three, visible “middle-sized” stars, and we await the appearance of the third “middle-sized” star to know that it is now definitely night. (However, cf. Minchas Kohen for a variant understanding of Rabbeinu Tam’s position.)

Since, according to Rabbeinu Tam, it is definitely still day until about an hour after sunset, there is no problem with davening mincha considerably after sunset. Thus, there are communities who base themselves on Rabbeinu Tam’s opinion and daven mincha well after sunset.

Rabbeinu Tam and a Friday Night Birth

According to Rabbeinu Tam, a baby born 58 minutes after sunset on Friday evening, and certainly any time earlier, was born halachically on Friday and not on Shabbos. In Rabbeinu Tam’s opinion, this baby’s bris takes place the following Friday. A baby making his appearance a bit later is considered to be born during bein hashemashos and cannot have his bris on Shabbos, because perhaps bein hashemashos is still Friday — which makes Shabbos his ninth day of life. This bris will be postponed to Sunday. However, if the baby is born a bit later on Friday evening, at a time when it is definitely Shabbos, then the bris is performed on Shabbos the next week.

It goes without saying that according to Rabbeinu Tam, one may not perform any melacha on Saturday night until a considerable time has passed after sunset. There are various opinions as to exactly when Shabbos is definitely over according to Rabbeinu Tam, but most people assume that Shabbos is over by 72 minutes after sunset (Biur Halacha).

By the way, at this point we can answer our third question above: why the telephone lines at Laniado Hospital are not open to non-pikuach nefesh related calls until more than a half hour later than the time Shabbos ends according to most calendars. The founder of the hospital, the Klausenberger Rebbe, insisted that Shabbos be observed at the hospital until the time at which Rabbeinu Tam would concur that Shabbos is over.

The opinion of the Gra

Since we know that many highly observant Jews do not wait this long for Shabbos to end, there must be another way of interpreting the two passages of Gemara that reaches a different halachic conclusion. Indeed, one such approach is that of the Gra, who presents a completely different approach to explain the seeming contradiction between the two passages of Gemara. He contends that both passages use shekiyah to mean sunset, and this is the same sunset to which we customarily refer — however, they are not referring to the same tzeis hakochavim. The Gemara in Pesachim that refers to tzeis hakochavim being 72 minutes after sunset means that all visible stars of the firmament can now be seen, a time that the Gra calls tzeis kol hakochavim, literally, when all the stars have come out, whereas the Gemara in Shabbos refers to the time at which three “middle-sized” stars are visible. The Gra concludes that sunset marks the beginning of bein hashemashos, the time when we are uncertain whether it is day or night, with tzeis hakochavim occurring when three “middle-sized” stars are visible. The Gemara in Pesachim that requires 72 minutes until the stars appear is not discussing when the day ends – the day ended much earlier — but was concerned about other laws that are affected by the appearance of a skyful of stars.

According to the Gra’s opinion, once sunset arrives on Friday, it may already be Shabbos, and we therefore refrain from performing any melacha from this time, and consider this time to be already bein hashemashos. In the Gra’s opinion, a baby born after sunset Friday will have his bris performed on Sunday nine days later unless he is born after three “middle-sized” stars appear, in which case his bris will be performed on Shabbos. (In practice, since we are uncertain exactly which stars are called “middle-sized,” we wait a bit longer, see Biur Halacha to 393) According to Rabbeinu Tam, this same baby would have his bris performed on Friday, unless he is born at least 58½ minutes after sunset. If he is born between 58½ minutes and 72 minutes after sunset Friday evening, according to the Gra, his bris is on Shabbos, whereas according to Rabbeinu Tam, his bris will be on Sunday. Both agree that a baby born later than this on Friday evening will have his bris performed on Shabbos.

Mincha tima!

At this point, let us refer to our other opening question: “I have often wondered why my chassidishe brother-in-law davens mincha after sunset, when the Mishnah Berurah rules that one should not daven this late!”

The Gra rules that one should not daven mincha after sunset, since this is already a time at which the previous day may have already passed. Thus, it is already time to daven maariv. However, according to Rabbeinu Tam, one may daven mincha lechatchilah until 58½ minutes after sunset.

How do we rule?

Although in the past there were Torah communities who did not follow the Gra at all, even regarding the onset of Shabbos, today it is universally accepted to consider it Shabbos from sunset on Friday. Many communities follow the Gra’s opinion fully, and do not wait until 72 minutes after sunset on Saturday to end Shabbos. In a responsum on the subject, Rav Moshe Feinstein took great umbrage to this approach, contending that since a large number of Rishonim followed Rabbeinu Tam’s approach, one should act stringently and not end Shabbos until after Rabbeinu Tam’s time is over (Shu’t Igros Moshe, Yoreh Deah 4:17:26). As in all areas of halacha, the reader is encouraged to discuss the shaylah with his or her mara de’asra for a final ruling.

*all names have been changed to protect privacy

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