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?
Mazal 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, like many other customs of Christianity they got the bedtime prayers from us!
Our prayer is call the “bedtime recitation of the Shema.” It consists of two key component parts and some additional sections. The earliest source of this is in the Torah itself, when God tells us to read the Shema Yisrael twice a day: “when you lie down and when you arise.” This we fulfill by reciting the Shema at bedtime. The Shema is not actually a “prayer,” rather a statement of our faith in One God and accepting His service.
The sages also penned a blessing which accompanies the recitation of the Shema upon retiring at night. It is known as “Hamapil,” which praises God for the gift of sleep. In it, we pray for a restful sleep, to lie down and rise up in peace, not to have bad thoughts or bad dreams, and more. It is based on the premise of Judaism that when we sleep, we entrust our souls to God, and they partially leave us during sleep to return to visit Heaven during the night. Much like a cellphone needs to recharge after the day’s usage, our Heavenly souls, after a day in the mundane world, need a recharge by plugging in to their Source to have the strength to go on.
The 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 prayer book 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 Shema, which are the most important parts, and ending with the Adon Olam.
I remember how much my own children, when they were young, would treasure and look forward to my wife or myself lying in bed with them at night and reciting with them the Shema. I always looked forward to those tired little voices asking me “Aba, will you come and say Shema with me?” It’s a special, unique and tender time in their lives, when we can show them how important they are. Imagine how a young child would feel when I would stop a class I was teaching at home to “say Shema” with him or her!
The following story punctuates the enduring impact of the bedtime Shema.
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, rumored to be housing many Jewish children, refused permission to interview the children, claiming it would reawaken their war memories. They denied the presence of any Jewish children, with the obvious hopes to retain them there as Christians.
The rabbi, undaunted, requested permission to utter merely six words to the entire group, which couldn’t possibly cause any harm. With warnings to stick to his promise of six words only, the priest assembled the children in the convent courtyard. The rabbi, with much emotion, stood up and recited six words: “Shema 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 many Jewish children ran to the rabbi with tears, grabbing his legs and repeating the words of Shema!
May you have much Jewish nachas from Annie and enjoy the ecstasy of this timeless Jewish tradition for many years to come.
Dear Rabbi Fried,