Thursday, December 8, 2016
The Ancient Jewish Hour – Part I
The word “hour” is mentioned eight times in the Book of Mormon: 1) Nephi traveled many hours in a vision (1 Nephi 8:8); 2) “And the king answered him not for the space of an hour, according to their time, for he knew not what he should say unto him” (Alma 18:14), 3) Samuel the Lamanite mentioned “for the space of many hours…” (Helaman 14:21); 4) God said to Samuel “there should be thunderings and lightnings for the space of many hours” (Helaman 14:26); 5) it was for the space of three hours (3 Nephi 8:19, mentioned twice); 6) there was silence for many hours (3 Nephi 10:1,2, mentioned twice).
In no case do we have an explanation of the length of that hour, or the division of how many hours in a day the Nephites had; however, in the Bible, we know more: Jesus answered, “Are there not 12 hours in a day?” (John 11:9). This is understood to mean the working day, i.e., from sunrise to sunset. We learn that “The householder went out "early in the morning" to hire laborers to work in his vineyard; and he also went out "about the third hour," "about the sixth and ninth hour," and "about the eleventh hour," to hire more workers. And "when even was come," he paid them their wages” (Matthew 20:1-12). Evidently, the period of darkness, from sunset to sunrise was not considered the “working day,” but night time.
The Ancient Egyptians were one of the first cultures to widely divide days into generally agreed-upon equal parts, using early timekeeping devices such as sundials, shadow clocks, merkhets, obelisks, allowing citizens to easily divide the day into two parts, and then into smaller hours.
As early as 4241 B.C., the Egyptians had created a calendar made up of 12 months of 30 days, plus five extra days at the end of the yer. This 365-day calendar was amazingly accurate, however, since the actual solar year is 365.2424 days long, this ancient Egyptian calendar was not perfect. Over time, seasons would gradually shift through all twelve months, making it through the entire year in 1,460 years.
Despite Herodotus’ attribution of the invention of the sundial to the Babylonians in 430 B.C., the earliest known sundials were simple gnomons (the part of a sundial that casts a shadow) of Egyptian origin invented around 3500 B.C. More complex devices were developed over time, the earliest surviving one is a limestone sundial that dates back to 1500 B.C., discovered in the Valley of the Kings in 2013. It divided daytime into 12 parts and was used to measure work hours. Shadow clocks were modified sundials that allowed for greater precision in determining the time of day, and were first used around 1500 B.C. Their major innovation was a modified, more precise gnomon that allowed for the division of night time into 50 parts, with an additional two “twilight” hours" in the morning and evening.
The shadow clock gnomon was made up of a long stem divided into six parts, as well as an elevated crossbar that cast a shadow over the marks. This early clock was positioned eastward in the morning, while at noon it was rotated to face west to measure shadows cast by the setting sun.
Using plumb-lines called “merkhets,” the Egyptians could calculate time at night since at least 600 B.C., provided the stars were visible, with two of these early instruments aligned with Polaris, the North pole star, creating a north-south meridian. By observing certain stars as they crossed the line created with the merkhets, they could accurately gauge time.
While we have no scriptural evidence of this, it is possible the Nephites had one of these Egyptian sundials, or made it themselves being familiar with the concept. We do know that there were ancient Observatories built during Nephite times in the Americas, particularly in Central and South America.
Among the ancient Jews, it should be noted that in some cases the “day” began from dawn ("alot hashachar") until three stars appeared in the sky ("tzeit hakochavim")—but this might simply be a confusion that, under Torah Law, all feasts begin at dawn, thus the “feast day” begins at alot hakochavim, or dawn, as do all mitzvot associated with daytime hours—such as hearing the shofar on Rosh Hashanah, taking the Four Species on Sukkot, the daily morning recitation of the Shema, or hearing the Megillah on Purim.
The more popular view and undoubtedly the more authentic was that the Jewish day began at sundown (nightfall) while the secular (Roman) day began at midnight. As to when sundown begins, we might take a look at when sunrise begins. Misheyakir, the earliest time for tallit and tefillin, is the time when there is enough light so that one can recognize a casual acquaintance from the distance of four cubits (six feet). Though it is not stated, perhaps the time of sunset is when one cannot distinguish a casual acquaintance from the distance of four cubits; however, specifically, sehkiah, or sunset, is the moment when the top edge of the sun’s disk disappears from view at sea level.
At the same time, there is the Bein Hashmashot, or twilight, which is important for some matters and is the time between sundown and nightfall, which is considered a safek yom safek laylah, a doubt whether it is still part of the daytime or the coming nighttime.
There is also Tzeit Hakochavim, or nightfall, which is the point when three medium stars are observable in the night time sky with the naked eye.
The reason the Jewish day does not begin and end at midnight as does the secular calendar day, is because in the biblical period of the Old Testament, midnight was not a distinguishable astronomic event. In the era before the modern clock, a specific hour of the night could not be precisely known, whereas an hour of the day was easily determined by sighting the location of the sun. Thus, the day had to begin by precise, simple and universally recognized standards. This meant that the day had to be reckoned either from the beginning of night or the beginning of day.
So the Jewish daytime was divided into 12 seasonal hours, but while Babylonian hours divide the day and night into 24 equal hours, reckoned from the time of sunrise, the Jews division of hours was focused on the schedule of the Tamid sacrifice. (Since there is the approximate six hour lag, technically every secular day corresponds to two Jewish days).
When calculating nighttime hours, the Jewish practice was to divide the time from nightfall to dawn into 12 parts. And when they calculate the daytime hours, they do so by dividing the daylight into 12 parts. This means that most times of the years the day hours and night hours are different lengths. Defined, the Jewish “hour” (halachah hour) was one-twelfth of the day, or period between sunrise and sunset, called a proportional hour (sha’ah zemanit). Thus, day hours were always longer than nighttime hours in the summer, and shorter in the winter.
Thus, an hour in the Jewish halacha (the collective body of Jewish religious laws derived from the Written and Oral Torah) is arrived at by taking the total time of daylight of a particular day, from sunrise until sunset and dividing it into twelve equal parts. It should be kept in mind that many observances in Jewish law are performed at specific times during the day, so the calculation of these halachic times, known as zmanim (Hebrew for “times”), depends on the various astronomical phenomena of the day for the specific locale. Sunrise, sunset, the amount of time between them, and the sun’s angular position before rising are all factors that determine the halachic times and “hours” of the day.
Thus, a halachic hour is known as a sha’ah zemanit, or proportional hour, and varies by the season and even by the day. For example, on a day when the sun rises at 5 a.m. and sets at 7:30 p.m., one sha'ah zemanit, or proportional hour, will be 72.5 minutes long. The third hour of the day will come to a close at 8:37:30 a.m. The calculation of these halachic times, known as zmanim ("times"), depends on the length of the daylight hours in that locale. These variable-length hours were variously known as temporal, unequal, or seasonal hours and were in use until the appearance of the mechanical clock, which furthered the adoption of equal length hours.
(See the next post, “The Ancient Jewish Hour – Part II,” for more information on the Jewish hour and what hour the Nephites probably used)