This prayer begins with a statement that God places “chevlei sheina” on our eyes. But what exactly does this term mean? In our printed siddurim, and in the text of the Talmud that is the source of this prayer (Berachot 60b), “chevlei” is spelled with a chet.
A few months ago, I discussed this root, Chet-Bet-Lamed. I mentioned that it had four different meanings in Tanach: 1) cord, 2) take a pledge, 3) cause damage and 4) the anxiousness and/or labor pains that the expectant mother feels approaching birth. Also, from the cord meaning developed a meaning of “lot, portion” because cords were used to measure portions of land. See, for example, Deut. 32:9, Josh. 17:5 and Ps. 16:6. (Also, in our daily prayers, right after Baruch She-Amar, we refer to the land of Canaan as “chevel nachalatchem.”)
Let us first see how two major siddur commentators have dealt with the term “chevlei sheina.” Abudarham (14th century) first suggests that it means “chalakim me-chelkei ha-sheina.” God gives out portions from the portions of sleep. Then he suggests it has a meaning like “chevlei leida” and refers to the anxiety/pains that you have when you cannot sleep.
Isaac Baer (19th century), in his Siddur Avodat Yisrael, first suggests that it means “cords.” Accordingly, the image would be of cords tying your eyes closed while you sleep. He then suggests “portions.” But he states that he does not like either of these interpretations. Moreover, he points out that both the “cords” and the “portions” interpretations would require a patach under the chet: “chavlei.” Yet, all the siddurim that he knew of had a segol: “chevlei.” Based on the segol and his uncomfortableness with the other two interpretations, he concludes that we should understand it like “chevlei leida,” i.e., the anxiety/pains that you have when you cannot sleep.
Let us put aside the question of what the original nikud was under the chet. (The Talmud, where the phrase first appears, has no nikud, so the original nikud cannot be determined.) “Portions” of sleep is a weird idiom. Why should sleep be meted out in portions? As to the “anxiety/pains” interpretation, it does not fit the context. God is being blessed for putting “chevlei sheina” on our eyes and “tenuma” (another word for sleep) on our eyelids. It seems to be a positive thing that God is doing. Another problem with both of these interpretations is the use of the verb “ha-mapil,” (literally: He places down upon us, from the verb NFL). The “portions” interpretation would fit better with ha-mechalek. The “anxiety/pains” interpretation would fit better with ha-mevi (brings). (See the Iyun Tefillah commentary in the Siddur Otzar Ha-Tefillot.)
What about the “cords” interpretation? It is still an unusual image. Also, cords seem a bit too big for eyes.
So, where does that leave us? Fortunately, there is another alternative. In the siddur of R. Saadia Gaon (10th century), the word is spelled with a caf, not a chet. (Admittedly, our earliest manuscript of this work is only from the 12th or 13th century. But that is still relatively early.) There is also at least one Kriyat Shema Al Ha-Mita fragment from the Cairo Genizah with this reading. See the reference in the siddur of R. Saadia Gaon, p. 87 (published in 1941), to a fragment published by Jacob Mann in 1925. (I suspect that more geniza fragments with this reading in the siddur may have come to light since then.)
Caf, Bet, Lamed, Yod means “chains.” But is this any better? The root caf, bet, lamed appears only two times in Tanach, at Ps. 105:18 and 149:8. (The latter, “be-chavlei barzel,” is part of a verse that we recite daily in Pesukei D’Zimra.) Both times it is referring to chains used to bind and restrict someone. It is not used in a positive way.
But let us focus on where Kriyat Shema Al Ha-Mita describes the “chevlei” as being placed. The “chevlei” are placed by God on the eyes. What is so special about the eyes in connection with sleeping? The eyes are the one part of the body that are noticeably different when one sleeps versus when one is awake. The closing and opening of the eyes thus serve as an effective symbol for sleeping and awakening.
There is always a presumption that the more unusual reading is the correct one. Caf-bed-lamed is a rare root. We can understand how caf-bet-lamed might have evolved into the more common chet-bet-lamed. The reverse scenario is much less likely.
Thus, most likely, the word was originally spelled with a caf, and the image is of God placing a small chain on our eyes and this symbolizes sleeping. There may be a symbolism of security in the chain as well.
Also, the “cord” interpretation perhaps lacks a symbolism of security and may reflect more of an image of being trapped. Also, do “cords” really fit over the eyes? “Chains” seem to be a bit better “fit” here. Cords seem to be more for tying than closing and covering.
Two sources that agree that the original text was likely with a caf are: the editors of the siddur of R. Saadia Gaon, and I. Jacobson (Netiv Binah, vol. 3, p. 254).
Interestingly, ArtScroll, both in its Daily Siddur and in its small separate Kriyat Shema book, has the following explanation: “The expression ‘bonds of sleep’ figuratively depicts the whole body as being securely chained in sleep.” But this explanation does not exactly fit because the text of the prayer describes the “chevlei” as being placed only on the eyes. But it is interesting that the comment uses the word “chained.” It seems that the author of this comment intuited that “chains” made better sense than “cord.” But the author of the comment does not mention the alternative caf spelling, so I do not think he was aware of it.
It is also noteworthy that the Talmud instructs us to recite a blessing daily of “matir asurim.” Thus the idea of us being “bound” in some way every night is found here as well. Although, admittedly, the image in the case of Kriyat Shema Al Ha-Mita differs since the focus is only on the eyes.
Once we realize that the correct text is probably with a caf, it would seem, based on Psalms 149:8, that the word should be pronounced “chavlei,” not “chevlei.”
One other issue needs to be discussed. In Kriyat Shema Al-Ha-Mita we recite: “ha-mapil ChVLY sheina.” But when we refer to the removal of the sleep in the morning, at the end of Birkot Ha-Shachar, we recite only “ha-maavir sheina,” without the word “ChVLY.” Why should there be a difference? It is interesting to note that in the standard printed Talmud at 60b, “ChvLY sheina” (with a chet, as mentioned earlier) is recorded for both the evening and the morning blessings. There are also Rishonim like Rambam who record “ChVLY sheina” as being recited in both the evening and morning. (See Hilchot Tefillah 7:4, and see Abudarham. See further Siddur Otzar Ha-Tefillot, p. 126, Tikkun Tefillah commentary.) But I checked the Lieberman Institute. All the Talmud manuscripts of Berachot 60b that they have recorded so far have “ChVLY sheina” (with a chet) in the text of the evening blessing only, and not in the morning blessing.
Finally, it is interesting to point out that the phrase “sheina le-einecha” and “tenuma le-afapecha” is found at Mishlei 6:4. This was obviously the source for the prayer phrase that we have been discussing. It is ironic that our spelling issue only arose because the author of the blessing decided to deviate from the verse and add that extra word, ChVLY. When a prayer text is based on a verse alone, we would have a clear idea how each word is spelled.
Mitchell First is a personal injury attorney and Jewish history scholar. His most recent book is “Esther Unmasked: Solvin
By Mitchell First
g Eleven Mysteries of the Jewish Holidays and Liturgy.” He can be reached at [email protected]. He sleeps a bit better now that he recites ChVLY with the correct spelling and vocalization (“chavlei”). But he is still not sure if he has the correct image and understanding.
For more articles by Mitchell First, and information on his books, please visit his website at rootsandrituals.org.