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by Rabbi Berel Wein

Like all matters of seemingly mundane life, sleep is a subject of discussion and guidance in Jewish tradition and halacha. Sleep is one of the necessary blessings of life, allowing a person to refresh one's body and spirit. Sleep deprivation causes serious pain, discomfort and great health hazards. One of the more modern methods of torture of prisoners and arrestees, perfected by the Soviet Union but in vogue in many other societies today as well, is sleep deprivation. The disorientation and distress that this sleep deprivation causes is usually enough to break the will and body of most human beings. Because Judaism views the gift of sleep as a Godly blessing, there is a ritual of blessing that precedes going to sleep for the night. The Talmud teaches us that sleep has a minute taste of death in it and therefore one notices in infants the tendency to fight sleep. The soul, so to speak, is returned to its Creator while one sleeps and is restored to the body when one awakes in the morning. The ritual blessing before going to sleep therefore includes our prayer to be able to wake up refreshed in the morning, that we be spared from nightmares and other nocturnal mishaps and that our rest and reawakening be gentle and peaceful. The tradition is that the prayer of Shema is also recited before retiring, accompanied by a number of appropriate psalms and verses. Thus a Jew prepares one's self for sleep by reiterating one's faith in the Almighty and entrusting one's soul and life to Him while sleeping.

Maimonides, the great doctor that he was, lists in his halachic work, Mishna Torah, his recommendation that people should get eight hours of good sleep per night. Reading from his own description of his most hectic daily schedule and reviewing in awe the tremendous amount of scholarly output that his books and letters represent, one can only surmise that Rambam, like many doctors, did not, himself, practice the advice that he gave to others. The Talmud is of the opinion that "night was created for the study of Torah." As such, Torah students in yeshivot and at home traditionally keep late hours while occupied in learning Torah. Since the morning shacharit prayers must be recited early, it is difficult to fit in eight hours of sleep into such a schedule. In Eastern European communities, the rabbi who was suspected of not studying Torah late into the night, often was discharged from his position. Sleep, or certainly a great deal of sleep, was thus transformed from a necessity into something akin to a luxury. The great men of the Mussar movement taught their disciples that there would be plenty of time for sleep in the grave. The Gaon of Vilna, Rabbi Eliyahu Kramer, for most of his life slept only two out of twenty four hours and then only in four thirty minute intervals! The Talmud records that this was also the sleep pattern of King David, whose magic harp awoke him to continue his efforts to serve God and Israel. Jewish tradition valued sleep, but it valued holy deeds and Torah study even more.

Shabat was given the blessing of being the day of rest and leisure. As such, sleeping on Shabat afternoon has become a time-honored Jewish custom. Even those of us who never sleep during the day during the week are loath to forego the pleasure of a Shabat afternoon nap. The Jewish people lovingly attributed an acronym to the letters of Shabat - sheina b'Shabat taanug - sleep on Shabat is a special pleasure. But, there are times when staying awake becomes a special pleasure. On the night of Shavuot, the custom of Jews is to stay awake all night and study Torah. This custom has been strengthened in recent decades by many synagogues sponsoring and formulating all night learning sessions and lectures. This is in compensation for the fact that the Jewish people overslept on the morning of the revelation at Sinai and had to be roused by Moshe. The Jews therefore resolved that they would never again oversleep on the day commemorating the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. There is also a custom to stay awake in study and prayer on the night of Hoshana Rabah (the last day of Succot) and in many Jewish communities the night of Yom Kippur was also spent in meditation and prayer rather than in sleep. However, the rabbis warned that if one would not be able to pray effectively during the day if one stayed up all night, one should preferably go to sleep and thus be able to pray properly. Even though sleep is a personal matter, Jewish tradition and halacha have important things to say about it.

Reprinted with permission from



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