In the first watch, the donkey brays; in the second, dogs bark; and in the third people begin to rise, a baby nurses from its mother’s breast and a wife converses with her husband.
— Berakhot 3a
Yesterday, we noted that the Talmud opens with a discussion of exactly what time one recites Shema in the evening. Today’s daf continues to be concerned with measuring time at night (of course, the rabbis of the Talmudic era didn’t have clocks to keep time) and the proliferation of questions about how to measure time we saw on yesterday’s page shows no sign of slowing down.
The rabbis are interested in measuring time throughout the night because they are still determining the exact time parameters for saying Shema in the evening. Can you say it up until midnight? How do you know when it is midnight?
Aside from the need to determine the timeline for saying Shema, there is, in these pages, a very human need to measure the long hours of inky blackness — to divide it up into manageable chunks.
The rabbis thought of the night as divided into either three or four equal parts — most thought three. These parts of the night were called “watches.” But without a clock or a deep knowledge of astronomy, how could an ordinary person know when one watch ends and the next begins? For the rabbis, it was by the normal sounds of the night. The end of the first watch is marked by the braying of the donkey. The end of the second by dogs barking. And the end of the third by babies waking to be fed and husbands and wives softly conversing in the early predawn moments.
Anyone who has lain awake at night listening to unknown sounds knows that it can be unnerving. Yet the rabbis converted these sounds from dangers into comforts — signs that the night is moving forward and morning will come.
The rabbis also imagined that God (who never sleeps) followed the watches, roaring like a lion to signal the changeover from one watch to the next. This image too is full of comfort — the idea that God is on duty through the night, when human beings feel most vulnerable, and God too is marking time until the morning.