Hashaon — The Clock
Leshon Ima, Mother Tongue with Dr. Rachel Zohar Dulin, Special To The Dayton Jewish Observer
Winter is coming to an end. It is time to change the clocks as we enter Daylight Savings Time (March 13), and prepare to celebrate Purim on the 13th of Adar on the Hebrew calendar (March 24). Both events are based on the method of time measurement. Let’s look at a few Hebrew words connected with this method.
We should mention that the measuring of time in the Western world can be traced to the astrological counts of the ancient civilizations of Sumer, Babylon and Egypt.
The Greeks and Romans added their insights to the count and eventually, from the 14th century C.E. onward, time has been measured by the clock in increments such as seconds, minutes and hours gauged on base 60 (sexigismal) in a 24-hour cycle of a day.
The Hebrew language mirrors the significance of time’s measure in words based on biblical Hebrew as well as words coined along the years, reflecting the scientific progress of the measure.
For example, shaon, the Hebrew word for clock, was coined in the modern era by the father of Modern Hebrew, Eliezer Ben Yehudah (1858-1922). It is based, however, on the noun shaah, an Aramaic word meaning a short segment of time, found five times in the Book of Daniel.
In Modern Hebrew, shaah means hour, indicating more precisely a 60-minute unit of time.
In biblical Hebrew, a short unit of time was called rega. Originally rega meant “twinkle of the eye,” but it was used to mean short time (Ex. 33:5) or instant (Ps. 6:11).
In Modern Hebrew rega means minute, implying a 60-second unit of time. Similar to rega, yet more precise, is daka, meaning minute, corresponding to the Latin minuta, literally the first small part, a word used by the Alexandrian mathematician and astronomer Ptolemy (100-170) to denote the 60th part of a degree.
We should also mention the word shniya, meaning second, which is found in the writings of Maimonides, the Jewish philosopher of the Middle Ages (Kiddush Ha-Chodesh 11:7). Shniya is derived from the Hebrew sheyni meaning second, corresponding to the Latin secunda, namely second small part of an hour.
The units of time are at the center of many Hebrew phrases. Beshaah tovah, literally in good hour, is a congratulatory way to wish one good luck.
Bin rega means instantly, and is used similarly to the English in a jiffy. Rega rega is a colloquial expression corresponding to the English just a minute.
And the phrase bediyuk hashaon, literally, with the precision of the clock, implies like clockwork.
So, as the time changes bediyuk hashaon, and each rega of daylight is longer, the holiday of Purim is getting closer, beshaah tova.
May every daka and every shniya be celebrated with joy, fulfilling the saying: mishenichnas Adar marbin besimcha, when the month of Adar enters, joy is multiplied.
Dr. Rachel Zohar Dulin is a professor of biblical literature at Spertus College in Chicago and an adjunct professor of Bible and Hebrew at New College of Florida.