Magical, mystical moments

My oldest daughter, Micole, was born on a Friday afternoon, long after candle lighting but before nightfall.

It was too far for me to walk home, but luckily my in-laws lived nearby (my father-in-law, R. Murry Penkower, was the rabbi of a synagogue near the hospital). I was therefore able to spend Shabbat with them, and Micole was privileged to have her grandfather preside over her Shabbat naming. (Yes, Sharon and I were that well prepared with the name.)

On the way to shul, my father-in-law told me something I hadn’t known. (Comments in quotes are paraphrased. My father-in-law certainly was more eloquent than I make him sound.) “If Sharon had given birth to a boy, the brit would have been on Sunday,” he told me. Seeing my perplexed face, he explained. “The baby was born bein hashmashot — at twilight — which is governed by special halachic rules. As you know, in Jewish law a day begins at night. However, we don’t know if twilight is connected to the previous day since it’s before nightfall (tzeit hakochavim) or to the next day since it’s after sunset (sheki’ah). So there couldn’t be a brit next Friday, because if twilight is connected to Shabbat, next Friday would be only seven — and not eight — days after birth.”

“So why couldn’t it take place next Shabbat, which would be either the eighth or ninth day?” I asked. “Because,” he answered, “the actual circumcision consists of an act that is usually prohibited on Shabbat. Halacha permits an exception, though, for a brit that takes place on the eighth day. But only the eight day. With a bein hashmashot birth, however, since there is uncertainty and it might be the ninth day, that exception doesn’t apply. Hence, a Sunday brit.” (This was all theoretical for Micole, of course, and we celebrated her birth and entering into our People’s covenant with God two weeks later at a glorious Simchat Bat ceremony. See, “An Orthodox Simchat Bat,” Sh’ma Magazine, 5/90, 3/21/75.)

Bein hashmashot is thus a liminal, transitional time, a time of uncertainty, with aspects of looking both forward and backward. As the Talmud (Shabbat 34b) teaches: “Twilight is a period of uncertainty. It is uncertain whether it consists of both day and night, it’s uncertain if it’s completely day, and it’s uncertain if it’s completely night. Therefore the Sages impose the stringencies of both time periods upon it.”

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik’s insight into this uncertainty, discussed in Shiurim LeZecher Avi Mori, sharpens our understanding of this strange time period. There, carefully analyzing the specific language used in the opening chapter of Genesis concerning day/light/sun and night/darkness/moon, the Rav taught that bein hashmashot contains aspects of both day and night — and of the preceding and the subsequent day — simultaneously. It’s not maybe this, maybe that. Rather, it moves beyond uncertainty to a unique time period in and of itself.

We can see touches of this uniqueness in the Mishna in Avot (5:6) that imbues the twilight period leading up to the very first Shabbat of creation with special, perhaps mystical, qualities. Thus, we are taught that 10 miraculous items — for example, the earth that swallowed Korach, the mouth of Bilaam’s donkey, the rainbow, the manna, Moses’s staff — all were created at this time. A time in its own category is thus set aside for the extraordinary and inexplicable. It’s also a time of great beauty, with light that’s at once sharp-edged and golden.

So bein hashmashot can be liminal, magical, unique, transitional, mystical, beautiful, uncertain — or all of them simultaneously. It’s a time to look back to contemplate regret and look forward to seizing opportunity. And each of us have such moments in our own lives.

For me, a major “between” period was six months in the 1980s when I was, as the expression goes, “between jobs.” My employer, J.C. Penney, had left New York City for what it thought to be, erroneously as it turned out, the greener pastures of Plano, Texas, and I had not been able to find a new job before Penney left. My job search continued to be a difficult one, until, through a combination of merit and good luck (and luck always plays a role in such matters), I finally was able to find a suitable position with a fine law firm.

During those tough six “between” months, in addition to my job search, I grappled with questions of possible regret. Had the law been the best career choice for me in the first place, and should I make a change now? Had my move to an in-house job rather than to a law firm seven years earlier been a wise one? Had I networked adequately once Penney announced its move? Should I have considered more seriously accepting Penney’s offer of a promotion and significant salary increase if I would have moved to Texas?

I don’t think I ever conclusively regretted any of the decisions I actually made, but I did seriously struggle with the possibility that I had chosen incorrectly. And the ambivalence I was left with taught me something about regret that is summed up in a quote that was just recently brought to my attention in a (Zoom) class with Dr. Erica Brown, one of the most perceptive and thoughtful educators and thinkers in my modern Orthodox community:

“I see it all perfectly; there are two possible situations — one can either do this or that. My honest opinion and friendly advice is this: do it or do not do it — you will regret both.” (Soren Kierkegaard, “Either/Or: A Fragment of Life” [1843].)

How true. We know the consequences of our actions, but we never can know the results of the paths not taken. Just think of the old Jewish joke about the immigrant who couldn’t get a job as a shamesh in a small shul on the Lower East Side because he couldn’t read or write English. So he became a peddler, with, it turned out, amazing entrepreneurial skills. One pushcart became three, and then a store, and on and on until he was a real estate magnate. At a closing, years later, when presented with a stack of papers requiring his signature, he started signing them with an “X.” When the young associate asked why he didn’t sign his name, he answered that he came to the country as an immigrant not knowing how to read or write English, and he never found the time to learn. The associate exclaimed: “You don’t know how to read or write English and you established a real estate empire. Just imagine what you would have become had you known how.” The man smiled wryly and said: “I can imagine. I’d be a shamesh in a Lower East Side shul.”

But as with many who ponder regret, I realized that transitional times often brim with opportunities, one of which I seized by renewing some relationships that had lapsed. And while I ended up in a job similar to my very first legal one, I also thought a lot about and searched for other types of legal — and non-legal — positions that I had never considered before. It opened my eyes to broader possibilities, both professional and not, that had not been in my purview, changed some personal perceptions of my profession, and impelled me to devote more time to writing outside my legal practice.

And as I write this column, I find myself living in a different kind of bein hashmashot — the few weeks between receiving my first covid vaccine and my second. Indeed, as vaccinations increase and some light is beginning to peek through the clouds, the world is experiencing such a transitional period. It’s therefore a most appropriate time for both looking back at this sui generis past year while also imagining the approaching normal world we’ll hopefully be living in soon (with soon being a relative term).

My sense of sorrow over putting some ambitious travel plans on hold, as well as the inability to travel to Toronto to hug our Canadian grandchildren (and, yes, their parents too), are not feelings of regret. Ein breira. There was no choice. But there are tinges of regret about my use of time. Too much Facebook and not enough getting in touch with those not blessed, as I am, with sufficient social interactions with family and friends? Too much binge-watching Netflix and Amazon Prime and not enough organizing my files strewn around the house? Too much taking advantage of not going to shul Shabbat morning and not enough Torah study or making a bigger dent in my ever-growing pile of Jewish articles? As a retired lawyer living on the same fixed income as before, with a loving spouse (when the pandemic doesn’t cause us to get on each other’s nerves a bit too much) in a large house with no kids Zooming to school, I understand the special privileged category I fall into. But I’m uneasy that this cocoon shielded me excessively from the suffering that others around me were enduring.

There’s another side, though; a wish that we will take some of the opportunities nestled in these past months and continue to apply them as we move forward. I hope that when starting up live classes again we make sure that they will be open virtually, as they are during the pandemic, to the homebound, to those too distant to attend live, to those still at work who would love to participate by watching a video. I have similar hopes about our smachot and, lehavdil, to those moments of sorrow when the virtual presence of far-flung family and friends can, as we have learned over this difficult year, also be warmly comforting. Many have also seized opportunities of chesed, and I pray more of us will do so as our communities become pandemic-free.

Our Jewish weekdays come to an end with the lighting of the Shabbat candles, and a bit later kiddush ushers in the Shabbat. And in between, there are those mystical, magical moments of bein hashmashot, its own singular period of time that can teach us about transition, about uncertainty, about change, about the extraordinary, about regret, and about opportunity — if only we will let it.

About the Author
Joseph C. Kaplan, a regular columnist for the Jewish Standard, is a long-time resident of Teaneck. His work has also appeared in various publications including Sh’ma magazine, The New York Jewish Week, The Baltimore Jewish Times, and, as letters to the editor, The New York Times.
Related Topics
Related Posts