Monday, March 31, 2008

A Bedtime Shema?

At Sushi Shabbat on Friday there was a guest speaker who chose to discuss the Bedtime Shema to the crowd of 20s and 30s. Now, I'd like to start by saying this past Shabbat reminded me why I loathe going to such events. The lack of, well, seriousness irritates me. Or maybe it's just the lack of seriousness by certain people. Either way, I don't know if I'll show up at another one. I just don't have the patience anymore. But that is neither here nor there.

I was always of the understanding that before one goes to bed, they're required to say the Shema (שמע ישראל יהוה אלהינו יהוה אחד) This comes from Deuteronomy 6:6-7 -- "These words which I command you this day shall be upon your heart ... when you lie down and when you rise up."

I did not know, however, that there was actually a specific set of additional texts for the Bedtime Shema (BS) -- K'riat Shema al haMitah. So imagine my surprise when we got the handout and read through the BS (pardon the crappy acronym).

Master of the universe, I hereby forgive anyone who angered or antagonized me or who sinned against me — whether against my body, my property, my honor or against anything of mine; whether he did so accidentally, willfully, carelessly, or purposely; whether through speech, deed, thought, or notion; whether in this transmigration or another transmigration — I forgive every Jew. May no man be punished because of me. May it will be Your will, HASHEM, my God and the God of my forefathers, that I may sin no more. Whatever sins I have done before You, may You blot out in Your abundant mercies, but not through suffering or bad illnesses. May the expressions of my mouth and the thoughts of my heart find favor before You, HASHEM, my Rock and my Redeemer.

On a first, simple read, there are myriad disturbing aspects of this. The first one that struck me was the "I forgive every Jew." What about everyone else? Secondly the "whether in this transmigration or another transmigration" struck me as particularly odd, as it implies incarnations, which is most certainly not a necessarily Jewish belief. Then there's the idea that for the sins committed during the day, G-d would punish one "through suffering or bad illnesses" -- I've always understood that there is not a cause and effect relationship, hence books like "Why Bad Things Happen to Good People." Also noted is "whatever sins I have done before you," which in truth muddles what the idea of sin in Judaism is (it should be understood that sin is what one does not do, such as not speaking out when witnessing abuse or mistreatment, not what one particularly DOES).

The BS is to be followed by the Hamapil, and after this is said, one is not to speak until rising in the morning. Many, though, will remove G-d's name from the Hamapil for fear of conversing post-prayer, and this is sufficiently acceptable from what I can tell. Though for those (like me) with a rough time sleeping, are permitted to read, recite the Shema over and over, or to read a sefer or think Torah thoughts. It's important to note, then, that the BS and the Hamapil should be read together, because the BS itself leaves out some other significant things one might expect to hear in a prayer, such as prayer to encourage peaceful sleep and healthy awakening, not to mention blessing the family. Thus, the Hamapil says,

Blessed are You, HASHEM, our God, KING of the universe, who casts the bonds of sleep upon my eyes and slumber upon my eyelids. May it be Your will, HASHEM, my God and the God of my forefathers, that You lay me down to sleep in peace and rise me erect in peace. May my ideas, bad dreams, and bad notions not confound me; may my offspring be perfect before You, and may You illuminate my eyes lest I die in sleep, Who illuminates the pupil of the eye. Blessed are You, Hashem, Who illuminates the entire world with His glory.

The BS, therefore, seems negative, almost begging, pleading. Whereas the Hamapil emphasizes G-d's blessings. Yet, there is never thanks given for the day in either portion. Why do we not give thanks for the blessing of the day? Instead, we only ask for forgiveness and apologize. Should there not be thanks? Or is it implied? There is also much more to the BS, which can be found here (it includes various Psalms, etc.).

According to a rabbi at, "Rav Yehuda Segal, the late Rosh Yeshiva in Manchester, used to actually fall asleep while reciting the bedtime shema, and he would wake from time to time and carry on exactly from the place he left off!"

I find myself eternally curious when the Bedtime Shema was developed. So I'm searching the Internet, far and wide, trying to figure out who codified this "set" of prayers, when it was formally settled, etc. Maybe this is something for graduate school, who knows. But there's a little write up about how it helped one man sleep better over here. Then there's Chabad, that encourages getting into the BS routine. tells me that the practice goes back to Talmudic times and was meant to protect the sleeper from nighttime fears and dangers. And finally, there's the Jewish Heritage Magazine  Online that quotes Talmudic scholar Adin Steinslatz saying essentially the same thing as, but provides the precise sources for the arisal of the BS. They are BT Berakoth 4b (which can be seen here) and 60a (found here).

Yet even looking through these, I'm not gathering how precisely the words I have in my handout (aside from the actual Shema) were codified. There is plenty of conversation about when it is to be said and the disagreement therein (Rashi seems to have gotten pretty upset about this), but these words were composed by someone, yes?

Anyhow, perhaps that's for another time and place. The search continues!