How did the early rabbis conceptualize sleep? Taking a look at the Mishnah, as one of the most significant pieces of tannaitic literature, will provide us with some useful insights. While I aspire to discuss all occurrences of sleep in the Mishnah, this post is the first in, hopefully, a series.
In a clear-cut fashion, the Mishnah outright states that eating brings sleep (Yoma 1.4):
עֶרֶב יוֹם הַכִּפּוּרִים עִם חֲשֵׁכָה, לֹא הָיוּ מַנִּיחִים אוֹתוֹ לֶאֱכֹל הַרְבֵּה, מִפְּנֵי שֶׁהַמַּאֲכָל מֵבִיא אֶת הַשֵּׁנָה
On the eve of Yom Kippur, they would not give him a lot to eat, since eating brings upon sleep.
It seems they were quite aware of the effects that digestion can have on someone’s alertness.
Even when brothers who have some sort of shared arrangement and eat at their father’s table, yet they sleep at their own houses, they are required to eruv together, since sleeping in their own houses seems to establish their dwelling (Eruvin 6.7):
האחין והשותפין שהיו אוכלין על שולחן אביהם, וישנים בבתיהם–צריכין עירוב לכל אחד ואחד
Brothers and partners who eat at their father’s table and they sleep in their houses need to combine with each and every one of them.
Sleep as Lacking Awareness
Somewhat similar in a spatial consideration, although temporally-specific is the occurrence when people are sleeping and arise with it being Shabbat (Eruvin 4.5-6):
מי שישן בדרך, ולא ידע עד שחשיכה–יש לו אלפיים אמה לכל רוח, דברי רבי יוחנן בן נורי
וחכמים אומרים, אין לו אלא ארבע אמות
רבי אלעזר אומר, והוא באמצען
רבי יהודה אומר, לאיזו רוח שירצה
מודה רבי יהודה, שאם בירר לו, שאינו יכול לחזור בו
היו שניים–מקצת אמותיו של זה לתוך אמותיו של זה, מביאין ואוכלין באמצע: ובלבד שלא יוציא זה מתוך שלו, לתוך של חברו
היו שלושה, והאמצעי מובלע בינתיים–הוא מותר עימהן והן מותרין עימו, ושניים החיצונים אסורים זה עם זה
אמר רבי שמעון, למה הדבר דומה: לשלוש חצרות פתוחות זו לזו, ופתוחות לרשות הרבים, ועירבו שתיהן עם האמצעית–היא מותרת עימהן והן מותרות עימה, ושתיים החיצונות אסורות זו עם זו
“One who fell asleep on the road and did not know until [waking up] once it had darkened, he has 2000 cubits in every direction,” Rabbi Yohanan, son of Noori’s words.
The sages say: “He only has four cubits.”
Rabbi Elazar says: “And he is in the center.”
Rabbi Yehudah says: “In whichever direction he wants.”
Rabbi Yehudah conceded that if he chose [a direction] for himself, he may not [afterwards] go back upon it [and change his mind].
If there were two people [who fell asleep on the road and did not know until [waking up] once it had darkened], that part of the four cubits [permitted] to each are within the limits of the other, they may take and eat their meal in the middle [within their joint space]; but only if neither of them take out [his food] from his [limits] and into those of his fellow.
If there were three people [who fell asleep on the road and did not know until [waking up] once it had darkened], and [the four cubits belonging to] the middle one is subsumed by them, he is permitted with them, and they are permitted with him; but the two outer ones are forbidden with each other.
Rabbi Shimon says, “To what is this matter comparable? It is like three courtyards that open into each other and [also] open into the public domain; if the two [outer] ones have made an eruv with the middle one, [the middle courtyard] is permissible to [carry to and from] them, and them [from and into] it; but the two outer ones are forbidden one to the other.”
While the spatial location of their arising from sleeping sets their base point from which they can move on Shabbat, the significance of sleep seems to point more to sleep as a form of lack of conscious awareness and it is suddenly Shabbat for them, rather than the sleep being a focus for these texts.
Another temporal-spatial consideration
Sleeping in the sukkah is a temporally-delimited function, although where one is sleeping is under consideration here: under what may one sleep? Whether under boards or a bed, the sleeping must take place underneath the sukkah, itself – one may not sleep under boards (Sukkah 1.8):
נתן עליה נסר שהוא רחב ארבעה טפחים–כשרה, ובלבד שלא יישן תחתיו
If one placed a board that was four fistbreadths wide, the sukkah is fit, as long as one does not sleep beneath it.
nor may one sleep beneath a bed (Sukkah 2.1):
הישן תחת המיטה, לא יצא ידי חובתו.
אמר רבי יהודה, נוהגים היינו ישנים תחת המיטות, בפני הזקנים.
אמר רבי שמעון, מעשה בטבי עבדו של רבן גמליאל שהיה ישן תחת המיטה; אמר רבן גמליאל לזקנים, ראיתם טבי עבדי, שהוא תלמיד חכמים, ויודע שהעבדים פטורין מן הסוכה, ובא וישן לו תחת המיטה.
לפי דרכנו למדנו, שהישן תחת המיטה–לא יצא ידי חובתו
One who sleeps under a bed in a sukkah has not fulfilled his obligation.
Rabbi Yehudah says, “We were accustomed to sleeping beneath beds [in sukkot], in front of the elders.”
Rabbi Shimon says: “There was an incident with Tavi, Rabban Gamaliel’s slave, who was sleeping beneath a bed. Rabban Gamaliel said to the elders, ‘Have you seen my slave Tavi? He is a disciple of the Sages, and he knows that slaves are exempt from the sukkah, and he comes and sleeps beneath the bed.’
And thus in accordance with our way we deduce that one who sleeps under a bed [in a sukkah] has not fulfilled his obligation.
According to our way, we have learned that one who sleeps beneath the bed has not fulfilled one’s obligation.
The sleeping here is meant to be just like that of other appropriate activities in the sukkah – done to experience the covering of the sukkah.
Valuing Sleep for Sick People
One distinction made with sleep is for those who are sick versus those who are not. While one is typically not permitted to extinguish a candle, along with three situations in which one may be endangered through leaving a candle lit, one may extinguish a candle on behalf of a sick person (Shabbat 2.5):
המכבה את הנר מפני שהוא מתיירא מפני גויים, מפני לסטים, או מפני רוח רעה, ואם בשביל החולה שיישן–פטור;
כחס על הנר, כחס על השמן, כחס על הפתילה–חייב.
רבי יוסי פוטר בכולן, חוץ מן הפתילה, מפני שהוא עושה פחם
One who extinguishes the candle because he is afraid of gentiles, of bandits, of a bad wind, or on account of a sick person who should sleep, he is exempt.
One who extinguishes the lamp for preserving the candle, for preserving the oil, or for preserving the wick, he is liable.
Rabbi Yose exempts in all of these, except from preserving the wick, since he is producing coal.
Seemingly, sleep for a sick person is valued here, especially, it would seem, to help that person’s health improve.
Ability to Perform Time-Constrained Actions
The most fascinating aspect of sleep in Mishnah Seder Moed, I believe, is that revolving around the ability to perform specific time-bound actions.
Can one eat the afikoman when people are sleeping? While at night and a lengthy meal (especially with so much eating, that sleep could easily befall someone (see mYoma 1)), the possibility of sleep befalling people at a seder is quite high. So can they perform this action? If they are asleep, this Mishnah tells us, no. But if there are still some people who are awake, then yes.
However, Rabbi Yose is not happy with this distinction and seeks further determination of how asleep people are (Pesahim 10.8):
ישנו מקצתן, יאכלו; וכולן, לא יאכלו.
רבי יוסי אומר, נתנמנמו, יאכלו; נרדמו, לא יאכלו
If some of the people are sleeping, they eat; if all of them are sleeping, they should not eat.
Rabbi Yose says: “If they are dozing off, they eat; if they are fully asleep, they should not eat.”
Rabbi Yose’s distinguishing here between mere dozing and full-on sleep is a fascinating distinction.
Dozing off and performing an obligatory action occurs also with hearing the reading of Megillat Esther – can one fulfill one’s duty if they have fallen asleep while reading it?
קראה סירוגין, או מתנמנם–יצא
If one read the Megillah in intervals or while dozing – he has fulfilled his duty.
This mishnah (Megillah 2.2) permits breaks in between one’s reading of the Megillah of Esther to fulfill one’s duty, although one wonders whether full-on sleeping would be permitted between reading sections of the Megillah of Esther, or if dozing here is specified, as one more-or-less has a sense of consciousness, just they happen to be coming in and out of alertness. However, if one fell fully asleep, it may be that one would not be allowed to return to reading the Megillah. However, this dozing off seems to be the liminal boundary for reading of Megillat Esther, as full-on sleeping would most likely not count as fulfilling one’s duty. It would seem, though, that this works for the reader; for a listener, one would need to be awake to fulfill one’s duty of hearing it. It’s also unclear whether the reader is reading it in between dozing off or whether this person is still reading it even when dozing off.
Another place where dozing occurs is that of the Kohen Godol, who is expected to remain awake all night of Yom Kippur (Yoma 1.7):
ביקש להתנמנם, פרחי לוייה מכין לפניו באצבע צרדה, ואומרין לו, אישי כוהן גדול, עמוד והפג אחת על הרצפה; ומעסקין אותו, עד שמגיע זמן השחיטה
If he wanted to doze off, young priests would snap their middle fingers in front of him and say to him, “My master, High Priest, stand up and get rid of one on the floor.” And they would engage with him until reaching the time of slaughtering.
Pulling an all-nighter is no easy feat, especially when fasting, so the high priest needs help in remaining awake and dozing is the first step to falling asleep, it would seem.
Considering sleep in Mishnah Seder Moed yielded instances related to specific ritual performances at certain times, as one might expect. We also got a general notion regarding sleep, that eating helps bring it on. We also see that a special value is accorded to a sick person – that that person is especially deserving of sleep. One fascinating of sleep that emerges amongst these texts is dozing off as the boundary between sleeping and awakeness. While dozing off is seen as a gateway action towards fully sleeping (mYoma 1.7), it is seen as not being fully asleep (mMegillah 2.2 and mPesahim 10.8) and, therefore, still considered available to consciously participate in rituals. In addition to these instances of sleep in Mishnah Seder Moed, I can’t help but also observe that the named sages who are quoted as discussing sleep are contemporaries: Rabbi Yose, Rabbi Shimon, and Rabbi Yehudah.