Menachot 20b – Two Shkiyas and Rabbeinu Tam’s Tzeit HaKokhavim – Part II

In a previous post we discussed the two major positions regarding bein ha’shemashot – that of the Geonim and GR”A who state that it begins at sunset and ends 13.5 minutes later; and that of Rabbeinu Tam who states that the visible sunset does not begin this period, and that it begins only at the “second sunset,” 58.5 minutes after the visible one, when the sun exits the western tunnel of the rakiya. Night would then come 13.5 minutes after that, at 72 minutes after visible sunset.

Is the definition of night dependent on location?  We had speculated that Rabbeinu Tam might have been inclined to define night as starting so late because in France, where he lived, it does not get really dark until a good while after sunset.   The GR”A’s position – that night begins 13.5 minutes after sunset, can work in Israel, where it gets dark quickly, and this was the assumed location of the discussions in the Gemara.  And, indeed, in Jerusalem they follow a variation of this position and define night as 25 minutes after sunset.  But what about elsewhere, such as Vilna or New York?  The GR”A relates to this directly (see Primary Sources – 2, source 3), and states that the duration of bein ha’she’mashot, and the time of tzeit, would change based on latitude.   The key determinant factor would be degree of darkness.  When, wherever a person may be, the night sky is as dark as it would be in Israel after 13.5 minutes, then it is night.  So, both Rabbeinu Tam and GR”A were sensitive to the realities of their location, however in Rabbeinu Tam’s case it led to a flat requirement of 72 minutes, whereas in the GR”A’s case it became a variable requirement based on location.

Rav Moshe Feinstein in Iggrot Moshe OH 4:62 (source 5 in Primary Sources – 2) adopts a curious interpretation of the common practice in New York to consider night to come 42-50 minutes after sunset.  Rather than attribute this to an adjusted GR”A  (it would not be that late even with latitudinal adjustment) or to a direct observation of when the sky is filled with stars (which fits with the Gemara and Rabbenu Yonah), Rav Moshe states that this practice is the position of Rabbeinu Tam adjusted downwards! That is, after 42-50 minutes in NY, it is as dark as it is in France after 72 minutes.  Now, this may very well be true, but given that Rabbenu Tam was explaining Gemarot that were referring to Eretz Yisrael, it is a little strange to take that position and adjust it downwards.  However, from a different perspective, what Rav Moshe says makes a lot of sense.   What he may be implicitly saying is something along these lines: Rabbeinu Tam would never have said that night comes 72 minutes after sunset in Eretz Yisrael.  When he said 72 minutes that was a judgment based at least on direct observation of the darkness of the sky (in France) as it was a pshat in the Gemara.  Therefore, since it is as dark in NY after 42-50 minutes as it is in Rabbeinu Tam’s France, this certainly would have qualified for night for Rabbeinu Tam, pshat in the Gemara aside.  And, indeed, Rav Moshe does state that the sky is full of stars at this time, and therefore it must be equivalent to Rabbeinu Tam’s 72 minutes.

The problem with this approach, of course, is that Rabbeinu Tam was explaining a Gemara.  As a result of this, he not only said that night comes later – and was strict on Saturday night,  but he also said that bein hashemashot came later – almost a full hour later – and was lenient on Friday evening.  If it were only a question of not declaring night until a certain degree of darkness was reached, then he would have started bein ha’shemashot at visible sunset.   Claiming that we are following Rabbeinu Tam also raises the question as to whether bein ha’shemashot starts for us at sunset or not.   Rav Moshe claims that in this regard we are strict like the GR”A, and play it safe at both ends.  Thus, we start bein ha’shemashot at sunset, like the GR”A, and we consider it to be night after 42-50 minutes like the (downwardly adjusted) Rabbeinu Tam.

The point of linking our practice with Rabbeinu Tam is not merely an academic one.  On the one hand, it downplays the need for being concerned with this position and being machmir for a full 72 minutes, since according to Rav Moshe we are already keeping Rabbeinu Tam!  Even more significantly, explaining our practice this way means that the period after sunset may be somewhat negotiable.  Rav Moshe does actually take this next step, and states that under certain circumstances, the first 9 minutes after sunset can be considered like day.  Why?  Because according to Rabbeinu Tam they are definitely day (they come before the “second sunset”), and according to the GR”A they may be day (9 minutes because this is the GR”A’s 13.5 minutes similarly adjusted downward).  This creates a ssfek sfeika – a double doubt – and thus this period can be treated as day, under certain special circumstances.    Rav Moshe never goes so far to say that one can do melacha on Friday evening at this time, but he does say that if a baby is born on Saturday during the first 9 minutes after sunset, then it is a Shabbat birth, and the bris can be held next Shabbat!  Rav Ovadya Yosef takes a similar position in certain areas of hilkhot niddah, but he does not adjust downwards, and would only say this if someone generally keeps 72 minutes.   This position was strongly attacked in Israel when it was issued, with many rabbonim declaring that it had never been the practice to treat the time after shkiya as anything but a classic bein ha’shemashot.

Personally, I find it very hard to rely on this Rav Moshe for two reasons.  First, as stated above, I don’t believe that our practice of 42-50 minutes can legitimately be connected to Rabbeinu Tam.  Thus, I would only consider Rav Moshe’s approach for someone who keeps a full 72 minutes.  Even then, it is questionable if this can be called a sfek sfeika, since it all boils down to one question – is it day or is it night?  Rav Moshe addresses this issue and argues that it nevertheless is a real sfeik sfeika.  Nevertheless, I would reserve this approach for someone who keeps a full 72 minutes after shkiya on normal occasions.

As I stated earlier, the practice of 42-50 minutes seems to be neither Rabbeinu Tam or GR”A, but based on direct observation.   Thus, bein heshemashot starts at normal sunset (there are no 2 sunsets), but – rather than resolving the contradiction of the two gemarot whether tzeit is 3/4 of a mil or 4 mil after sunset, we just wait 42-50 minutes when we know that there are stars throughout the sky, and hence definitely 3 medium-sized stars.

I will be making one more post on this topic, to return to the Tosafot in Menachot, and to explore whether according to Rabbeinu Tam there is any significance to the first sunset.

About Rabbi Dov Linzer

Rabbi Dov Linzer is the Rosh HaYeshiva and Dean of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School, a groundbreaking Orthodox smicha program. Rabbi Linzer spearheaded the development of YCT to create an innovative four year smicha program which provides its students with rigorous talmud Torah and halakhic study and sophisticated professional training in the context of a religious atmosphere which cultivates openness and inclusiveness. Rabbi Linzer has published Halakha and machshava articles in Torah journals and lectures widely at synagogues and conferences on topics relating to Halakha, Orthodoxy, and modernity. He is most recently the awardee of the prestigious Avi Chai Fellowship.
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