The Shema recited at bedtime consist of many sections. It opens with a moving night prayer (Hamapil Sheinah) in which one prays that evil thoughts, dreams and fancies not trouble our sleep. The Shema formula and the verses from Deuteronomy are followed by Psalms 91 and 3, the Hashkiveinu prayer ("Cause us to lie down in peace and raise us up unto life"); a collection of verses from Job and Psalms; followed by a collection of verses of good omen from Genesis, Exodus, Zechariah, Song of Solomon, and Numbers.

The latter collection of verses is referred to collectively in the Talmud as pesukei d'rahamei (verses of mercy), recommended for recital before retiring.[1] The first, and particularly beautiful, verse in this group reads as follows:

"May the Angel who has redeemed me from all harm —
Bless the lads.
In them may My name be recalled.
And the names of my fathers Abraham and Isaac,
And may they be teeming multitudes upon the earth."

This verse is taken from Jacob's blessing to his grandsons, Ephraim and Menashe (Genesis 48:16). Hands placed on their heads, Jacob prays to God for their protection; he prays that these grandchildren identify with the traditions and values of their patriarchs, and that they multiply (yidgu, from the word dag, "fish").

Commentators, observing the parallelism with the previous verse (v.15) — "The God whose ways my fathers… walked / The God who has been my shepherd…" - conclude that "angel" is here an epithet of God. "No one in the Bible ever invokes an angel in prayer, nor in Jacob's several encounters with angels is there any mention of one who delivers him from harm. When the patriarch feels himself to be in mortal danger, he prays directly to God… Admittedly, "Angel" as an epithet for God is extraordinary, but since angels are often simply extensions of the divine personality, the distinction between God and angel in the biblical texts is frequently blurred."[2]

The Zohar remarks that the verb go'el (redeem) is in present, and not past, tense. The Angel of Protection is "forever redeeming," a comforting thought as one approaches the terrors of nighttime.

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More about the Bedtime Shema prayer
Kri'at Shema al-Hamitah (Shema recited upon retiring to bed) is one of the five fixed daily orders of prayer, recited by the individual as he prepares to sleep. The origin of this prayer is in the Talmud, which states that it was instituted to protect the person who any danger or terror that might come upon him during the night.[3] Talmud scholar and translator Adin Steinsaltz writes that "in a deeper and more spiritual sense, it is intended to guard the soul from all kinds of spiritual harm that might occur during the hours of darkness when all kinds of evil power predominate:'You make darkness, and it is night; wherein all the beasts of the forest creep forth.'"[4]

Steinsaltz adds that together with this change in the world in general, another major change occurs in the state of human existence -- sleep. "Sleep is the withdrawal of conscious spirit, and the level of vital energy is lowered not only in terms of conscious spirit, and the level of vital energy is lowered not only in terms of general activity but also in the bodily functions of heartbeat and breathing. for this reason, our sages have aid that sleep is a "mini death", a sixtieth part of death"[5] Sleep, especially during the night, clearly requires protection.[6]


[1] BT Berakhot 5a [back]
[2] Nahum Sarna, Commentary to Genesis, the JPS Torah Commentary (Philadelphia: JPS, 1989). See also Genesis 31:3, 11, 13; Exodus 3:2. 4 [back]
[3] BT Berakhot 4b and 60a [back]
[4] Psalms 104:20 [back]
[5] BT Berakhot 57b[back]
[6] Adin Steinsaltz, A Guide to Jewish Prayer (New York: Schocken Books, 2000) [back]

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