Updated at 1:16 am CDT 10-4-2012
David K. Randall writes in the New York Times:
…One of the first signs that the emphasis on a straight eight-hour sleep had outlived its usefulness arose in the early 1990s, thanks to a history professor at Virginia Tech named A. Roger Ekirch, who spent hours investigating the history of the night and began to notice strange references to sleep. A character in the “Canterbury Tales,” for instance, decides to go back to bed after her “firste sleep.” A doctor in England wrote that the time between the “first sleep” and the “second sleep” was the best time for study and reflection. And one 16th-century French physician concluded that laborers were able to conceive more children because they waited until after their “first sleep” to make love. Professor Ekirch soon learned that he wasn’t the only one who was on to the historical existence of alternate sleep cycles. In a fluke of history, Thomas A. Wehr, a psychiatrist then working at the National Institute of Mental Health in Bethesda, Md., was conducting an experiment in which subjects were deprived of artificial light. Without the illumination and distraction from light bulbs, televisions or computers, the subjects slept through the night, at least at first. But, after a while, Dr. Wehr noticed that subjects began to wake up a little after midnight, lie awake for a couple of hours, and then drift back to sleep again, in the same pattern of segmented sleep that Professor Ekirch saw referenced in historical records and early works of literature.
It seemed that, given a chance to be free of modern life, the body would naturally settle into a split sleep schedule. Subjects grew to like experiencing nighttime in a new way. Once they broke their conception of what form sleep should come in, they looked forward to the time in the middle of the night as a chance for deep thinking of all kinds, whether in the form of self-reflection, getting a jump on the next day or amorous activity. Most of us, however, do not treat middle-of-the-night awakenings as a sign of a normal, functioning brain.…
In other words, in the pre-modern world people went to sleep shortly after complete darkness fell – in much of the world, between 6 pm and 7 pm. Children slept through the night. But adults naturally woke up just after midnight, stayed awake for a couple hours, and then went back to sleep until just before dawn.
Because streets were poorly lit (if lit at all), often unpaved and dangerous to traverse after dark, communities held the Ma'ariv evening prayer service before sundown. This was not a halakhic problem because prayer services are rabbinic enactments, not Torah commandments, and Ma'ariv was originally an optional prayer service, unlike Shacharit and Mincha, which were mandatory under rabbinic law.
But the recital of the Shema, which was made part of the larger Ma'ariv service by the rabbis, is a biblical commandment that has to be done twice each day, once in the morning and once in the evening after darkness has fallen.
To deal with this halakhic problem, communities required members who prayed the Ma'ariv service including the Shema recital before dark with the community's minyan, prayer quorum, to recite the Shema again at home once darkness had completely fallen.
That second Shema recital may be what evolved into the short prayers and Shema recital said just before going to sleep.
But what happened after a Jew slept for five or six hours and then woke up at about midnight? It was too early for morning prayers and the Jew was most always going to go back to sleep an hour or two later. After all, each part of the day – morning, early afternoon, late afternoon/early evening, and just after complete darkness fell/just before sleep, had specific prayer services to anchor them. What would anchor these one to three hours of wakefullness in the dead of the night?
Through much of history, it appears that no specific prayer service marked this time of night. Jews may have recited a psalm or two to commemorate King David, who allegedly woke at this time and praised God. Some Jews obviously used the time to study. And halakha recommends this time of night for having sex – and that seems to have been the common Jewish practice until the Ari, Rabbi Isaac Luria, instituted Tikkun Hatzot in the latter part of the 1500s C.E.
In the generations immediately following the expulsion from Spain in 1492 CE, which made the bulk of world's Jewish population refugees and which destroyed the leading centers of Jewish life, rabbis looked for reasons to explain what had happened. One of those rabbinic answers was that Jews had become too comfortable in Spain, too acclimated and assimilated, and they had stopped truly grieving over the destruction of the Jerusalem Temples and the loss of Jewish sovereignty over the Land of Israel. Another reason was the alleged licentiousness of many Jews and hedonistic practices like enjoying fine food and good wine.
Rabbis sought to remedy these "breeches" in the Jewish community through moralistic preaching, by asceticism, by limiting even permitted sexual relations, and by admonishing those who enjoyed sex "too much." (Some rabbis also sought to settle in the Land of Israel to "reclaim" the land from non-Jews and to demonstrate to God their belief to his promise of eventual redemption.)
And rabbis also sought to strengthen the Jewish community's mourning over the destroyed Jerusalem Temples, and through that mourning to also mourn the expulsion from Spain and the mass conversions of so many Jews who chose conversion to Catholicism over expulsion.
What the Ari saw was this period of nighttime 'debauchery' and sex that was essentially unregulated, an open block of time on a Jew's daily schedule, and he filled it with prayers and lamentations for the destroyed Temples and for the "exile" of God. And those lamentations would also serve to help limit the amount of sex Jews had. (After listening to rabbis blame the expulsion from Spain in part on too much enjoyment of sex and on having too much sex, and then waking up in the middle of the night and mourning that and the destruction of the Jerusalem Temples, how many believing Jewish men would have rushed to have sex with their wives?)
It was also the time in history where coffee drinking became commonplace. But coffee usually was not brewed at home. Instead, it was roasted, ground, prepared and consumed in coffee houses. In that era, Jews patronized the same non-Jewish owned and run coffee houses that non-Jews did.
While there is no evidence that a coffee house existed in Sefat, the Ari's home, until approximately eight years after he passed away, the existence of a widely available stimulant and the increasingly common behavior of men venturing out of their homes during what would previously have been the night's "first sleep" to drink coffee in those coffee houses while conversing with fellow patrons, Jew and non-Jew, male or sometimes even female, alike would certainly have alarmed the Ari and his fellow rabbis. Indeed, Jerusalem's rabbis would later ban unmarried yeshiva students from leaving their homes to pray Tikun Hatzot with a minyan, as had become the custom, apparently because of the temptation of those coffee houses. (Please see Elliot Horowitz's paper, Coffee, Coffeehouses and the Nocturnal Rituals of Early Modern Jewry, for more on coffee's impact on both the Jewish and non-Jewish communities of that era. I've posted it below as a PDF file. Thanks to Maven for his mention of Horowitz's work in the comments to this post.)
Whether or not the new nightlife coffee consumption provided played a role in the institution by the Ari of a fixed Tikkun Hatzot prayer for all, the sudden easy availability of a stimulant certainly allowed the custom to spread more easily than it might otherwise have – especially because the Ari not only instituted the Tikkun Hatzot prayers, he also required his followers and anyone else who was able to remain awake after reciting those relatively brief prayers, and to study Torah until dawn rather than go back to sleep, as had been the previous custom.
While the history of the era makes the Ari's motivation for adding Tikun Hatzot to the Jewish daily prayer regimen understandable, knowing how humans used to sleep makes the otherwise bizarre choice of a midnight prayer service understandable, and our current sleep patterns make its falling out of favor understandable, as well.
Here is Elliot Horowitz's paper on coffee and the Jewish community as a PDF file: