It feels a bit cruel to be mentioning the day of rest on a Monday. But Jason DeRose just turned my attention to an excellent discussion on “Fresh Air” with writer Judith Shulevitz, whose new book is “The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time.”
I know without looking, though, that the room where the candles would be burning is having its last golden moment of the day, the sun having sunk low enough to gild the walls. The sun sets shortly thereafter and plunges the world inside my time zone into what Jewish tradition regards as a kind of temporal no-man’s-land. It’s neither the end of the sixth day nor the beginning of the seventh (the Jewish day beginning and ending at nightfall). It’s twilight. The rabbis, who mixed their prescriptions and proscriptions with legend, defined twilight as “from sunset as long as the face of the east has a reddish glow.” They also called the twilight before the Sabbath a witching hour. The story is told that on the very first Sabbath twilight God created ten magical objects that he would later use to make miracles: the rainbow that came after the flood to assure mankind that God wouldn’t destroy the world again; the staff with which Moses wrought the ten plagues; the mouth of the earth that opened up to swallow an Israelite who tried to launch a coup against Moses; and so on.
By the time I’m ready to enter the kitchen and start my Sabbath, the moment for miracles will have passed. So will my chance to cheat time. The rabbis were inflexible about punctuality. The Romans having leveled the Temple more than a century before the rabbis became the Jews’ highest religious authorities, the sages inherited an inoperative religion of space, and set about turning it into a religion of time. It’s no accident that in the very first passage of the Talmud, they try to determine the exact instant in the evening after which a Jew may say the Shema, the most important prayer in Judaism. To the rabbis, time is irreversible. Generally speaking, either you do things at the appointed time or you don’t do them at all.
Such is the magic of the twilight before the Sabbath, though, that for that moment the march of time pauses in mid-step.