Shabbat and the Stars

July 27, 2018

Shabbat, of course begins on Friday night at sunset, but when does it end? The Rabbis were very clear that the Sabbath ends on Saturday night . . . night being defined as “b’tzeit hacochavim” (when the stars come out). Since Shabbat begins at sunset, even though there might be a little light, and ends when it’s dark, therefore, Shabbat is a day that is 25 hours long! The Shulchan Aruch, the code of Jewish law, further qualifies the definition of night that ends the Sabbath: it is officially night and the end of the Sabbath when you can see 3 stars in the sky, and there’s no red glow in the sky leftover from the sunset.

So what about planets? Do they count as stars for the purpose of defining night? Yes! In fact, in the ancient world, planets were considered stars, even though we know today that their light is reflected light, while stars generate their own light. In Hebrew, they called planets “Kochavei Lechet” – Wandering Stars – because when planets seem to move across the sky like the stars they mostly move in the same direction as the stars, but sometimes they exhibit what the scientists call “retrograde motion:” sometimes planets seem to move backwards! (It has to do with the orbits of the planets and how we see them from earth against the backdrop of the stars.)

Perhaps one of the most beautiful descriptions of the darkening night is that of the Medieval Spanish poet Solomon ibn Gabirol. His lyrical poem describing the coming of night actually isn’t about the Shabbat or the end of Shabbat. Rather, he uses the increasing darkness to describe his despair at the death of his great patron Yekutiel ibn Hassan. Nevertheless, the poem is one of the great descriptions of sunset and nightfall.

See the sun redden in the evening

As if she had put on a scarlet robe.

She strips the north and south of color,

And the west she clothes in purple.

And the earth – she leaves it naked,

Cowering in the shadow of night.

The skies darken, dressed in black,

In mourning for Yekutiel.

                        Solomon ibn Gabirol (1021 – 1058)

So, on Saturday night, look at the heavens and think about how nature is intricately connected to Jewish Tradition.

Shabbat Shalom