Dear Rabbi Simon
On a recent visit to the Sephardi (S&P) synagogue in Maida Vale (your old neighbourhood from the original JLE days) I noticed that the Shabbat times in the venerable [and soon to be updated] S&P siddur are rounded to the nearest half-hour (not sure whether up or down, or just down, so whether 3.58pm goes to 3.30pm or4:00pm). I assumed this is a Sephardi thing, but (doing some archival research, as one does) I noticed the same in a Jewish Year Book from 1949. This could be chumra [stringency] or a kula [leniency], I suppose, depending on how the rounding is done, but I wondered if you knew about this custom? I note that the times for Shabbat going out were not similarly rounded.
TY for your (slightly quirky) Q. Now that you mention it, I recall being bemused by this phenomenon years ago when I first moved to London and attended the S&P.
Published times for Shabbat starting are inherently subject to variation simply because there is no fixed formula for how many minutes prior to sunset one should light candles. All agree this should be some time before the actual advent of Shabbat, at which moment lighting a candle is of course not meritorious but forbidden. But how long in advance is subject to varying customs. Thecurrent accepted interval in London is 15 minutes, but in the USA, 18 minutes, some places 20 minutes, in Jerusalem 40 minutes. Moreover, until approximately the middle of the last century, accurate clocks were not necessarily to be found in every home, particularly of the working class. I presume these are some of the considerations which led to the simplification of the candle-lighting times as per the S&P siddur. Also, in the tables printed in those vintage siddurim, the days of the month are not precise (ie not every Friday is represented in any given year), as the table is intended to be useful over the course of years or decades. For this reason precision is difficult to maintain.
BTW, it is interesting to note that the famous GGBH (known colloquially as “Munk’s”) to this day eschews precision and publishes the starting time for Shabbat always rounded down to the nearest 5 minutes. See http://ggbh.info/Timetable/Timetable.html
Rabbi Rashi Simon
In the fifties and maybe even later the official ‘JC times’ were rounded I think to the nearest quarter of an hour with 3.30 p.m. prevailing in December and January and 8 p.m. throughout the Summer until it got earlier. I believe the actual calculations were made by Haham Nieto (d. 1728) although the rounding may have come later. I seem to remember that the end of Shabbat was to the next five minute slot so as not to keep the smokers from their cigarettes longer than necessary! Nieto’s times for the end of Shabbat are quite lenient and his basis was not followed in the Provinces. The Adath Israel introduced its own times and the Munk Shul managed to find a time in between the two! Aren’t we a funny lot?