Continuing in our series, here’s the list. Much is from Shulchan Aruch, the standard Code of Jewish Law. The rest is advice from wise people.

Nighttime Activities

Yes, I know you’re exhausted. I also know about irresponsible roommates, colicky babies, infants with croup, calming kids with school anxiety, waiting up for teenagers at night, and sleeping with arthritis—and that’s only one thin slice of the gamut of life’s sleep disorders. What I’m trying to do here is present at least an ideal towards which, on those occasions that permit some degree of control, you can at least strive.

  • Study some Torah. Even if it’s late, just immerse yourself in some words of Torah, so that you will sleep with those thoughts.1 Maimonides writes that a person gains most of their wisdom from Torah studied at night.2 Fill your mind with it, so that it will process in your dreams. Often, solutions to Torah that you study at this time will come to you in your dreams. Interesting study cited in Scientific American on that.
  • A neat trick is to finish by marking the place from where you’ll start learning the next day. That primes your mind for productive learning in the morning.3
  • Relax, maybe have a hot shower, or go for a walk so you will sleep well and wake up refreshed.4
  • Review the day in your mind. Think of something that went well. Think of something that could be fixed or improved. Think of all the wonderful blessings you have in your life—friends, parents, children—all the things that have real value. Don’t beat yourself—this is not an exercise in self-blaming and guilt. The point is to get a clear perspective of yourself and your day, where you are coming from and where you are going to.

The Bedtime Shema

Look in your siddur and you’ll find a whole pack of things to say before going to bed. As with everything in that siddur, the biggest mistake is to start off by saying all of it. As the Talmudic dictum goes, “Grab too much and you grab nothing.” So what should you start off with? Here is a description of the four basic elements of the bedtime Shema, what they are and what they’re there for:

1. The Forgiveness Formula

“Master of the Universe! I hereby forgive anyone who has angered or bothered me, or has sinned against me . . .”

Sleep is a journey. As with any journey, you’ll come back more refreshed if you travel light. So now’s the time to leave the baggage behind—meaning, all those grudges and hard feelings that may have been collecting over the day.

The Talmud5 tells us of a rabbi named Mar Zutra, who would make sure to forgive anyone who may have hurt him before going to bed. The Zohar6 tells the following story:

Rabbi Abba was sitting at the gates of Lod when he saw a man coming. The man sat down on a pile of rocks on edge of a mountain cliff. He was tired from his journey, and so, as he sat there, he fell asleep on those rocks.

Then Rabbi Abba saw a deadly snake was coming towards that person to harm him. But a branch fell off a tree, crushed the snake and killed it.

The man awoke to find a dead snake lying next to him. He arose and left the pile of rocks. Just then, those rocks avalanched over the edge of the cliff to a deep valley. It was obvious that if the man had stayed a moment longer, he would have been carried to certain death.

Rabbi Abba ran over to the man and asked him, “Tell me about your deeds. For G‑d has made two miracles for you. Certainly this is not for nothing!”

The man replied, “All my days, never have I not forgiven and made up with anyone who wronged me. Furthermore, if I was not able to make up with him that day, I would not get into my bed until I had forgiven him, along with anyone else who might have wronged me. Once I had forgiven them, I was never concerned for the rest of my life about whatever wrong they had done to me. And not only that, but from that day on, I would try to do favors for those people, so that they should not think that I hate them.”

Not every siddur has the Forgiveness Formula. Those that do, generally copy the version presented by Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz in his classic 17th-century siddur. There he writes that this version has been passed down from one sage to another from the early Kabbalists.

In many versions, the formula concludes with a plea to G‑d to return the favor—just as I have forgiven others, perhaps You could forgive me. After all, Rava, the Talmudic sage, would often say, “Anyone who overlooks the sins of others towards him, Heaven overlooks all his sins towards Heaven.”7

What if you can’t get yourself to forgive? That’s such a common question, we’ve got oodles of great articles, audios and videos on the topic. But keep in mind that the formula is not asking you to forgive Nazis or terrorists. And if you can’t forgive completely, at least forgive enough that you will not take vengeance.

A young man sat pondering the page in his siddur, trying to get himself to say with sincerity, “I hereby forgive all those who have angered or bothered me, or have sinned against me . . .”

Until he felt a warm, gentle hand on his shoulder. He looked up to see a wise, older man, who said, “Before you ponder whether you forgive them, perhaps you should ponder whether they forgive you.”8

We don’t say this formula on Shabbat and Yom Tov, since those are days of pleasure and delight.

2. Shema Yisrael

The basics of this central meditation/declaration of a Jew can be found in our Mitzvah Minute section.

For many people, the hardest thing about falling asleep is that act of surrender—letting go and allowing G‑d to take over. The Talmud9 describes sleep as one-sixtieth of death. Wherever life is diminished, a vacuum draws in forces of impurity and unwanted thoughts. That’s a tad scary. So, although we’ve already said the evening Shema Yisrael in the evening prayer, the Talmud tells us to repeat it again at bedtime10 for a little more protection. Say the words clearly and with mental focus, and they will continue to run through your mind as you sleep, their light enveloping you and protecting you through the night.

The Shema Yisrael is comprised of three sections. At the beginning, start with the first section. You can build up from there.

3. Vidui

“Who will go up on the mountain of G‑d? One whose hands are clean and heart is pure . . .” (Psalm 24)

The Zohar describes how the soul ascends above at night to provide a report on its accomplishments for the day and hear secrets of Torah. But this can only happen if the soul is pure. What if there was some trace of conceit, hypocrisy, greed, anger or other undesirable attitudes during the day? Even more so if someone actually said something or acted on one of those impulsive attitudes. Now is the time to leave those behind, simply by confessing them in a quiet voice and feeling a sense of regret. Saying it out loud has a cleansing effect. More on this in our Mitzvah Minute section, and even more in this article by Chaim Miller.

There are many days of the year that we do not say the Vidui: not only Shabbat and Yom Tov, but other special days, according to custom. Most prayer books contain a list of such days. Here’s the one from Tehillat Hashem:

  • The night after Shabbat, until midnight
  • Rosh Chodesh (New Moon)
  • The entire month of Nissan (the Jewish month in which Passover falls)
  • Pesach Sheni (the 14th day of the Jewish month of Iyar)
  • Lag B’omer (18th of Iyar)
  • From Yom Kippur until the end of the Jewish month of Tishrei
  • All of Chanukah
  • The 15th of the Jewish month of Shevat
  • Purim and Shushan Purim
  • Purim Katan and Shushan Purim Katan

4. The blessing on sleep

Also as prescribed in the Talmud,11 this is both a prayer and a blessing. We acknowledge that G‑d has made us slaves to sleep, and we pray to Him to help us have only good thoughts in our sleep and to awake back to life. And we provide Him a blessing, that “He shines to the entire world with His glory.”

When you go up above and make your report, that’s probably the best line to have in mind.

“So what do you think of My world?”

“I looked everywhere and I saw that everywhere I look shines with Your glory!”

Certainly a lot better technique than reporting on all the mud.

Some say12 that these final words are a blessing for the light of day. If so, this is actually a blessing not only on falling asleep, but on waking up.

In some prayerbooks, this blessing is placed at the beginning, before the Shema Yisrael. In others, it’s the last thing you say. Either way, say it once everything is taken care of and you’re ready to shut your eyes. Once you’ve said it, don’t get involved in anything else but falling asleep.

Other Stuff

Much of the rest of the text in the standard Bedtime Shema are from the Psalms and other Biblical texts, amplifying the themes of the four principal elements described above: meditation, forgiveness, regret and supernal compassion. As you become more fluent in the mainstay items, you can add these on, one by one.

Falling Asleep

Now, you are ready for the ultimate act of surrender in the most dignified fashion. Just a few more pointers:

  • The Talmud13 is adamant about not sleeping on your back or on your stomach, but only on your side. Maimonides, who was not only a great codifier and philosopher but also one of the great doctors in history, suggests that you get in the habit of sleeping the first part of the night on your left, and end off on your right. More advice from Maimonides: Don’t sleep immediately after eating; wait 3–4 hours.14
  • Best insurance for sweet dreams: read tales of tzaddikim in bed until you fall asleep.
  • Be confident that you’ve put this day behind you, cleared up any misdemeanors between you and G‑d, and made peace in your heart with other people. Get ready to turn in a wonderful report of all of G‑d’s kindnesses and wonders.

See you in the morning for the next installment, where we learn life’s greatest secret: how to be awake.