Someone recently asked me about the significance of the Jewish day. We know that in secular law, the calendar day starts and ends at midnight, however, in Jewish tradition the day starts the evening beforehand. So for example, Shabbat, starts Friday evening around sunset and it ends on Saturday night when the stars come out. So both days are 24 hour periods, but the “Jewish day” is from the beginning of the night until the beginning of the next night, and the secular day is from midnight to midnight, or from dawn to dusk. The Jewish pattern is derived from the verses in Genesis that describe the days as “and it was evening and it was morning first day, second day, third day etc.” In addition, it is also interesting to note that most mitzvot, commandments, that have a specific time in which to fulfil them, may only be performed during the daytime, not at night. Similarly, all worship and service in the Temple in Jerusalem was only performed during daylight hours.
Why does the night precede the day? The Maharal of Prague and Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch suggest that just as the creation of the world was really a creation of something from nothing, was proceeded by nothing, so also within the human being when we are created and we are born we are, no offence to any babies or kids out there, but we are not very impressive, and compared to what we are later we are almost nothing. We need to improve, to grow, and to perfect ourselves and that is actually the entire purpose of life. The world starts with chaos and comes to order, it is turned more orderly by humanity putting the energy of free will into the system. Life is a reflection of the pattern of creation – chaos, tohu vavohu, which means null and void, astonishingly desolate, as the verse in Genesis describes how the world looked and then G-d imposed order on that system. Night, the time of darkness, fatigue and lack of clarity, symbolizes, chaos and the imperfection that precedes order and creation and daytime. History also reflects this pattern. Exile, national night, precedes, redemption, national sunrise.
So that means in many areas whether it is on the universal cosmological level, chaos proceeds order, night proceeds day. For the individual who is born imperfect and has to perfect himself, for the nation which goes from sin and exile to repentance and redemption and for the calendar which goes from night to day.
Rav Hirsch notes that most of our mitzvot which are time bound tend to be obligatory only during the day (with only a few exceptions – e.g. Seder night) such as Shofar, Tefillin, lulav, all the Temple offerings in Jerusalem, all these are obligatory during the day. Our holiest prayers, the musaf of Rosh Hashanah the additional service of the New Year, or the avodah, the beautiful description of the High Priest and what he did on the Day of Atonement, are recited during the day. Rav Hirsch explains that the mitzvot, the Torah, and the the service of G-d, are the order which is imposed on the chaos. They are the redemption following the exile and they are the means to our personal growth and redemption.