The Bedtime Shema or Kriat Shema al Hamitah, is an extended version of the traditional Shema prayer and is recited before going to sleep. The Torah prescribes that one should recite the Shema “when you lie down and when you rise up” (Deuteronomy 6:7, 11:9).
Nowadays, this is manifested in the inclusion of the prayer in the Shaharit (morning) and Ma’ariv (evening) services. However, an additional practice of reciting the Shema before going to sleep developed in rabbinic times.
The source of the bedtime Shema can be found in the Talmud, where Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi asserts that one should recite the Shema before bed, even though it was also recited with the evening prayers (Berakhot 4b). In explaining the biblical source of the practice, Rav Assi brings a verse from the book of Psalms, “So tremble, and sin no more; ponder it on your bed, and sigh” (Psalms 4:5).
Night was considered a time of vulnerability, when one’s soul returned to God. In attempting to understand the motivation for saying the Shema at this time, Rav Yitzchak asserts, “If one recites the Shema before bed, demons are kept away from him” (Berakhot 5a). The general consensus of the rabbis from the time of the Talmud to the time of the halakhic codes is that reciting this Shema offers not only praise of God, but a request of God’s protection from dangers and demons that may emerge at night.
During the Geonic Period, the siddur of ninth century Rav Amram Gaon records that one should recite a significantly longer liturgy rather than simply the first line of the Shema. This longer form became the basis for the traditional bedtime Shema still used today. However, when discussing the nature of Kriat Shema al Hamitah, Rav states a person can simply recite the first line of the Shema and fulfill the obligation for the entire Bedtime Shema (Berakhot 13b), and this has become a popular practice.
The extended version of the bedtime Shema is composed of a combination of selections from daily prayers, particularly from the Ma’ariv service, interspersed with biblical verses and other proscribed liturgies. Many of the passages recited are taken from the commentaries on the bedtime Shema in the Talmud.
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