In trying to recall the times at night when the Priests in the Temple in Jerusalem would perform different Temple rites, the Rabbis of Massekhet Berakhot 3a debated how nighttime is divided up1: should nighttime's 12 hours be divided into 3 night-watches of 4 hours each, or 4 night-watches of 3 hours each?
Amidst the arguments, the Talmud examines Rabbi Eliezer's position:
לעולם קסבר שלש משמרות הוי הלילה
Rabbi Eliezer has forever held that there are three watches in the night!
והא קמ"ל דאיכא משמרות ברקיע ואיכא משמרות בארעא
And he teaches us that there are watches in Heaven and watches on Earth.
דתניא ר' אליעזר אומר שלש משמרות הוי הלילה ועל כל משמר ומשמר יושב הקב"ה ושואג כארי
For it is taught: Rabbi Eliezer says, "There are three watches in the night, and at each watch, the Holy Blessed One sits and roars like a lion...
שנאמר (ירמיהו כה) ה' ממרום ישאג וממעון קדשו יתן קולו שאוג ישאג על נוהו
As it mentions (3 roars!2) in Jeremiah 25:30, 'God, from upon high, will roar and, from the base of God's holiness, will project God's roaring voice. God will roar over God's glory!'"
Rabbi Eliezer continues in his explanation:
"God's roaring here is a symbolic matter:
משמרה ראשונה חמור נוער
At the first watch, a donkey brays...
שניה כלבים צועקים
At the second watch, dogs bark....
שלישית תינוק יונק משדי אמו ואשה מספרת עם בעלה.
And at the third watch, a baby nurses at the breasts of its mother as the woman speaks with her husband."
Of course, Jeremiah didn't give any direct acknowledgment of donkeys, dogs, or even humans in the excerpt Rabbi Eliezer quotes. But Rabbi Eliezer knows that, if he's going to take Jeremiah seriously, then he has to take Jeremiah metaphorically.
Rabbi Eliezer is listening for God's roar: God's promise of surveillance, of protection. Rabbi Eliezer tells us that, when he listens to the sounds of the night that surrounds him, he hears nature. He hears the bray of a donkey upon which he or a neighbor might ride to town or to the market. He hears the barking of dogs protecting their territory. And he hears a baby being raised by nurturing parents.
All these sounds that Rabbi Eliezer hears are wordless. Certainly the dog and the donkey have no words to share. And the baby does not even cry or produce a sound approaching the volume of a bark or a bray. The baby only feeds and gets the parents talking. It is only after that third night-watch has already begun though that nighttime has finally restored the words of life into women and men3.
That wordless donkey--assuring transportation and economic access to the market--and those inarticulate dogs--determined to safeguard the residential stability of home--work in tandem with the muted baby who promises us the future of human life.
Rabbi Eliezer listens for God's three roars each night, and he finds them in the wordless cries of nature. But only by way of the sounds of the mute and the speechless, Rabbi Eliezer is able to listen to God. Rabbi Eliezer's point is simple: we can hear God's promise most pronounced in the wordlessness of nature.
1. The classic Jewish calendar divides a day into 12 equal "hours" of nighttime and 12 equal "hours" of daytime. Hypothetically, if a day were dark from 8 PM until 4 AM and light from 4 AM to 8 PM, then each Jewish nighttime "hour" would be 80 minutes long and the Jewish daytime "hours" would be 40 minutes each. Because sunrise and sunset change everyday of the Gregorian calendar, the Jewish "days" begin and end at different times everyday on the Gregorian clock.
3. Judaism has often valued speech as an indicator of life or existence (for both God and God's humans were enabled to speak, as the humans were made in God's image). Also, one ancient Jewish belief states that the human soul leaves the human body when the body sleeps and returns when the body wakes up. This idea is reflected even today in modern classical Jewish nighttime and daytime prayers.
4. Special thanks to Emily Winograd for studying this Sugeya with me.