“To Life. . .to Peace”—Answers to the Terrors of the Night

By :  Samuel Barth Posted On Jun 19, 2013 / 5773 | Service of the Heart: Exploring Prayer | Prayer

Anomaly invites interpretation. There is a clear pattern to the texts surrounding the Shema’; a pattern that is consistent in the morning and the evening. Two blessings precede the biblical Shema’, one concerned with the natural cycles of light and darkness, and the second exploring the Torah as vehicle for divine love. Following the Shema’, the theme turns to redemption—recalling slavery and liberation, ending with praise to God, “Ga’al Yisrael” (Redeemer of Israel). In the morning we move directly from the blessing of redemption to begin our core prayer, the ‘Amidah.

But in the evening there is an additional text, Hashkiveinu (Lie Us Down) [Siddur Sim Shalom Daily, 140]. I suggest that the structure of our prayers is sensitive to the human condition, and the innate fear of darkness and of night that is experienced by children—and by more than a few adults. We recall the expression “al tira mi-pahad lailah” (do not dread the night-time terror) [Ps. 91:5].

The opening sentence of this prayer asks that we “lie down in peace, and rise up again lechaim, to life!” This is a petition asking for the two most basic things: inner peace, and life itself. In the morning, the theme of this text is completed in the preliminary service, in the prayer Elohai Neshamah (that begins, “My God the soul You have given me”) That gives thanks for the return of the soul to life at the end of the night. Reflections on that morning prayer can be read here.

The prayer makes other petitions, and here we focus for a moment on the request for eytsa tovah (good advice). In Israel, and in many centers of Jewish life (including JTS), one often hears the expression, “take this as an eytsa tovah,” meaning that the advice to follow may not represent any formal regulation or law, but the listener would be well advised to pay heed to what follows. It will be no surprise to learn that there can be many sources of unsolicited eytsa tovah at any given time, not necessarily in concurrence. So we note here, in this nighttime prayer that we ask for eytsa tovah milfanekha (“give us good advice that comes from You!”). Abudarham, the great medieval commentator to the siddur, notes, ad loc, “At night the human mind is freed from the cares of the day. Lying in bed each person begins to conceive their own ideas; we therefore ask God, especially at that time, to grant us good advice.”

The theme and language of the prayer suggest that it may have been composed with the intent that it be recited in bed, or very close to the end of the day, but the paragraph has become a part of the evening service, and many of our great hazzanim have composed settings of great power and beauty for the text.

contemporary setting of a composition by Meir Finkelstein is presented by Varda Spielman and her husband, Udi Spielman, who is hazzan at B’nai Torah Congregation in Boca Raton.

The composition by Max Helfmann, arranged by Haralabos Stafylakis, is sung by Sharon Azrieli Perez.

Here is a more traditional cantorial renderingfrom Hazzan Moshe Schulhof.

Next week we continue an exploration of this prayer by looking at the role of “Satan” in our sources.