Shmuel Goldin
Rabbi, Educator, Author

Beginning early and ending late: The power of uncertainty

Did you ever ask yourselves the questions: Why do we start Shabbat early, and end Shabbat late? Why do we begin Shabbat shortly before sunset, yet end the day shortly after nightfall?

The answers to these questions will take us into a fascinating halachic realm and provide some life lessons in the bargain….

A period of uncertainty is built into each day of the Jewish calendar. This period rises out of a fundamental calendar fact: The Jewish day begins at night.

Day’s “nightly beginning” finds its roots in the Torah’s narrative of creation, where the text closes its description of each creational day with the declaration, “And it was evening and it was morning, [fill in the day].” Recognizing that every word of God’s law is deliberately chosen and placed, the rabbis determine that from a divine perspective, evening precedes morning. Each day, therefore, starts at night. Simple enough, it would seem.

The rabbis, however, find themselves facing a quandary. When exactly, they ask, does night arrive and the next day begin? Does the Jewish day begin at sunset or nightfall? This question is never answered conclusively.

As a result, a unique daily period emerges, the interval between sunset and nightfall. It’s called bein ha’shemashot — between the suns. It’s dusk, the time when it is no longer clearly day but not yet clearly night.

In the words of the rabbis, bein ha’shemashot “is safek yom, safek layla, a period of time that could possibly be day and could possibly be night.” This is a period of uncertainty; we are not sure if the moments of bein ha’shemashot belong to the end of the departing day or to the beginning of the next one.

From a halachic perspective, the existence of bein ha’shemashot is nothing short of astounding. Jewish law is always precise when it comes to timebound issues. Times are pinpointed to the minute. Examples abound: The last time to recite Kriat Shma is 9:22; Shacharit must be concluded by 10:46; chametz must be destroyed by 11:21, etc. Given the usual exactitude of halacha concerning matters of time, why are the rabbis content leaving the definition of bein ha’shemashot uncertain?

This issue has practical implications. The very existence of bein ha’shemashot creates halachic difficulties. Our oldest child, Avi, for example, was born more than 40 years ago, on Friday night during bein ha’shemashot. The problem facing us was obvious. When was he actually born, on Friday or on Shabbat? We could not conduct his brit mila the next Friday, because he actually might have been born on Shabbat. If so, Friday would have been the seventh day since his birth, a day too early for a brit mila. We also could not conduct his brit mila the next Shabbat, because he actually might have been born on Friday. If so, a Shabbat brit would be prohibited, because only a baby definitely born on Shabbat can have a Shabbat brit mila. We were forced to push the brit to Sunday, the 9th or 10th day after his birth.

Wouldn’t it have been easier just to make up our minds concerning bein ha’shemashot?

And yet, perhaps we are approaching this issue incorrectly. Perhaps bein ha’shemashot is not the product of indecision but of deliberate decision. Bein ha’shemashot exists because Jewish tradition consciously wants to build a period of uncertainty into each of our days.

In a world where we are driven to be certain; to solve all mysteries, to predict everything from the stock market to the weather, to forecast and control the future, to cure all illness, and more, how important it is for us to recognize that full certainty in our lives always will be elusive. God is the ultimate arbiter of our existence. Only God truly knows what tomorrow will bring. Our tradition therefore insists on the existence of bein ha’shemashot.

Part of each day must be left uncertain, to serve as a daily built-in reminder of our inability to achieve full certainty, no matter how advanced, knowledgeable, and sophisticated we might become.

How clearly this message of bein ha’shemashot has been delivered to us today, in the face of the covid-19 pandemic. Carefully laid personal plans have been upended, businesses closed, travel suspended, weddings and other major events cancelled or modified dramatically. In spite of our technological prowess, we have been laid low by a microscopic virus, suddenly finding ourselves in a world that we scarcely could have imagined a few months ago. Never, in our personal experience, has life felt so uncertain.

But we need, I believe, to go one step further. The message of bein ha’shemashot strikes an even deeper chord. Life’s uncertainty is not a necessary evil but a necessary good.

The existence of uncertainty serves as the true engine of human achievement. If all were certain, there would be no need to strive. It is precisely because we don’t know what the future will bring, because we don’t know the obstacles we might face or the full extent of the heights to which we might aspire, that we are pushed to move forward and accomplish. Bein ha’shemashot is woven into the fabric of our days to sensitize us to the important, positive role that uncertainty plays in our lives. We ultimately will be judged not by how we act when times are clear, but by how we respond when faced with life’s bein ha’shemashot.

Returning to the world of practicality, however, we have not yet addressed the question with which we began: Why do we start Shabbat early and end Shabbat late?
To answer this question, we must factor in one other halachic construct. How does Jewish law deal with uncertainty? What happens when we are confronted with a phenomenon such as bein ha’shemashot at the beginning and end of the Shabbat day?

Here, halacha provides clear direction. The practical rule established by the rabbis is: Safek d’oraita l’chumra; safek d’rabbanan l’kula. Uncertain matters of biblical law are determined stringently; uncertain matters of rabbinic law are determined leniently.

We now can understand why Shabbat begins early but ends late.

When we encounter the uncertain period of bein ha’shemashot on Friday evening, we encounter a problem of Torah law. How is this period to be defined? Is it part of Friday or part of Shabbat? Since the observance of Shabbat is biblically ordained, we must rule stringently. We are forced to define the interval between sunset and nightfall on Friday night as Shabbat, as the beginning of the arriving day.

When again we encounter the uncertain period of bein ha’shemashot on Saturday evening, we return to an issue of uncertainty and biblical law. Is this interval to be viewed as the end of Shabbat or as the beginning of Sunday? True to our halachic principles, once again we must rule stringently and define bein ha’shemashot as part of the departing day, Shabbat.

Clearly, this second halachic conclusion contradicts the first. On Friday evening we define bein ha’shemashot as the beginning of Shabbat, the arriving day, while on Saturday we consider this period to be the end of Shabbat, the departing day.
Nonetheless, in spite of this inherent contradiction, the ruling stands. We consider each encounter with bein ha’shemashot independently. In each case we act in accordance with halachic principle that requires a stringent ruling when dealing with safek, uncertainty, concerning biblical law, Shabbat thus will begin shortly before sunset, but end shortly after nightfall. (We actually add a few moments more at each end, so that we fulfill the additional mandate of adding from the secular to the sacred.)

The important lessons of bein ha’shemashot must be preserved.

About the Author
Rabbi Shmuel Goldin is Rabbi Emeritus of Congregation Ahavath Torah in Englewood NJ where he served as Senior Rabbi for over three decades. He is past president of the Rabbinical Council of America and the author of a 5 volume set on the Torah, “Unlocking the Torah Text” and "Unlocking the Haggada." During his tenure as Senior Rabbi he led numerous missions to Israel, particularly during difficult times such as the two Intifadas, the Iraqi Gulf War, Operation Cast Lead, Operation Pillar of Fire and Operation Protective Edge. Rabbi Goldin made Aliyah to Israel with his wife, Barbara, in 2017 and currently lives in Jerusalem. He continues to lecture, teach and write in a variety of settings throughout the world.
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