Trying to train yourself to sleep less is like altering your shoe size, so claim contemporary researchers. It is amazing to consider how little people knew about the nature of sleep until recent times. For instance, we now identify rapid eye movement during sleep (REM) with dreaming. That observation was only made in 1953 by Dr. Eugene Aserinsky. In the last few decades researchers have shown that during sleep short-term memories are transferred into long-term storage and that the brain is washed during shut-eye cleansing, away harmful residue.
So what does Judaism have to teach about sleep?
There are many observations in the bible, Talmud and the Zohar about dreams, but little about the value and need for sleep itself.
Maimonides, the 12th century physician and master of Jewish law and philosophy, swrote in his encyclopedia of Jewish Law, the Mishnah Torah (De’ot 4:4), that a person should sleep for a third of a day. His originally-formulated guidance matches the contemporary recommendation for the typical person of eight hours of sleep. Whether a person can consistently feel good with as little as five hours or need much more than eight we now know is largely a matter of genetics.
And yet, in the halls of traditional Jewish learning, there was often encouragement to forego sleep in order to study more. Adequate sleep was all too often viewed as a luxury rather than a necessity.
In Shtisel—the current Israeli Netflix series on life in Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox Mea Shearim- a young scholar holds a burning candle to his hand so that the pain will overcome his fatigue. Such extremes are not just part of the cloistered halls of sacred study. Sadly, we live in a broader culture of sleep deprivation.
University students will decide to forgo sleep in order to study or play more. People will watch lit-screens late into the night for entertainment or hold two full-time jobs (and parenting may be one of those) in order to make ends-meet. The result according to researchers at the University of Pennsylvania is that “sleepiness-related motor vehicle crashes have a fatality rate and injury severity level similar to alcohol-related crashes.”
Judaism’s insight is less about the need for sleep than the ritual preparation to sleep soundly and to awake in a positive state of mind.
The Talmud proscribes the reciting of the Shema (words of the Torah that affirm G-d’s oneness) before falling asleep. For the rabbis sleep is a taste of death, as a letting go of conscious control and due to the uncertainty of awaking. In the paragraph before the Shema, the sages composed a confessional in which the supplicant asks G-d for forgiveness for any wrongs committed, knowingly or unknowingly, and asking for forgiveness for those who might have wronged us. The wisdom of our tradition is that the mindset before sleep matters. Affirming identity and faith and letting go of hurts eases us into wholeness and repose.
Likewise, set words were prescribed upon awaking: Modeh Ani…Grateful am I before You, Ruler of the world who has returned by soul-breath within me, with graciousness, great is your trust [in me]. Josef Karo, the 16th century author of the Shulchan Arukh, begins the influential Code of Jewish Law with the aspiration of awaking with the strength of a lion eager to start a new day of Divine service (OH 1:1).
Contemporary researchers are uncovering the secrets of sleep. Traditional rituals offer resources to sleep with greater calm and to awake with mindful gratitude and purpose.
RABBI ELIE SPITZ is the spiritual leader of Congregation B’nai Israel of Tustin.