The Bedtime Shema

I was thinking a few days ago about claims I’d seen that the Liturgy of the Hours, though thoroughly Christian, was strongly based on Jewish ritual that predated the destruction of the temple. It is certainly true that the Psalms, rather than the Christian scriptures, are the core part of the Divine Office, so this certainly seems plausible. So, not being a scholar of Jewish temple ritual in the years before the destruction of the temple, I pulled a recently purchased Orthodox Jewish prayer book off my shelf to see if that shared history was obvious to the non-scholarly eye in  Jewish liturgy as received today, and since I’m blogging foremost about Compline, I looked at the final Jewish liturgy before bed time, sometimes called, simply, the Bedtime Shema, because the Shema is central to it.

The Koren Siddur ( 2009 Koren Publishers Jerusalem) - The Bedtime Shema, sample page

The siddur I studied is The Koren Siddur, a new Orthodox siddur, translated, edited, and annotated by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of Britain and the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, representing the largest body of Orthodox Jews in Great Britain. There are some differences between versions of the Bedtime Shema regarding order of some elements and, at least in the translation, some phrases are in one group’s version and not in another’s, but The Koren Siddur is an Orthodox siddur, intentionally faithful to kosher texts within its liturgical lineage and to  Halakha.

First of all, there are obvious differences between the Bedtime Shema and Compline, in its various forms, that can be stated up front. We begin the Bedtime Shema with a short paragraph composed by 16th-century kabbalist Rabbi Isaac Luria, declaring forgiveness for those who have harmed us in any way. In Rabbi Sacks’ spare, elegant, copyrighted translation:

I hereby forgive anyone who has angered or provoked me or sinned against me, physically or financially or by failing to give me due respect, or in any other matter relating to me, involuntarily or willingly, inadvertently or deliberately, whether in word or deed: let no one incur punishment because of me.

What an amazing way to begin one’s prayers before sleeping! Letting go of all offenses done by others. And, at that, stated not as a boast to oneself nor as a favor to hold over another but as a just action, not allowing one’s feelings or even actual injury to one to stand in the way of another’s moral standing before hir God. In pure psychological terms, the person praying with kavannah (mindfulness) begins this worship divesting hirself of attachment to hurt feelings or desire for revenge for wrongs done.  In comparison, Compline includes petition for one’s own forgiveness; and in versions of the Compline liturgy including the Lord’s Prayer the petition is made that one’s trespasses/sins be forgiven “as we forgive those who trespass/sin against us;” but that petition is for the explicit benefit of the one praying.  Nothing in Compline quite compares to Rabbi Luria’s declaration.

Next in the order of the Bedtime Shema comes the HaMapil, which blesses God for the gift of sleep and trusting God to grant a peaceful sleep undisturbed by bad dreams or fits of imagination. This, of course, partially resembles the variously rendered petition in many versions of the Compline liturgy stated in the Book of Common Prayer (1979) as, “The Lord Almighty grant us a peaceful night and a perfect end. Amen.” Or, in The Brotherhood Prayer Book, as: “The Lord Almighty grant us a quiet night and peace at the last.” There is also partial similarity to the content of the Antiphon to the Canticle of Simeon, which, in the translation sung at Ampleforth Abbey, says, “Save us Lord while we are awake, protect us while we are asleep, that we may watch with Christ and rest peacefully.” The wording as a blessing, that blessing of God for something God-done, God-granted or God-commanded, however, does not appear in the Compline liturgy. Even Psalm 134, included in many orders of Compline, calls on the servants of the Lord to bless the Lord but does not put in the mouths of the Compline singers that blessing. The HaMapil is a blessing in Jewish format – the kind of blessing that begins בָּרוּךְ אַתָה יי אֶלוֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הַעוֹלָם – Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu, Melech haOlam – Blessed are You, Lord, our God, King of the Universe – a kind of blessing that no version of Compline I have encountered uses.

Then comes the title element of this service: the Shema itself, though in its basic form. Normally, the formal liturgical Shema consists of Deuteronomy 6:4–9, 11:13-21, and Numbers 15:37–41. The Bedtime Shema, though, uses only Deuteronomy 6:4-9: שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל יי אֱלֹהֵינוּ יי אֶחָד – Shema, Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad. – “Hear, O Israel, the LORD our God, the LORD is One.” There is no parallel to this in the order of Compline – unless one considers that the centrality of the Shema to Judaism stands similar to the central place of the Nicene or Apostles Creed of orthodox Christianities, which are recited in some orders of Compline service. But in terms of content or structure, there is no comparison in Compline to the presence of the Shema in the Bedtime Shema.

After this, however, the Psalmody begins, and the first full Psalm of the Bedtime Shema is Psalm 91, which any regular attendee at Compline will instantly recognize, regardless of the translation:

He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High,
and abides in the shade of the Almighty,
Says to the Lord, “My refuge;
my stronghold, my God in whom I trust”…

Into the mix of Psalms and Psalm portions are added verses from Job, Song of Songs, Genesis, Exodus, Numbers, and Zechariah. In both form and content, this section of the Bedtime Shema most shares a likeness with Compline.

Next comes a series of  four passages that are each repeated three times:

  • The Aaronic or Priestly Blessing from Numbers 6: 24-26 (known in Hebrew as
    ברכת כהנים‎ – Birkat Kohanim)
  • Psalm 122:4 (“Behold, the Guardian of Israel neither slumbers nor sleeps.”)
  • Genesis 40:13, which is already a three-part longing for the salvation of the LORD
  • The non-biblical invocation of the protective angels
    (Michael, Gabriel, Uriel, and Raphael)

After the interjection of another Psalm  – number 128 – there is another final triple repetition from Psalm 4:5: “Tremble and sin not. Reflect in your hearts while on your beds, and be utterly silent. Selah.” Other than the fact that Psalm 4:5 is used in unrepeated form in the Compline liturgy, there does not seem to be any parallel to these repetitions, the repetitions of the Antiphons being the only repetitions in Compline. The Antiphons, however, are not repeated back to back but at the beginning and ending of Psalms and Canticles, so it is not a very apt comparison.

Finally, the Bedtime Shema, naturally, does not have a Marian Antiphon, but it does have the hymn “Adon Olam” in that position. “Adon Olam” is a hymn of praise that ends with one putting one’s soul into the care of the Lord of the Universe as one falls into a fearless and restful sleep. While Compline’s Marian Antiphon essentially calls on Mary to intercede on our behalf and praises her qualities rather that calling directly on God, effectively, both Compline and the Bedtime Shema end with a hymn of protection.

There are real, major differences between the Bedtime Shema and Compline that go well beyond the difference between the absolute unitarian monotheism of the Shema and the clear trinitarianism of Compline, trinitarianism that also has a place for saintly mediation or intercession, as well. The familiar doxology and antiphon forms are absent from the Bedtime Shema. The Shema spends little effort on confession of sins, whereas Compline has the Confiteor, which, depending on the group within which Compline is sung, can take up significant space. The hymn either after the introductory versicles or after the Psalmody of Compline is also absent, as are the Gospel Canticle, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Salutation. But even with these very significant differences, the section after the Shema proper containing the Psalms and other similar verses of scripture provide a significant enough similarity for me to believe Compline and the Bedtime Shema do probably share a common ancestor from the early years of the First Millennium CE.

There’s probably a book on it somewhere. But this cursory comparison to one small item in these two parallel, entangled, competing, and sometimes antagonistic heritages has been for me a rewarding exercise. And so on that note, in the Hebrew transliteration and English translation by Rachel Barenblat on her blog Velveteen Rabbi, I leave you with the Invocation of the Protective Angels:

B’shem Hashem, elohei Yisrael
B’ymini Michael u-smoli Gavriel
U-milfanai Uriel, me’acharai Raphael
V’al roshi, v’al roshi, Shechinat-El

In the name of God, the God of Israel
On my right is Michael, on my left is Gabriel
In front of me is Uriel, behind me Raphael
And all around, surrounding me, Shekhinat-El.

NOTE: Shekhinat-El is the feminine name of the spirit of God as God acts in this world. This is the “Spirit of the Lord” that hovered over the water in the Genesis Creation myth.


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About nightprayers

Gay male 54-year-old graduate of Meadville Lombard Theological School, who has completed a two-year internship at Carbondale (IL) Unitarian Fellowship, a one-year internship at Abraham Lincoln Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Springfield IL, three months of a chaplaincy internship at Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis MO, 12 months of a chaplaincy residency at Christian Hospital in St. Louis MO, training to be a Unitarian Universalist minister.
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15 Responses to The Bedtime Shema

  1. Pingback: Compline Psalms 4 and 134 « Compline Underground

  2. Ken Peterson says:

    I just published a post in which I referred people to your wonderful article on The Bedtime Shema. I see it listed as a “Pingback”!

    • nightprayers says:

      Isn’t technology amazing?! The pingbacks are nearly instantaneous. I look forward to reading your post.

      • Mark says:


        I tried to contact you privately, but I can’t seem to find your address… is there any way I can ask you a question non-publicly?

        • nightprayers says:

          Mark, I sent an email to you at the e-mail you used to identify yourself with your comment. Please feel free to contact me using the email I used to send that message to you.

  3. Noah says:

    Great article. Happened to stumble upon it.

  4. Attila says:

    The Jewish version makes it sound as though the person praying has done no wrong during the day. Where is the contrition for all the wrongs done to other people? (I am not a follower of any Abrahamic religion.)

    • nightprayers says:

      Attila, it is true that the Bedtime Shema does not focus on confession of sin. There are, though, Christian versions of Night Prayers that also do not focus on confession of sin. For example, on this blog you will find the Compline service as chanted by the Trappist monks of New Melleray Abbey. It also does not use the formula of confession.

      Of course, Judaism generally believes that God is the wrong one to ask for forgiveness of wrongs done to others. You must ask those others for their forgiveness. In Judaism, God cannot forgive you for what you did to another human.

      However, taken in its fullness, I do not believe the Bedtime Shema suggests that the person praying has not sinned. But, rather, its focus is on the goodness of God, the compassion of God, God’s healing, and God’s protection. For the person praying, the focus is on the intention to be led by God into ethical action which would avoid sin. And before ending with the fear-banishing hymn Adon Olam (Lord of the Universe), these words from Psalm 4 are repeated three times:

      “Tremble, and do not sin. Search your heart as you lie on your bed, and be silent. Selah.”

      The Bedtime Shema is certainly aware of sin. It offers forgiveness of interpersonal sin to those who have sinned against the one praying. But it cannot seek God’s forgiveness for sins against others. It can only seek protection and reflection and the intention to avoid future sin.

      • nightprayers says:

        In addition, this observation from re the Bedtime Shema:

        You want those mess-ups to be forgotten. The best way to accomplish that is by forgetting the mess-ups of others that affected you. As Rava, the Talmudic sage, would say, “Those who ignore the impulse to get even, all their sins are ignored in the heavenly record.”

        That’s why we preface the Bedtime Shema with a short paragraph composed by Rabbi Isaac Luria, declaring our forgiveness for all who may have slighted us.

  5. Pingback: Family Class Follow up | Kolot B'nei Mitzvah

  6. Gabriel says:

    Thank you for a very enjoyable reading !
    Rabbi Sacks´ edition has left out some traditional versions which include elements of “magic” lore
    such as transmigration (gilgul), from what I can see in the picture you posted (in the Hebrew itself).
    Be glad to send you a scanned copy of the Hebrew. Unfortunately I have not found an accurate English translation of the traditional version of the bedtime Shema. I guess I know why.
    From Buenos Aires.

    • nightprayers says:

      Gabriel,more than a year after your response, I have decided to make a new post just on variant expressions (in English translation) of the Bedtime Shema.

  7. D says:

    Gabriel, What you call magic lore is actually Kabbalah a sacred form of mysticism which most of but not all siddurim have in it. It is a crucial part if Judaism and it should not be dismissed as non-rational since it is supernatural but it makes sense as part of one of the ways G-d reveals himself to man.

  8. Pingback: Ribono Shel Olam | Night Prayers

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