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  • Rabbi Edward Friedman

Thoughts on the Bedtime Prayer

In earlier blogs, I have written about the unit of the service known as Kriat Sh'ma, the reading of the Sh'ma along with its accompanying blessings. This section contains not only the verse of Sh'ma Yisrael and the following paragraph of V'ahavta, but also two other biblical passages, V'hayah im Shamoa from Deuteronomy 11 and Vayomer, the passage about Tzitzit from the book of Numbers, chapter 15. These three passages are surrounded by a series of blessings on the themes of Creation, Revelation, and Redemption and all of this section is introduced in the synagogue by the call and response of Barchu, Praise the Lord who is deserving of praise. This part of the service, both in the morning and in the evening, derives from the mention in both V'ahavta and in V'hayah im Shamoa that one should speak these words, B'shochb'cha uv'kumecha, when one lies down and when one rises, hence in the Shacharit service in the morning and again in the Ma'ariv at night.

The Talmud however adds one more requirement. There (Berachot 4b), Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi teaches, “Even though one read the Kriat Sh'ma in the synagogue [at ma'ariv] it is a mitzvah to read it again upon one's bed.” Rabbi Yosi asks, where this mitzvah comes from and the Talmud cites a verse from Psalms (4:5), “Tremble and sin no more; say it in your heart when you lie down on your bed and be still. Selah.” In other words, “say it in your heart” refers to the passage which we are to keep “al l'vavecha” “upon your heart.” “When you lie on your bed” connects with “b'shochb'cha” “when you lie down” and “be still” means to go to sleep. In that discussion, Rav Nachman gives a scholar an exemption from this requirement if he is studying Torah all day. However, Abaye believes that even a scholar should at least recite a verse seeking God's compassion through the night such as, Psalm 31:6, “into Your hand I commit my spirit...,”

Rabbi Yisachar Yakovson cites Rabbi Menachem Meiri, a great 13th century Catalan rabbi, who explains this mitzvah. First, he notes that the term “on one's bed” is not to be taken literally. It means at bedtime, before lying down, not as common folk suppose literally lying in bed, but with appropriate reverence and awe. Elsewhere in the Jerusalem Talmud it is explained that this recitation is intended to “cut off the mezikin.” Meiri notes that while people think of mezikin as demons or evil spirits, he understands them to be false beliefs which invade our consciousness when we have time on our hands. Saying the Sh'ma and other verses at this time, fills that void with proper thoughts that allow us to rest safely through the night.

Toward the end of the tractate of Berachot, a blessing is proposed to recite along with the Sh'ma. The rabbis clarify that the obligation is not to say the entire liturgy of the Sh'ma but the first paragraph of V'ahavta alone and stop. (Some people nowadays add the second paragraph of V'hayah im shamoa as well, though it is not printed in most prayerbooks.) This is followed by a blessing which is somewhat lengthy and as mentioned some time back, parallels the blessing at the beginning of the morning service which praises God for removing slumber from our eyes. This blessing begins by praising Him for placing slumber upon our eyes. It goes on to seek a peaceful night and to raise us up in peace on the morrow. We seek protection from sin and transgression, from temptation and trial. We ask to be directed by the Yetzer Hatov, the good inclination, and not by the Yetzer Hara, the evil inclination. We seek protection from illness and disaster and pray that we may be spared bad dreams and rise to life in the morning. The blessing ends with the prayer, “Praised are You, Lord, who gives light to the entire world in His glory.” It seems that there is a difference of opinion whether this blessing precedes the Sh'ma or follows it. Our current siddurim place it at the beginning of the service, but others recite it right after the V'ahavta.

Yakovson traces over the course of a whole chapter the development of this bedtime prayer. The blessing appears in a variety of versions in different early prayerbooks and law codes. A number of additions are suggested by different sages over the centuries. While Maimonides seems to follow the KISS formula (Keep it simple, stupid), and requires the blessing and the paragraph of the Sh'ma alone, most of the later authorities have many other passages they think should be recited as well. The Machzor Vitry from the school of Rashi, already contains most of the elements that are part of the Kriat Sh'ma al hamitah today. The Ben Ish Chai, writing in 19th century Iraq cautions that one should be very careful in reciting this series of prayers when generally one is rather sleepy. One needs to be careful, he notes to pronounce all the words and letters properly, One needs great strength to gird himself to read it correctly.

Already in the Talmud, in the tractate of Shevuot (15b), the rabbis add two Psalms to the bedtime ritual, both of which speak of protection from plagues and injury. I have written before on Psalm 91, Yoshev b'seter Elyon, which our current liturgy introduces with the final line from Psalm 90, “Viy'hi noam Adonay Eloheinu aleinu...May the pleasantness of the Lord our God be upon us.” Psalm 91 was chosen among other things for the phrase, “v'nega lo yikrav b'ohalecha, no plague with come near your tent” The other Psalm to be added is Psalm 3, which mentions, “I have lain down to sleep and I have awoken, for the Lord sustains me. I have no fear of the myriads of people who have set upon me all around.” The sages reassure us that reciting protective Psalms at night should not be mistaken for magical charms and spells that other people might use. We are simply invoking Divine protection through the night.

In the post-Talmudic, geonic period, other verses and prayers come to be added to this liturgy. Some passages come from the evening service (Baruch Adonay bayom, baruch Adonay balailah as well as the body of the blessing of Hashkiveinu) and others are biblical verses, such as Zechariah 3:2, Psalms 121:7-8, and Psalm 31:6. To these is added also the priestly blessing from the book of Numbers, “May the Lord bless you and keep you...”

With the mulittude of authors weighing in on this prayer, it is not surprising that there are a variety of versions to be found, though all include the basics recommended in the Talmud. Ashkenazic traditions may vary slightly from those of the Sephardim in this case. Not all of the additions found in Machzor Vitry, for example, are recited nowadayss. An interesting addition that has been set to music by the late songwriter Debbie Friedman, is a passage which specifically invokes archangels to stand guard around our bed through the night. To be clear that we do not pray to angels but only to God who uses the angels as His messengers in the world, we begin with the words, “In the name of the Lord, God of Israel.” As we continue we describe the place for each archangel: “May Michael be at my right hand, Gabriel at my left; in front of me Uriel, behind me Raphael; and above my head Shechinat El, the Presence of God.” In an earlier version there are some different angels invoked and some later version add on a few names found only in the Zohar, the great mystical work.

In the version in front of me, the Koren Siddur, translated by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, this passage is followed by another Psalm, Psalm 128, “Happy are all who fear the Lord, who walk in His ways...Your wife shall be like a fruitful vine...your sons like olive saplings...May the Lord bless you from Zion; may you see the good of Jerusalem all the days of your life; and may you live to see your children's children. Peace be on Israel!”

This Psalm is followed by the verse originally cited as the origin of this mitzvah, “Tremble and do not sin. Search your heart as you lie on your bed and be silent. Selah.” We end with the verses of Adon Olam which not only rehearses our basic beliefs about God, but ends with the comforting words, “Into His hand my soul I place, when I awake and when I sleep. The Lord is with me, I shall not fear; body and soul from harm will He keep.” (Koren Siddur's paraphrase.) The addition of Adon Olam seems to be fairly late and may not be much earlier than the 16th century, in Mateh Moshe and later in Baer's siddur in the 19th century.

I must say that with four full pages of text in the Koren prayerbook, the Kriat Sh'ma al HaMitah, the bedtime Sh'ma, is highly recommended for those with insomnia. After reading through the entire selection, one should drop off to sleep fairly easily with holy thoughts permeating one's dreams, assuming one can keep one's eyes open throughout the prayers. For those who cannot stay awake so long at that hour of the night, I recommend the shortened version in Siddur Sim Shalom which omits the three mentioned Psalms that are cited in their entirety in the fuller version. As mentioned, there is also Maimonides' suggestion that one simply recite the nighttime blessing and the opening paragraph from Sh'ma and go to sleep. Seriously, whichever version works for you, there is much to commend in the practice of spending a few moments reflecting on the day past and offering words of prayer before lying down to sleep.

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