A Minimum of Sleep - Middah Miyut Shaynah

Barbara Binder Kadden, RJE

About Mussar and Middot
The Hebrew word "mussar" means moral conduct, instruction, or discipline. The Mussar Movement arose in the 1800’s in Lithuania and encompasses a range of spiritual practices, focusing on the individual’s personal characteristics, traits, or virtues, which are called middot (in Hebrew, singular: a "middahMiddahמִדָּהcharacteristics, values, or virtues of Jewish life that focus on becoming a better and more fulfilled person; plural: middot ").

The word miyut comes from the Hebrew root mem-ayin-tet and means "a little, a minimum" or "a bit." Shaynah comes from the Hebrew root yud-shin-nun and means "sleep."

"How long will you lie there, lazybones; When will you wake from your sleep? A bit more sleep, a bit more slumber, A bit more hugging yourself in bed." (Proverbs 6:9-10)

This text comes from chapter six in the book of Proverbs. The chapter warns the reader against becoming a lazybones and ending up impoverished. The biblical author cites the ant as a model of industry, one who prepares its food stores during the summer months of harvest, even though the ant has no leader or ruler telling her to do so. In contrast, the lazybones stays in bed and does not seek employment or provisions. The lazybones appears to be sleeping his/her life away. The commentator Ralbag (Rabbi Levi ben Gershom) explained that with a minimum amount of sleep and relaxation one's periods of poverty and want will soon pass.

As a Jewish ethical value - middah, the concept of miyut shanah encourages an individual to maintain a minimum amount of sleep in order to be wakeful for the study of Torah. As Rabbi Reuven Bulka has written, "An individual who is excited about Torah opportunities will want to stretch the day. One way of doing it is by sleeping less." (As A Tree By the Waters, p.255)

A caution is included in the comment by Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, "In order to gain time for studies, one who is desirous of acquiring Torah wisdom must limit the hours of sleep to the minimum that is necessary for the preservation of health."

The story of a lazybones' attitude to study is found in the Midrash. "When a lazybones is told, 'Your teacher is in the city nearby; go and learn Torah from your teacher,' the lazybones replies, 'But I fear there will be a lion on the road.' When the lazybones is told, 'Your teacher is in your township, get up and go to your teacher,' the lazybones replies, 'I fear that the lion may be in the streets.' When the lazybones is told, 'Behold, your teacher is at home,' the lazybones replies, 'If I go to my teacher's home, I am certain to find the door bolted.' Then the lazybones is told, 'But the door is open.' At that point, when the lazybones is at a loss to reply, the lazybones says, 'Whether the door is open or bolted, I want to sleep a bit more.'" (The Book of Legends Sefer Ha-Aggadah, Bialik and Ravnitzky 429:267)

To Talk About

  1. The Commentary gives two reasons for obtaining a minimum amount of sleep-either to prevent poverty or to study Torah. What do you think is worth giving up sleep to do? Why do you think Jewish tradition emphasized avoiding poverty and the study of Torah?
  2. Rabbi Bulka suggests getting a minimum amount of sleep in order to stretch your day. Do you ever stretch your day? For what reasons do you do this? Is it worth giving up sleep in order to include these things?
  3. Do you sleep too much or not enough to maintain your health? The Chatam Sofer suggests that one spend one-third of the day on bodily needs and two-thirds of the day on spiritual pursuits and study. What is the balance in your life between bodily and spiritual/study needs? How do you apportion your time? Do you think you need to make any changes in the amount of sleep you get or the time spent on other bodily needs? Do you think you need to make any changes in the amount of time you spend on spiritual and study needs? Why or why not? Explain.
  4. In the midrash at the end of the Commentary section, it seems that the lazybones is full of excuses. This person simply wants to sleep a bit more, slumber a bit longer. What does the lazybones miss out on? What are the missed opportunities? Have you ever been a lazybones? Did you miss anything by "sleeping a bit longer?" Share and discuss.
  5. Researchers claim that the average human being spends 25 years of his/her life sleeping. Ask yourself what you would do if they you had some part of those 25 years to act rather than sleep.

To Do

Read and discuss a wonderful tale by Leo Lionni entitled Frederick. This is the classic story of a group of hard working mice and one daydreamer. While his friends gather provisions for the winter, Frederick day dreams telling them he is gathering the colors, sounds and smells of the summer season. Find out how the mice live through the cold hard winter. After reading the book, talk about the place art and beauty have in our lives.

The Breeze at Dawn

The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you
Don't go back to sleep
You must always ask for what you really want
Don't go back to sleep
People are going back and forth across the doorsill where the two worlds touch
The door is round and open
Don't go back to sleep

Discuss this lovely poem. What does it add to your understanding of miyut shaynah?