“It was a night of watching by the Eternal One, to bring them out of the land of Egypt; so this same night is a night of watching kept to the Eternal One by all the people of Israel, throughout their generations.” (Exodus 12:42)
“And it came to pass, that at midnight the Lord smote all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh that sat on his throne unto the firstborn of the captive that was in the dungeon; and all the firstborn of cattle.” (Exodus 12:29)
“Pharaoh called to Moses and Aaron at night and said, ‘Up! Leave my people, you and the children of Israel!” (Exodus 12:31)
According to tradition, the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt began at midnight. A liturgical composition from Late Antiquity, which at some tables is the first of the songs sung at the conclusion of the Passover Seder, begins, “And so it was, at the half-point of the night; many miracles You wrought wondrously in the night, at the starts of the watches of this night.”
Today, we might set an alarm clock. But think of it – in ancient times, absent a miracle to mark the hour, how would one have known that it was midnight?
“At midnight, I rise to praise You,” says a Psalm (119:62) attributed to King David. And the Babylonian Talmud (Berakhot 3b-4a), muses:
But did David know the exact time of midnight?
Even our teacher Moses did not know it!
For it is written:
“About midnight I will go out into the midst of Egypt” (Exodus 11:4)
Why ‘about midnight?’
Shall we say that the Holy One, blessed be He, said to him:
Can there be any doubt in the mind of God?
Hence we must say that God told him 'at midnight,’
and Moses came to the people and said: 'About midnight.’
Hence we see that Moses was in doubt as to the moment of midnight;
can David then have known it?
The Talmudic discussion goes on to imagine that at the precise moment of midnight, every night, a north wind would blow through the window of David’s bed chamber, stirring the strings of the lyre he kept above his bed, rousing the poetic king to rise and compose his psalms.
It is not just in our Jewish tradition that the thought of midnight evokes a special wonderment.
Midden in de winternacht, ging de himel open
Die ons heil der wereld bracht, antwoord op ons hopen
There, too, in that Dutch carol for Christmas, in the darkest time of the year, something miraculous happens just at the darkest middle-moment of the night.
Eventually, throughout the ancient Roman empire, carefully calibrated water-clocks were devised, as complements to daytime sundials, to divide the dark hours into night-watches of specific length. So, beyond such poetically named periods as diluculum – “decline of the day” – and conticuum – “hush of the night” – media noctis became a knowable time.
Talmudic tradition divides the night into watches as well, not mechanically demarcated, but more naturally:
First watch: a donkey brays;
Second watch: dogs bark;
Third watch: an infant nurses at its mother’s breast, and a woman speaks softly with her husband.
Perhaps she is telling him her dreams.
In something of a present-day urban equivalent, Dire Straits’ lead singer, Mark Knopfler, sets a scene in a vividly particular part of the night like this:
All the late night bargains have been struck
Between the satin beaus and their belles
And prehistoric garbage trucks
Have the city to themselves
Today we are likely to plug in a smartphone by the bed, so that not only the exact and precise hours of the night, but all the distractions of the day as well can be present in our bedrooms, just a fretful reach and click away.
Getting up on time is all very well. The Talmud’s discussion of night watches, after all, comes amid an endeavor of specifying the correct and particular times for thrice-daily prayer. In that regard, we have long been a people of punctuality, the vagaries of so called ‘Jewish time’ notwithstanding. Whether it be marked by a rooster or by an alarm clock, there is a proper place in our lives, and even in our spirituality, for an ending of the night.
But, while it lasts, perhaps we should let the night be the night, attune ourselves to its gentler rhythms and more softly demarcated moments. And perhaps, when we do, we may discover, in those less tyrannical hours of the night, in their signs and subtlety, some hints of the miraculous.