By Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried
Dear Rabbi Fried,
Zachary and I just had our first little girl, who’s a little angel, and we want her to grow up feeling Jewish. I know how important the bedtime prayers are to Christian children; they remember forever kneeling at their beds with their mother or father. We would like to do something like that with our little Annie, but neither of us ever had anything like that growing up as Jews. Is there a Jewish version of bedtime prayers that we could do with her?
Mazel tov and much nachas from your little Annie!
I would strongly agree with your assessment that the bedtime prayers are tremendously important and that at that impressionable age they have a long-term impact on the life of the child. This is true both religiously and emotionally, as we will see. Furthermore, ironically, not only do we also have a bedtime prayer; the Christians, as with many of their other customs, got the bedtime prayers from us!
Our prayer is called the “bedtime recitation of the Sh’ma.” It consists of two key component parts and some additional sections. The earliest source of this is in the Torah itself, when G-d tells us to read the Sh’ma Yisrael twice a day: “when you lie down and when you arise.” This we fulfill by reciting the Sh’ma at bedtime. The Sh’ma is not actually a “prayer,” rather a statement of our faith in One G-d and accepting His service.
The earliest sages also penned a blessing which accompanies the recitation of the Sh’ma upon retiring at night. It is known as “Hamapil,” praising G-d for the gift of sleep. In it, we pray for a restful sleep, to lie down and rise up in peace, not have bad thoughts or bad dreams, etc. It is based on the premise of Judaism that when we sleep, we entrust our souls to G-d, and they partially leave us during sleep to return to visit heaven during the night. Much like a cell phone needs to recharge after the day’s use, our heavenly souls, after a day in the mundane world, need a recharge by plugging into their Source to have the strength to go on.
The later sages added further prayers for introspection of our deeds over the past day, forgiving all those who have wronged us, prayers for protection and redemption. The full English rendition can be found in the prayerbook “The ArtScroll Siddur” (available locally at Lone Star Judaica or at artscroll.com), pp. 289-295. I would recommend starting with the two main parts on p. 289, the Hamapil blessing and the paragraph of Sh’ma, which are the most important parts, and ending with the Adon Olam.
I know from my own children how much they love and look forward to my wife or myself lying in bed with them at night and reciting with them the Sh’ma. I look forward to those tired little voices asking me “Aba, will you come and say Sh’ma with me?” It’s a special, unique and tender time in their lives, when we can show them how important they are. Imagine how my 8-year-old feels when I stop a class I’m teaching at home to go and “say Sh’ma” with him!
The following story illustrates the enduring impact of the bedtime Sh’ma. After the Second World War, a leading American rabbi led a mission to Europe to redeem Jewish children who had been entrusted to convents by their (now deceased) parents for safekeeping until after the war. The priest overseeing one convent, known to house many Jewish children, refused permission to interview the children, claiming it would re-awaken their war memories, denying any Jewish children were present. The rabbi asked to utter merely six words to the entire group, which couldn’t possibly cause any harm. With warnings to the rabbi to stick to his promise of six words, the priest assembled the children in the convent courtyard. The rabbi, with much emotion, stood up and recited these six words: “Sh’ma Yisrael A-do-nai E-lo-heinu A-do-nai Echad!” This awoke in those children’s memories the beloved words they remembered saying with their dear parents at bedtime years ago, and they ran to the rabbi with tears, grabbing his legs and repeating the words of Sh’ma.
May you have much Jewish nachas from Annie and enjoy the ecstasy of this timeless Jewish tradition for many years to come.
Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried, noted scholar and author of numerous works on Jewish law, philosophy and Talmud, is founder and dean of DATA, the Dallas Kollel. Questions can be sent to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.