King David’s Aeolian Harp

Last night, I fell asleep at 1am while in the middle of reading an editorial about human sleeping patterns throughout history. Here is the piece, which appeared in this week’s NY Times:

The author, A. Roger Ekirch, contends that until the modern period, most people slept in two intervals. They would retire between 9 and 10pm, and then wake up around midnight “to smoke a pipe, brew a tub of ale or even converse with a neighbor.” The period of “first” sleep was followed by “second” sleep, which lasted until morning. Ekirch connects this pattern of “broken” sleep to the absence of artificial lighting, which has significantly altered our circadian rhythms. In our most natural state, he contends, we sleep in two distinct intervals, as confirmed by clinical research among subjects deprived of light. (Note: Apparently Ekirch is also the author of a book on this subject, entitled At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past.)

When I woke up this morning, I dashed off to Yeshiva and did not think further of the article. But it must have made an impression on me, because I found myself possessed by the compulsion to learn about patterns of sleep in rabbinic times. If Ekirch is correct that pre-industrial people slept in two intervals, then there should be evidence of this practice in the Gemara. And sure enough, there is.

The first mishnah in Masechet Brachot deals with the proper time for reciting Kriyat Shma in the evening. The rabbis refer to the time when the Kohanim would conclude their shift in the Temple, which leads to a discussion in the Gemara of the divisions of the night. (As usual, I have nothing but a Tanach in front of me — so don’t quote rabbinic sources without verifying!) They note that David HaMelech would wake up in the middle of the night to praise God, as we learn from Tehillim 119:62: “I arise at midnight to praise You for Your just rules.” (Note: Perhaps this is the source of the kabbalistic idea of Tikun Chatzot, which I discovered last week when reading Michal Govrin’s crazy novel The Name.) The Gemara quotes David as having said: “Me’olam lo avar alai chatzot layla basheyna” (I was never sleeping at midnight.) This line immediately resonated for me because Coleridge said the very same thing in “Dejection: An Ode”: “‘Tis midnight but small thoughts have I of sleep.” So both Coleridge and David HaMelech were accustomed to being awake at the witching hour. Who would have guessed?

The Gemara in Brachot (3b) then goes on to relate that David used to sleep like a horse (m’namnem ka-sus) until midnight, and then grow stronger like a lion (mitgaber ka-ari) until dawn. Rav Ashi then claims that actually David did not sleep at all; rather, he would learn Torah until midnight, and then pray from midnight onwards. In any case, though, it is clear that David’s night was divided into two parts, like that of Ekirch’s pre-industrial man.

The Gemara next asks, “But how did David know when it was midnight in order to get up?” After all, says the Gemara, even God didn’t know the exact time of midnight, as we know from Exodus 11:4: “At about midnight, I will go forth among the Egyptians and every first-born among the Egyptians shall die.” God says “at about midnight” (ka-chatzot ha-layla), which suggests that He did not know exactly when midnight would fall. So how could David possibly know? Ahh, answers the Gemara: David had a primitive alarm clock in the form of his kinor (harp), which the midnight wind would blow upon to wake him up.

So David HaMelech had at his bedside an Aeolian harp, the sine qua non of the Romantic poets! According to classical mythology, this instrument was thought to have belonged to Aeolus, the Greek god of wind. (To hear Aeolian harp music **on the computer**, thereby causing several Romantics to turn over in their graves, go to this site: Both Wordsworth and Shelley used the Aeolian harp as a metaphor for the mind in perception and for the poetic mind in composition, as M.H. Abrams explains in his classic work The Mirror and the Lamp. Coleridge immortalizes this image in his poem “The Aeolian Harp”:

And that simplest Lute,
Plac’d length-ways in the clasping casement, hark !
How by the desultory breeze caress’d,
Like some coy maid half-yielding to her lover,
It pours such sweet upbraiding, as must needs
Tempt to repeat the wrong ! And now, its strings
Boldlier swept, the long sequacious notes
Over delicious surges sink and rise,
Such a soft floating witchery of sound
As twilight Elfins make, when they at eve
Voyage on gentle gales from Faery-Land. . .
Methinks, it should have been impossible
Not to love all things in a world so fill’d ;
Where the breeze warbles, and the mute still air
Is Music slumbering on her instrument.

Perhaps there is a Faery-Land out there where the Kohanim are returning from their midnight watches as Coleridge and David HaMelech sit side-by-side listening to the strains of the Aeolian harp. How’s that for a vision of Olam Ha-Ba?

2 thoughts on “King David’s Aeolian Harp

  1. Salome says:

    Our blogging interests intersect in this entry of yours! The music playing on the page you linked to, I regret to inform you, is <>not<> from an Aeolian harp. Here are two recordings that are: very eerie! Try to picture David HaMelech writing his tehillim with this music in the background!I must confess that though music is my department, I’m not familiar with this instrument. This page about the physics of this instrument I found quite fascinating: wonder if the name has anything to do with the Aeolian mode (today known as the natural minor scale)? begin to think so, given that the Aeolian harp is from ancient Greece and so is this mode, but on the one hand, I can’t seem to find a source that puts it all together and says definitively that an Aeolian harp sounds the Aeolian scale, and on the other, if we hear only the overtones, how can we even construct a scale from that? So now I think they were indepedently named after Aeolus.


  2. Emmanuel Avila says:

    The blog post was great up until the mention of an idol. I find it abhorrent to even mention an idol alongside the great name of King David.


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