Rabbi Eliyahu Hoffmann
A Good Night's Sleep
And the Children of Israel went on the dry
land, in the midst of the sea. (14:29)
The Mishnah in the sixth chapter of Pirkei Avos delineates the "Forty-
eight qualities through which Torah is acquired." One of these
qualities is, "Be-miþut sheina, through limited sleep." Indeed, the
tzaddikim (righteous) of previous generations were famous for their
ability to get by with a minimal amount of sleep. The Vilna Gaon
used to sleep one and a half hours each night, which were divided up
into three shifts of half an hour each. (Even as he slept, it is said, his
lips murmured words of Torah.) During the day he would sleep for
another half an hour, bringing his 24 hour total to a paltry two hours
of sleep. The holy Sanzer Rav, who also slept for no more than two
hours every twenty-four, is said to have once remarked, "Do not think
I sleep so little because I am trying to inflict myself; rather I do so out
of great love for serving Hashem and studying Torah!"
The rebbitzen of the holy Rebbe R' Shmelke of Nikelsbourg once
came to her husband's contemporary, the Rebbe R' Elimelech of
Liezensk with a desperate plea: The doctors had warned her husband
that he was sleeping far too little, and that his health was
deteriorating as a result. Yet their warnings had fallen on deaf ears:
Her holy husband absolutely refused to change his gruelling schedule
to allow for more sleep. It was a situation of pikuach nefesh, a
question of life and death, she said. Perhaps, she pleaded, R'
Elimelech would be able to convince her husband to allow himself a
little more rest!
Soon afterwards, R' Elimelech arrived in Nikelsbourg with a group of
his disciples. They were told to go about arranging a seudah, a
festive meal, in honour of the Rebbe R' Shmelke. R' Elimelech
personally invited R' Shmelke to the seudah, an honour which he
could not refuse. At the meal, the Rebbe R' Elimelech took out a
bottle of very rare whisky, poured a glass for himself and for R'
Shmelke, and made a le-chaim. R' Elimelech then seemingly sipped
from his schnapps, as did R' Shmelke. In truth, however, R' Elimelech
did not drink from his whisky, for it was spiked. Even a small amount
was enough to put R' Shmelke to sleep on the spot. R' Elimelech had
R' Shmelke carried off to his home, where he was put to bed for the
The next morning, the Rebbe R' Shmelke awoke, startled to have
slept through the night, but with an invigorated spirit. Upon arriving
in shul to pray, he was joined by a large group of Chassidim, who did
not fail to notice the unusual energy of the Rebbe's prayers. They too
felt energized by the Rebbe's powerful spirit, and that day's Shacharis
took on a special quality. Indeed, it is told that on that day, when the
Rebbe reached the Shiras Ha-Yam, the Song at the Sea, the entire
congregation was swept away by the powerful vision of the Jews
crossing the Sea of Reeds with Moshe Rabbeinu at their helm, to the
extent that R' Shmelke actually picked up his bekitsche (traditional
chassidic coat) as he stepped into the raging waters. The Chassidim
too followed suit. This was not pretentiousness - that day they truly
satisfied the obligation of our Sages that, "Each person should
imagine that he himself was redeemed from Egypt."
That evening, the Rebbe again sat with his disciples. When R'
Elimelech arrived, a place was made for him at the head-table, next
to the Rebbe. Once seated, R' Elimelech again took out his now
infamous "bottle," and poured a glass for R' Shmelke. "Perhaps you
think" said the Rebbe, "that I am a fool? It was enough that yesterday
you robbed me of my entire night. I can't recall ever spending a
whole night sleeping. Mark my word: I'm not going to make the same
"But the Rebbe himself saw," argued R' Elimelech, "the power of his
tefilos (prayers) this morning. We all felt as if we were truly traversing
the Sea of Reeds!"
"Indeed," said R' Shmelke, "when Shmelke spends all his nights
immersed in Torah study, and once in his life he sleeps through the
night, that indeed was a wonderful experience. But can you imagine
what would become of Shmelke if he will begin to allow himself 'a
good night's sleep' every night? Shmelke will become just another
farshlufenne Yid (sleepy Jew)!"
Sometimes, says R' Tzvi Hirsch of Liska (Darkei haYashar ve-
haTov), the truly righteous can be, "on the dry land" - yet through
their powerful tefilos they feel as if they are "in the midst of the sea."
Perhaps we can add that this is only true of those who, in general,
lead their lives "on the dry land" - i.e. they minimize their physical
indulgences. They can, from time to time, attain the level of feeling
as if they are crossing over "in the midst of the sea."
This insightful story plays itself out in everyone's life at one time or
another. One takes a break from one's usual schedule, and feels
invigorated, physically and spiritually. Imagine, we tell ourselves, what
it would be like if I could do this every day! This is a false vision. A
"break" only takes on meaning when it is surrounded on either side
by hard-work. Otherwise life becomes one big vacation - and that itself
can become a burden.
Text Copyright © 2000 Rabbi Eliyahu Hoffmann and Project Genesis, Inc.