The Bedtime Shema


    Here's the story of how I began our nightly prayer ritual in hopes of calming my oldest son, who still resists bedtime with Tyrannosaurus tenacity.


    When my boys were small, we received a book called Thank You God! A Jewish Child's Book of Prayers from PJ Library. I took one look at it and saw its future – wedged, unread and forgotten, against the side of the bookshelf, its skinny spine hidden by the hulking Lego Star Wars Complete Visual Dictionary.

    But, instead of immediately putting it into the "give away" pile, I opened it.

    Among dreamy utopian watercolors, I read the prayers for waking, for holidays, for seeing beautiful foliage, for peace, for escaping danger and for a good night.

    A good night, huh?

    At the time, my older son resisted bedtime with Tyrannosaurus tenacity. (He still does, by the way.) Would a sing-song prayer help calm this wild anti-bedtime beast? And so, my bedtime Shema ritual began.

    When my sister and I were girls, we recited prayers at my father's house every night before bed. Our ritual was to say the "Now I lay me down to sleep" prayer, which included a directive to God to take care of our souls in case we didn’t make it through the night.

    I don't know what clown wrote this prayer, but I don’t think he liked or had children, or he would know that kids aren't too jazzed about pondering their mortality every night before they close their eyes. I wanted our nightly prayer to be a little more uplifting.

    In the book, I saw one that appealed to me:

    Hashkivenu Adonai Eloheinu l'shalom. ("Oh God, lay us down to sleep in peace.")

    I start our nightly prayers with that one, which I sing in an original tune. And then I say, "Thank you God for this wonderful day, and for the night and its peace."

    Then I launch into "Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad. Baruch Sh'em kavod m'alchuto l'olam v'oed."

    How this Shema sounds is reflective of my mood. Some nights, it's like an aria. Others, I'm exhausted and yawn out the words. On nights the kids get on my nerves, it's, I'll admit, a little clipped. But I sort of like this about my Shema. It speaks for me. I have a closing sentence I add after the Shema, asking God to keep my boys safe and healthy and to give them good dreams.

    In our old house, the boys slept in the same room and we did the prayers all together. They used to fight over whose bed I sat on when I said it, so I switched off each night. My husband sometimes fills in for me, but, as the boys point out, "he messes up the lines a lot."

    In our new house, the boys have their own rooms. Doing the Shema in the hallway between them doesn't work, as I discovered. There is very little intimacy in the hallway. So now I do it twice.

    I thought it would be a drag to perform two Shema shows, but as we have settled in to new routines in the new house, I prefer it. I may be saying the same words, but the two experiences are different and lovely in their own ways – just as my boys are.

    Maxon, my 9-year-old, doesn't want me to start the prayers until he is under the covers. "If I'm not in bed, I don’t feel like it's going to work," he says.

    Ezra, who is 7,  just wants to hear it. "I love the bedtime Shema anywhere," he says. (Do you like it here or there? Do you like it in a bed? Do you like it in a chair?)

    But when I ask the boys what they each like about the Shema, the response is essentially the same.

    "It calms me," says Maxon.

    "It's relaxing," says Ezra. 

    And that is what makes me happiest about the bedtime Shema. Because it is the same for me. It is relaxing. The Shema is the perfect segue from waking to slumber, whether I sing it like a diva or yawn my way through.