29 April 2022
‘Make the bonds of sleep
fall on my eyes, and
slumber on my eyelids’
On this Friday evening, I am reflecting on the traditional Jewish prayers before sleep at night, which begin:
‘Blessed are you, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who makes the bonds of sleep fall on my eyes, and slumber on my eyelids.
‘May it be your will, Lord my God and God of my fathers, that you make me lie down in peace and arise in peace.
‘Let not my imagination, bad dreams or troubling thoughts disturb me.
‘May my bed be flawless before you.
‘Enlighten my eyes lest I sleep the sleep of death, for it is you who illuminate the pupil of the eye.
‘Blessed are you, Lord, who gives light to the whole world in his glory.’
Writing about these traditional prayers before sleep at night, the former Chief Rabbi, the late Lord (Jonathan) Sachs, says: ‘Just as our first words in the morning should be words of prayer, so should our last at night.’
He identifies ten components of these night prayers:
1, a prayer for peaceful sleep and a safe awakening, mentioned in the Talmud (Berachot 60b);
2, the first paragraph of the Shema, ensuring these words are with us ‘when we lie down’;
3, Psalm 91, a prayer for protection from danger;
4, Psalm 3, chosen because of its reference to night: ‘I lie down and sleep; I wake again, for the Lord sustains me’ (Psalm 3: 5);
5, ‘Help us lie down …’ – three paragraphs from the evening service;
6, ‘May the angel who rescued me from all harm …’ – a series of Biblical verses about safety and security;
7, A verse about angels, based on ‘The angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear him, and delivers them’ (Psalm 34: 7) and ‘He will command his angels about you, to guard you in all your ways’ (Psalm 91: 11);
8, Psalm 128, about work, recalling the phrase from Ecclesiastes 5: 12, ‘Sweet is the sleep of laborers, whether they eat little or much; but the surfeit of the rich will not let them sleep’
9, ‘When you are disturbed, do not sin; ponder it on your beds, and be silent’ – words from Psalm 4: 4, mentioned in the Talmud (Berachot 4b) as an appropriate verse before sleep;
10, The hymn Adon Olam (אֲדוֹן עוֹלָם), ‘Eternal Lord’ or ‘Sovereign of the Universe,’ one of the best-known and best-loved Jewish prayers. It has been a regular part of the daily and Shabbat liturgy since the 15th century. It is said here because of its closing lines with their reference to entrusting our souls and bodies to God’s safekeeping at night:
Into his hand I commit my spirit
When I sleep, and I awake
And with my spirit, my body
The Lord is with me, I will not fear.
Scripture references are to the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org