Some six hundred years ago, the Arabs developed a novel way of telling the time. This Arab clock (or Eretz Yisroel clock) became so ingrained in the Middle East that many Old Yishuv Jews regarded the adoption of our .European time. as close to heresy.
Inaccurate Time for Inaccurate Times
Almost extinct in most of the Jewish world, Arab time is still alive and well in Meah Shearim. Examine the peeling posters pasted to its stone walls and you will come across notices announcing events in two time modes. For example, a meeting may be advertised as starting at 10:30 according to Eretz Yisroel time and 6:00 p.m. according to European time. How does the Eretz Yisroel clock work and how did it begin? It is clear from the Shas that the Torah works on a twelve hour system based on the natural lengths of day and night. We divide the day (from dawn till dusk) into twelve sha’os zemaniyos (unequal hours) that shorten and lengthen according to the day.s length. With this system, the hours of a long day may include seventy minutes while the hours of a short day may be a measly fifty minutes or less. Sun-based time was also used by the Greeks, Romans, Chinese and Japanese.
Another method of counting time, Italian time or Old Czech time (also used in Poland and Bohemia), disregarded sunrise and counted twenty-four hours straight from sunset to sunset. This system survived until the mid nineteenth century and is immortalized by the fifteenth century Prague Astronomical Clock on the old Prague city hall that has twenty-four numbers circling its dial.
Like the Italian clock, the Arab clock counts the day from sunset to sunset. This is because Arabs begin their months from the first sighting of the new moon that is visible just after dusk. (Actually, poskim point out that their count starts seven to twelve minutes after halachic sunset). But unlike the Italian system, the Arab system counts every day in two twelve hour cycles.
Throughout Arab lands, the new day began at sundown when the meuzzin climbed the minaret of his mosque to call Muslims to Maghrib (evening prayer). As his warble pierced the evening air, everyone below would pause to set their clocks or watches to twelve-o-clock, the beginning of a new day. Their timepieces then ticked on for another twenty-four hours before they set them again. This was necessary because days constantly lengthen or shorten, depending on the season. Sunset is always earlier or later than it was the day before.
The Arab clock has two disadvantages. Because nights are usually longer or shorter than twelve hours, the Arab clock is useless for measuring the moment of dawn. After short summer nights, people begin counting the twelve daylight hours long after sunrise and on long winter nights daytime hours begin when it was still pitch dark. Also, because days are constantly changing, the last hour of each day has to be truncated or stretched to fit into its time slot.
In short, the Arab clock is a hybrid of old and new. Unlike sha’os zemaniyos systems whose hours are a function of natural day-length, the Arab clock is regulated by the artificial sixty-minute hour of clocks and watches. But unlike European time where there are exactly twenty-four hours between one midnight and the next, the Arab clock changes according to the vagaries of sunset. The lackadaisical Arab time symbolized a difference in attitude between East and West. As one European wrote over a century ago:
“One sees here what an exaggerated importance we are accustomed to attach to the exact measurement of time. We constantly compare our watches, and are anxious that they should not gain or lose a second. A person feels his own importance somehow increased if he owns an accurate watch. When two men meet, one of the most frequent interchanges of courtesies is to compare watches; certainly, if the question of time is raised, as it is sure to be shortly among a knot of men with us, every one pulls out his watch, and comparison is made. We are, in fact, the slaves of time.
“Here in Egypt we see how unnatural and unnecessary this anxiety is. Why should we care to know the exact time? It is 12 o.clock, Arab time, at sunset, and that shifts every evening, in order to wean us from the rigidity of iron habits. Time is flexible, it waits on our moods and we are not slaves to its accuracy. Watches here never agree, and no one cares whether they do or not.” (The People of Palestine published in 1907).
The Arab clock was widespread throughout the Ottoman Empire and is mentioned by the poskim of Eretz Yisroel, Greece, Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Morocco, and other countries. People thought it would last forever.
Challenge from the West
Meanwhile, the West was adopting a clock for all seasons that ticked away regardless of the sun.s whims. There had been a time when people set their watches according to local noon. This ended in the 1880s when the world was chopped into twenty-four time zones (nowadays there are forty) each zone with the same time irrespective of the .real. time in each town and village. With the increasing use of railways, telegraphs, and industrialization, world unity divorced time from nature. As Western culture encroached on the Middle East, Ottoman train guards began carrying two watches, one set to Europe time and the other to local Arab times along the track. Discrepancies between the two times didn.t matter much as Turkish trains generally ran up to an hour late. In most places, the Arab clock crumbled with the destruction of the Ottoman Empire during World War I. With British- French conquest of the Middle East came the European clock that generally ousted its clumsier Arab rival between the two world wars. Symbolic of the transitional period is the famous .Sun-Dial Shul. opposite Yerushalayim.s Machaneh Yehuda market. Two clocks are mounted above its sun dial, one on the left that told European time and one on the right for Arab time. Many Old Yishuv Jews continue using the Arab clock till this day. After all, the Torah begins the day at evening as stated in the verse, It was evening and it was morning, one day. Some charged that the European way of counting from midday was an avizrayhu (appendage) of idolatry and heresy. A 1925 article in the Kol Yisroel weekly discusses the problem from their perspective:
“People coming from overseas are used to using the European clock. They often mock and provoke the residents of Eretz Yisroel for following the Eretz Yisroel clock. It is difficult for newcomers to free themselves from the yoke of their exile customs. Instead of throwing away their clock which is totally at odds with Jewish messores and which some claim is a religious custom of the Christians [who believe that Yeshu was born at midnight], they accuse the Jews of Eretz Yisroel of following an Arab clock!
“They have all forgotten that according to Judaism, the day begins at nightfall and not at midnight or midday. They have all forgotten that it is the Jewish messores to count from the beginning of the day; three hours for Kerias Shema, four hours for Tefillah, seven hours for Mussaf, etc. They have all forgotten the verse that speaks of a shadow moving back ten degrees. This would be impossible according to the European clock that has only six degrees [hours] in the morning and six hours in the afternoon.. The .shadow moving back ten degrees. refers to Yeshayahu (38:7-8) where Hashem promised to heal King Chizkiyahu from his fatal illness and to save Yerushalayim from the king of Ashur. As an indication that this would happen Hashem said: ‘This will be a sign to you from Hashem that Hashem will do the thing He has spoken. Behold, I will return the shadow of the degrees that descended on the sun dial of Achaz ten degrees backward. And the sun returned ten degrees by the degrees it had gone down.’
The .Kol Yisroel. article concludes, “Seeing all this and being jealous for the honor of the Eretz Yisroel clock, which, according to everything we have said is the true clock used by Jews since ancient times, a group of courageous Jews who flinch at nothing has united. They will exert their hearts and souls to find [a solution] to what all the researchers, scholars, mathematicians, and astronomers declare impossible. Namely, they say it is impossible to establish one moment that the sun passes every day at exactly the same time except the moment of midday.”
According to this article, secular scholars claimed that the only stable benchmark for time is noon and that dusk was too volatile for a stable time system. Apparently, the group of courageous Jews never managed to solve this impasse.
There is one place in the world where Arab time coexists in perfect harmony with European time. This is among the Swahili ethnic Muslim people who dwell in hot countries of equatorial Africa where day always equals night.
As the inventor of the recently conceived .Swahili Clock. explains, “Most Swahili speakers live close to the equator and on the equator the sun rises and sets at the same time every day of the year. Unlike countries far from the equator where sunrise in June might occur at 4:30 a.m and sunrise in December might be at 8:30 a.m., the sunrise in the Swahili speaking world is so consistent that you can set your clock by it – so people do.”
For just $25.98 you can order a Swahili Time Wall Clock, the only such clock ever made. Keep it on your wall as a reminder that when push comes to shove, Muslims and the West don.t always need to be at loggerheads.