Keriat Shema al Ha-mitta

  • Rav David Brofsky



Last week, we concluded our study of Tefillat Arvit.  We discussed the latest time at which one may still recite Keriat Shema and Shemoneh Esreh.  We also addressed the activities prohibited by the Sages before praying, lest one unintentionally miss Arvit.  Finally, we attempted to understand the Talmudic debate whether Tefillat Arvit is optional and the ramifications of the need to juxtapose Birkot Keriat Shema to Shemoneh Esreh (semikhat geula li-tfilla). 


This week, we will conclude our discussion of the nighttime prayers as we study the laws of Birkat Ha-mappil and Keriat Shema al Ha-mitta.


Keriat Shema al Ha-mitta:


The Gemara (Berakhot 60b) teaches:


On going to bed, one says from "Shema Yisrael" (Devarim 6:4) to "Ve-haya im shamoa" (ibid. 11:13).  Then he says: "Blessed is He Who brings down (Ha-mappil) the bands of sleep upon my eyes and slumber on my eyelids and gives light to the apple of the eye.  May it be Your will, Lord, my God, to make me lie down in peace and to set my portion in Your Torah and accustom me to perform commandments; do not accustom me to transgression, and bring me not into sin, or into iniquity, or into temptation, or into contempt.  And may the good inclination have sway over me and may the evil inclination have no sway over me.  And deliver me from evil happenings and sore disease, and let evil dreams and evil thoughts not disturb me.  May my bed be flawless before You, and enlighten my eyes lest I sleep the sleep of death.  Blessed are You, God, who gives light to the whole world in Your glory."


The Gemara mentions two components to this nighttime ritual: the recitation of Keriat Shema and Birkat Ha-mappil.  However, the Gemara does not indicate what the reason for this recitation of Shema nor the nature of the berakha.  The Gemara also does not elaborate upon the details of this service, i.e., the order of these two texts and their relationship to going to sleep.


Regarding Shema itself, the Gemara states very clearly that one must recite the first paragraph, "Shema Yisrael," but not the second, "Ve-haya im shamoa."  Why does the Gemara mandate reciting this version of Shema before going to bed?


Interestingly, Rav Amram Gaon (Seder Rav Amram Gaon 1:94) writes that one should recite the blessing "Who sanctified us with his commandments and commanded us to recite Shema" at this point, implying that the bedtime Shema embodies the performance of the mitzva of Keriat Shema.  Tosafot (Chullin 105a, s.v. Mayim) and others reject this suggestion, insisting that one should not recite the standard formula of a birkat ha-mitzva over Keriat Shema and that the bedtime Shema's primary function is not to relieve a person of the obligation to recite Shema.


Since generally one has already fulfilled the mitzva of Keriat Shema earlier during Tefillat Arvit, why does the Gemara instruct us to recite Shema before going to bed?  In fact, as we shall see, the Gemara (Berakhot 4b) explicitly says that "though a person has recited Shema in the synagogue, it is a mitzva to recite it again upon his bed."  Seemingly, one might suggest two possible reasons for the bedtime Shema


One the one hand, the Gemara (Berakhot 4b) strongly implies that one recites the bedtime Shema in order to assuage one's nighttime fears, and even to protect him from the dangers of the night.


Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi says: "Though a person has recited Shema in the synagogue, it is a mitzva to recite it again upon his bed."


Rav Asi says: "Which verse [may be cited in support]?  'Tremble and do not sin; commune with your own heart upon your bed, and be still, Selah'" (Tehillim 4:5). 


Rav Nachman, however, says: "If he is a scholar, then it is not necessary."


Abbayyei says: "Even a scholar should recite one verse of supplication, as for instance: 'Into Your hand I commit my spirit; You have redeemed me, Lord, God of truth'" (ibid. 31:6).


Talmidei Rabbeinu Yona (1a, s.v. Ve-ifsika) explain that the bedtime Shema is recited in order to ward off "mazzikin" (evil spirits).  Seemingly, that is why, according to Rav Nachman, a scholar is exempt from the bedtime Shema, as his other merits protect him from harm.  Indeed, the Gemara elsewhere (Shevuot 15b) relates that Rabbi Yehoshua would recite specific Psalms (Tehillim 91 and 3), which describe God's protection of man in times of crisis, before going to sleep.


In fact, the Rema (OC 481:2) records the custom to recite, on the night of the Pesach Seder, only the first paragraph of Shema, without the other verses and supplications, as the first night of Pesach is a "night of protection" (Shemot 12:42) from dangers.  The Mishna Berura (4) points out that one should certainly recite Birkat Ha-mappil as well.


One the other hand, reciting Shema before sleeping may simply enable a person to fall asleep while immersed in Torah.  In fact, Rashi (Berakhot 4b) explains that a Torah scholar may not need to recite Shema before going to bed, as for "one who is accustomed to constantly review his learning, that [review] would suffice." Furthermore, the Yerushalmi (Berakhot 1:1) records that Rabbi Shemu'el bar Nachmani would read Keriat Shema over and over again until he would fall asleep, possibly implying that he simply wished to fall asleep while engaged in the words of the Torah. 


This discussion may have a practical ramification regarding whether Keriat Shema should be recited immediately before falling asleep. 


The Gemara (60b) cited above implies that one recites Shema and then Birkat Ha-mappil.  The Yerushalmi, however, implies that one should ideally fall asleep while reciting Shema!  Indeed, the Hagahot Maimoniyyot (Hilkhot Tefilla 7:3) and Rav Nissim Gaon (Beit Yosef 239) prove from the Yerushalmi that Shema should be recited immediately before going to sleep.  The Rambam (Hilkhot Tefilla 7:2), the Eliyya Rabba and the Gra (see Mishna Berura 239:2) also rule accordingly.


Alternatively, the Shulchan Arukh (239:1) seems to rule that one should first say Shema and afterwards Birkat Ha-mappil.  This difference of opinion is reflected in different prayer-books, and each custom is well grounded in the sources.


Birkat Ha-mappil:


What type of blessing is Birkat Ha-mappil?  The Rambam (Hilkhot Berakhot 1:4) enumerates three types of berakhot: birkot ha-mitzva (recited before the performance of a mitzva), birkot ha-nehenin (recited before eating, drinking or smelling fragrances) and birkot ha-shevach (recited upon seeing or hearing something which warrants praise or gratitude).


Within the category of birkot ha-shevach, most are recited only after one has actually experienced the phenomenon upon which the berakha is recited.  Therefore, only one who eats bread recites Grace After Meals, only one who hears thunder recites "Whose strength and power fills the world," and only one who sees a spectacular mountain or sea recites "Who does the work of Creation." 


However, we have already asked (, regarding the morning blessings, Birkot Ha-shachar (Berakhot 60b): are there some birkot ha-shevach that one recites upon the mere existence of a phenomenon, even if one has not actually experienced it oneself?


Regarding the morning blessings, for example, the Rambam (Hilkhot Tefilla 7:7-9) writes that one should only recite these berakhot as one performs the associated actions.  For instance, as one fastens one's belt one recites "Who girds Israel with power," and as one puts on one's shoes one recites "Who has filled all of my needs."  Furthermore, one who does not experience one of these occurrences, such as a person who does not hear the rooster crowing, should not recite the corresponding berakha!


Others disagree (see Tosafot, Berakhot 60b, s.v. Ki shama; Ramban, Pesachim 81; and the Geonim cited by the Kol Bo, 1), claiming that these berakhot refer broadly to the natural order created by God, and one must recite these berakhot whether or not one actually benefits from or experiences the specific phenomenon. 


Practically speaking, while the Shulchan Arukh (OC 46:8) rules that one who does not benefit from the theme of a specific berakha should recite an abridged berakha (without mentioning God's name, see below), the Rema rules that the common practice is to recite all of these berakhot, regardless of one's personal experience.  (Sephardim also follow this practice, as it is endorsed by the Arizal.)


What about Birkat Ha-mappil?  While it is unrealistic to recite a berakha AFTER one has already fallen asleep, is the berakha meant to be said immediately before the experience, over la-asiyyatan?  If so, one who does not succeed in sleeping has actually recited a blessing in vain!  Alternatively, is the blessing intended to broadly relate to the phenomenon of sleep?  If so, it should preferably be recited upon beginning the process of falling asleep, but ultimately one who remains awake will not have recited a blessing for naught (berakha le-vattala).


Rabbi Moshe Ben Yehuda Makhir (16th-century Tzefat), in his "Seder Ha-yom," writes that one should not recite Birkat Ha-mappil until one feels himself being overcome by sleep.  The Mishna Berura (4) writes that one should not interrupt between the berakha and falling asleep.  In fact, in Bei'ur Halakha (239), he writes that one should omit "shem u-malkhut" (literally, name and kingship; i.e., the holy names of God and the title "King of the universe"), if he is unsure if he will fall asleep.


In fact, there are, and always have been, pious individuals and scholars who either always omit Birkat Ha-mappil or recite it without shem u-malkhut


The Chayyei Adam (35:4), however, disagrees.  He writes that even on a night in which one does not sleep, Ha-mappil is NOT a berakha le-vattala, as it reflects the natural order ("minhag ha-olam"), like Birkot Ha-shachar.  Therefore, if one feels hungry or thirsty, one may eat or drink, and Birkat Ha-mappil is NOT considered to have been recited in vain.  The Eliyya Rabba (239:3), citing the Keneset Ha-gedola, concurs. 


In Bei'ur Halakha (239:1), the Mishna Berura summarizes this debate and suggests a possible practical difference.  He questions whether one who lies down to sleep before dawn, estimating that he will not fall asleep until daytime, should recite Ha-mappil.  Assuming that daytime is not a valid time for Birkat Ha-mappil, he asks whether the beginning of the process, going to sleep, or the end of the process, falling asleep, generates the obligation to recite Ha-mappil.  One might ask the same question from the opposite perspective, regarding one who goes to sleep slightly before night but estimates he will fall asleep after dark.  Seemingly, this question may depend on whether Ha-mappil is recited upon the practice of going to sleep ("minhago shel olam") or the sleep itself.  He concludes that one should NOT recite Ha-mappil.  Some Acharonim invoke the principle "sefek berakhot le-hakel," that we are lenient with blessings (to omit them) in cases of doubt, regarding these scenarios, and they recommend reciting the berakha without shem u-malkhut.   


Interestingly, the Kol Bo (29), a medieval halakhic author, cites another reason not to speak after Shema.  He records that it is customary neither to eat nor to drink nor to speak after the bedtime Shema, and that his practice is based upon the verse (Berakhot 4b), "Tremble and do not sin; commune with your own heart upon your bed, and be still, Selah" (Tehillim 4:5).  The Rema (239:1) cites this as well. 


We should emphasize that the Kol Bo refers to Keriat Shema, not to Birkat Ha-mappil.  Indeed, some Acharonim note that while there is no actual prohibition to interrupt between Shema and sleeping, when necessary one may eat or recite Asher Yatzar (the blessing recited after relieving oneself) and then afterwards recite Shema again, before falling asleep.


Rabbi Eli'ezer Waldenberg, in his Tzitz Eli'ezer (7:27), rules in accordance with the Peri Sadeh (1:93) and the Hitorerut Ha-teshuva (128), concluding by citing a pamphlet entitled "Zikhru Torat Moshe":


Regarding speaking - certainly one who is able to avoid speaking after Keriat Shema should strive to fulfill the words of the Kol Bo; however, most people need not observe this stringency.  Especially when being asked a question, one may respond; even a pious person need not be stringent, as even in between the paragraphs [of Keriat Shema], one may respond to any person, and certainly here.


The Be'er Moshe (1:63) and Rav Ovadya Yosef (Yechavveh Da'at 4:21) concur with this ruling.


The Proper Time and Text for Keriat Shema al Ha-mitta:


As mentioned above, Ha-mappil is not recited when sleeping during the day (Mishna Berura 239:8). 


Abraham David ben Asher Anshel Wahrman of Buczacz, in his Eshel Avraham (239), insists that one should not recite Ha-mappil before a nighttime "shenat arai" (nap) either.  Although the Acharonim debate whether a "shenat arai" should be defined objectively (i.e., less than ½ an hour), or by one's intention, practically one should only recite Ha-mappil before going to sleep for the night. 


Furthermore, if one rises during the night for a while and then goes to sleep a second time, one should NOT repeat Ha-mappil


There is a tradition rooted in Kabbala not to recite Ha-mappil after midnight (Rav Pe'alim 1:14, Lachmei Toda 21, Yechavveh Da'at 4:21).  While some, including many Sephardim, refrain from reciting Ha-mappil with shem u-malkhut after midnight, common custom is to recite Ha-mappil until dawn.


Regarding the proper text, we have already noted that there are different customs concerning the order of Keriat Shema and Ha-mappil


The Shulchan Arukh adds, based upon the Gemara (Shevuot 16b), other "verses of mercy" that are customary to say before going to sleep.  Clearly one who fears that he may fall asleep before reciting Shema or Ha-mappil should omit these verses. 


What is the proper position for reciting the bedtime Shema?  The Shulchan Arukh (63:1) writes, regarding the morning Shema, that one may recite it while walking, standing, lying or even riding on an animal.  He adds, however, based upon the Gemara (Berakhot 13b) that one should not recite Shema while lying on one's back, face up.  Even while reclining slightly to one's side one should not read Shema, according to the Gemara, as it appears as if one is accepting the yoke of Heaven from a position of haughtiness (see Rashi ad loc.).  The Rema adds that one who is overweight (see Gemara ibid.) or sick may lean to the side.  The Mishna Berura (239:6) cites those who are stringent and suggest reciting the bedtime Shema while standing or sitting, if one has not already lain down. 


Finally, the Mishna Berura (9) writes that every evening one should examine one's deeds, confess one's transgressions and accept upon oneself not to return to one's mistakes.  In addition, one should also forgive those who have sinned against him, reciting the formula "Hareini mochel…" ("I hereby forgive…") each evening.



Next week we will begin our study of the sanctity of the beit keneset (synagogue).