You don’t have to open up more than the first page of the Shulchan Aruch, Code of Jewish Law to see the importance of sleep in Judaism. How to wake up, how to go to sleep, how much to sleep to get, which position to sleep in, which direction to put your bed, sleep on the holidays, Shabbos naps, it’s almost endless. And for those who are more mystically inclined, the Kabbalah is replete with references to the power of dreams, sleep-filled prophetic states, and the soul powering journey that the soul goes through every night while asleep.
So isn’t it interesting, that as a rabbi and a sleep coach, I see first hand that Jews are one of the most underslept groups on the planet. Yes, you might tell me, maybe that little stereotype of Jewish mothers worrying more than usual might feed into our collective insomnia, but I believe it’s much more than that.
As ironic as its sounds, the high standard of excellence and driven communal goals impose sleep as a secondary commodity. And in a certain sense, rightfully so. The growth mindset of Jewish families to rebuild the Jewish people with households of young children is most noble indeed, especially with the self-sacrifice of young mothers who hold it all together. The value of charity, Torah study, and communal needs, for many parents, only starts after the kids are in bed, making late nights and early mornings the new norm.
But I think it’s time for every individual to have their personal wake up call, and ask themselves at what price does their sleep go by the wayside? I believe that the amount of sleep an adult should get is a very personal decision, based upon a number of factors. I don’t believe that pushing the average working adult for 8 hours of sleep a night is realistic or admirable, because a Jew lives with the reality that every waking moment is precious.
The real litmus test is quality over quantity. Yes, being on every committee in town late into the night is wonderful, but does that leave you frazzled the next day, snapping at your kids, unable to be focused at work? You might think the “religious” thing to do is to learn until 1 AM, but what would the quality of your learning look like if you were more well-rested overall, without all of those breaks at the coffee station?
It reminds me of a fascinating story of the famous rabbi, the Vilna Gaon, who lived on four 30 minutes naps a day. One of the Gaon’s married students idolized the Gaon’s diligence and took on such a schedule for himself as well, only sleeping two hours a day in short increments. The man’s wife was worried about his new sleepless piety and went to the Gaon for advice. The Vilna Gaon called the man into his study, walked over to a shelf full of books and picked it up high off the ground. He told the man that if he could have the same strength on two hours of sleep, he could continue his regiment, but if not, it was time to go back to bed.
The conclusion of this story is fascinating. That means the Vilna Gaon was not interested in pushing himself more than his prime. Could he have slept one hour instead? Perhaps yes, but it would have taken its toll elsewhere, and to the Gaon, this would have been less than ideal. Life is a carefully synchronized balance. We should be pushing for excellence in all areas of our lives, but as the Rambam puts it, most often that excellence comes from traveling in the middle of the road and finding synergy of body, mind and soul.
This is what makes me so passionate about helping people sleep better. Sleep is the foundation of just about everything going on in our lives. Our immune system, energy levels, metabolism, focus, mood, concentration, ability to communicate well, handle stress and challenge… if you are well-rested, there is no challenge that you can’t face. If you are sleep deprived, every little thing seems like an insurmountable obstacle.
So maybe now is the perfect time for a wake up call. How have you been sleeping lately?