Why do we take the summers off? Why do we like it to be dark earlier in the winter? And why does the workday start at 9am and last for eight hours? We might take these divisions of time for granted, but it wasn’t always the case.
This Saturday evening, we observe Selichot, the addition of penitential prayers to our morning routine for the High Holidays. Traditionally, these prayers were offered at midnight Saturday-Sunday and then said before shacharit (morning services) for the rest of the season.
Our service starts Saturday night with minchah at 6:55, maariv and Havdalah at 7:55, snacks and speaker – Jessica Lemons the executive director of Stony Brook Hillel, and then, at approximately 9pm, our Selichot service. It’s hard to stay up all the way until midnight!
However, before electrical lighting and the Industrial Revolution, peoples’ sleeping habits would have made the custom of a midnight Selichot far easier to observe. This is because in pre-Modern times, people practiced “biphasic sleeping,” that is, sleeping in two shifts. People would go to sleep at nightfall, wake up again around midnight, eat, read, etc., and then after about an hour, go back to sleep until the morning.
Religious people, both Jews and non-Jews, would have used this time for prayer and even today, some Christian monks and Chasidic Jews continue to practice a version of this midnight prayer practice.
There are those who suggest we go back to the “Selichot Sleep Pattern” for health reasons.
And there are spiritual lessons we can learn, too. And these can be realized even if we don’t stay up late for them. The traditional Selichot teaches us to be mindful of our time, to not take it for granted, to not put off that which can help ourselves and others.
And there is one last, most important lesson. When midnight Selichot was practiced during the period “between sleeps,” it was in sync with, conformed to, a healthy lifestyle. Sure, perhaps you did not always spend your wakeful midnight hour praying, but you weren’t hurting your health or your sleep in doing so for Selichot.
For a sleep-starved society like our own, this would certainly be a wise lesson to follow. We would all perform better at all things with more sleep. We do ourselves and others no favors by ignoring our health. Selichot shows us that ignoring our health has spiritual and moral ramifications. That is something echoed elsewhere in our High Holiday prayers, too – we will be more forgiving, more thoughtful, more careful, when rested.
May the year ahead be full of sweetness, health, and rest – physical and spiritual!