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Wake Up!

November 28, 2020

The legend goes that Napolean would sleep for only four hours a night. “Why so little?” his servants asked him?” He explained, “Every moment I’m awake I can bask in the glory of being the king. But when I’m asleep, I lose the experience. What a shame to miss it!” [1]

להבדיל (to distinguish between the mundane and the sacred), the tradition is that the Vilna Gaon used to sleep for only two hours every day, divided into four 30-minute intervals. The story goes that the Vilna Gaon was once travelling, and he stopped in a certain a town along the way. He was hosted by a prominent member of the town, and after learning Torah for a while, he lay down for one his 30-minute naps. He ended up sleeping for 50 (!) minutes, and was shocked when he awoke and realized that he had overslept! His host heard him cry out from his room, “Oy! I must be in a sleepy town, for when one visits here, he oversleeps!”

Sleep is such an interesting phenomenon. It is a basic human necessity, and yet how, when, and for how long one sleeps varies greatly from person to person. Of course, each person’s body and needs are unique. But what is a healthy perspective on the idea of sleep? How should it fit into our days and our lives?

On one hand, many Rabbis and poskim emphasize the need to get enough sleep. Rambam writes:


הַיּוֹם וְהַלַּיְלָה כ''ד שָׁעוֹת. דַּי לוֹ לָאָדָם לִישֹׁן שְׁלִישָׁן שֶׁהוּא שְׁמוֹנֶה שָׁעוֹת. וְיִהְיוּ בְּסוֹף הַלַּיְלָה כְּדֵי שֶׁתִּהְיֶה מִתְּחִלַּת שְׁנָתוֹ עַד שֶׁתַּעֲלֶה הַשֶּׁמֶשׁ שְׁמוֹנֶה שָׁעוֹת. וְנִמְצָא עוֹמֵד מִמִּטָּתוֹ קֹדֶם שֶׁתַּעֲלֶה הַשֶּׁמֶשׁ.

Together, day and night make up [a period of] twenty four hours. It is sufficient for a man to sleep a third of this period; i.e., eight hours. These should be towards the end of the night, so that there be eight hours from the beginning of his sleep until sunrise. Thus, he should rise from his bed before sunrise. (Mishneh Torah Deot 4:4) [2]

The Rambam seems to suggest that eight hours of a sleep per night is a good recommendation. Surely, we all know well that if one doesn’t sleep enough, it can affect his productivity, davening, mood, relationships, Torah learning, and really everything. Sometimes the best first step to having a great day is making sure to get a good night of sleep.

However, there is another side to the equation. Parshat Vayeitzei begins with Yaaakov fleeing from his home out of fear of his brother Eisav’s anger. Along the way, he stops for a quick snooze. The Torah describes his waking up with the phrase, “וייקץ יעקב משנתו, and Yaakov awoke from his sleep. (Bereishit 28:16)” The word וייקץ translates simply as “and he woke up.” R. Shimon Schwab notes that the root of that word, קץ, has another meaning as well. At the beginning of Sefer Shemot, the Torah describes Pharaoh and the Egyptians’ dislike and disgust for the Jewish people with the phrase, “ויקצו מפני בני ישראל, and they were disgusted by Bnai Yisrael. (Shemot 1:12)” There, that very same root word, קץ, means to be repulsed.

R. Schwab explains that when Yaakov woke up, he felt, like the Vilna Gaon, a certain loathing for the need to sleep when there was so much to accomplish. He needed to sleep, of course- we all do! But he had such a desire for meaning, such an energy for life, that the need to sleep was a burden, and one that the Torah describes with the word וייקץ.

Sometimes I find myself pushing through the day, eyeing that nighttime sleep as a goal or a destination. And then I stop myself and remember that I’m not getting through the day in order to sleep, but I should be sleeping in order to energize my day! Like all physical pleasures, a good sleep can be delicious. And like the Rambam taught us, a good night’s sleep is essential. But we must always remember, that sleep is a tool and a necessity in order to achieve meaning, not an end unto itself. We yearn to be awake, not so we can bask in our greatness like Napolean, but so that we can continue to strive for greatness and toil with the eternal. Maybe it’s no surprise that the Jewish day begins at night; we don’t work so that in the end we can sleep, but we sleep so that we can live the day ahead to its fullest.

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Fox


[1] R. Noach Weinberg, see https://www.simpletoremember.com/articles/a/wake-up-and-live/.

[2] Translation from chabad.org.

Mon, January 25 2021 12 Shevat 5781