Jerusalem by Night

By Rabbi J. Rolando Matalon | Issue Date: March 2012

Roly. Photo Credit: Yahel Matalon“From what time may we recite the Shema in the evening?” (Berachot 2a) These are the opening words of Talmud, and the rabbis usher us into a discussion about the experiences of evening and night. With exquisite sensitivity, the rabbis guide us through evening and night and call our attention to the light changes, to human concerns at the day’s end, to the night’s divisions, to its noises and its music, its dangers and its potential.

Why does the entire Talmud begin with the evening, when most human beings return home from their daily activities and get ready to get some rest and go to sleep, as opposed to the morning when we begin a new day? How is time established, does nature establish it or do humans? What is the night for? What scares us at night? What does it open up for us? What does night represent? What is the relationship between night and prayer? Between night and study?

I had the privilege to explore these and many other questions during my three-month sabbatical in Jerusalem at Beit Midrash Elul with a group of about 25 people: academics, artists, businesspeople, educators, observant and non-observant, a few with advanced degrees in Talmud, others who are encountering the Talmud for the first time. Besides the many insights I have gained and the sheer pleasure of learning Talmud with such a fascinating group, this study has given me a new appreciation for nighttime.

During my time in Jerusalem, I rented a small apartment in the neighborhood of Nachlaot, which was established toward the end of the 19th century and where Jews arriving from Iraq, Kurdistan, Iran, Turkey, and Syria in the following decades made their residence. Right next to the colorful Machane Yehuda open market, Nachlaot is a charming neighborhood of narrow streets and alleys, old houses interspersed with a few modern buildings. Nachlaot contains a huge number of little synagogues, and it has been an incredible experience to pray there and discover the variety of customs and musical traditions. Every Shabbat I would get up at 2:45AM and walk the narrow streets of Nachlaot in order to attend the singing of bakashot. During the winter months, a crowd of about 120 people, ranging in age from 8 to 80, gathers at the Ades synagogue in Nachlaot on Shabbat at 3:00AM in order to sing a collection of 64 devotional poems, written over a span of 1,000 years, known as bakashot (petitionary poems or poems of supplication; le-bakesh—to ask, to request, to petition). The practice of Jewish devotional singing at night was quite prevalent in pre-expulsion Spain, and it was strengthened by the 16th-century kabbalists of Safed. It has been perpetuated until today by some communities, such as the Jews of Aleppo. For four hours, ending at 7:00AM when the time for Shaharit arrives, the singing goes through the variety of middle-eastern musical modes, with each side of the congregation alternating in call and response, interspersed with short improvisations by expert hazzanim. Tea is passed around in trays, and eventually the changes of light become perceptible until the sun comes out. These are the fastest four hours I have ever experienced. Being immersed in religious poetry and song at a propitious time for the soul, from the darkest time of the night until dawn, when everything around is quiet, was one of the most significant of my sabbatical experiences.

Yehuda Amichai, the great 20th-century poet of Jerusalem wrote:

“Jerusalem is built on the vaulted foundations of a held back scream. If there were no reason for the scream, the foundations would crumble, the city would collapse. If the scream were screamed, Jerusalem would explode into the heavens.”

Jerusalem has much to scream about: the absence of peace, endless strife among its communities—haredim, secular Jews, Ashkenazim, Oriental Jews, Palestinians— injustice and inequality and discrimination, demolition and evictions, poverty and hunger, the growing religious zealotry that segregates and humiliates women, as well as the mounting, ugly winds of an antidemocratic nationalism.

In the narrow alleys, in the cold of the Jerusalem winter nights, the held-back scream has penetrated my soul, as well as the bakashah for a hope that is still elusive. Our faith seeks to turn oppression into redemption, darkness into light, scream into song. Perhaps that is why the Talmud begins by discussing the evening Shema. May we learn to bring about the Shema of a new dawn.