There is something magic about midnight, as any child who has read “Cinderella” can tell you. It is the witching hour when imagination fails, when radiance turns into pumpkins, when dreams die fast.
Edgar Allen Poe expresses this resonance of despair in his poem, “The Raven,” the tale of a man whose yearning for his lost love Lenore is dashed by a “ghastly grim and ancient raven” who inserts his way into his home “once upon a midnight dreary” with the one-word prophecy, “Nevermore.” Never mind this life; there is also no life after death, no heavenly bliss where the two lovers may someday find one another again. “Is there no balm in Gilead?” asks the man, citing Jeremiah 8:22, no hope whatever? The raven’s answer comes unhesitatingly: “Nevermore.”
Poe’s midnight message chills us to the bone. We have all awakened in the dark and deep of night and thought for sure the nightmares that disturb our sleep are real, that “nevermore” will we find hope, love, health or joy; that a new day will never dawn.
It is around midnight too when the ghost of Hamlet’s murdered father appears; and when Washington Irving’s Headless Horseman visits horror upon unwitting travelers. Nothing good can happen in what we call “the dead of night.”
How interesting, then, to find this week that God chooses “around midnight” for the angel of death to slay Egypt’s first born. From Israel’s perspective, however, this is deliverance, so ever after, Jewish lore associates midnight with good things happening. A traditional Haggadah poem carries the refrain, “It happened about midnight.” At midnight Jacob wrestled with the angel; at midnight Daniel was saved from the lion’s den. Baal Haturim concludes, “The Holy One performs miracles for the righteous — at midnight.”
Christianity too adopted this positive view of midnight. Since God had saved the Israelites then, the New Testament pictured prisoners breaking free from a Roman jail on account of the midnight prayers of Paul and Silas (Acts 16:2); and in 1849, Unitarian minister Edmund Sears wrote the Christmas carol, “It came upon the midnight clear.”
A novel touch arrived with the spread of coffee throughout the Mediterranean in the sixteenth century. With Jews newly wired by heavy doses of Turkish coffee, kabbalistic masters converted midnight hope into ritual, alongside the promise that midnight was especially apt to find God’s presence among us. Mystical adepts would arise at midnight for a tikkun chatsot, a set of readings intended to bringing about a better world.
But kabbalists were building on more ancient lore: Psalm 119:62, which had King David say, “I arise at midnight to thank You.”