Vayeira 5781


Serving while sleeping[1]

ותשקין את-אביהן יין בלילה הוא ותבא הבכירה ותשכב את-אביה ולא-ידע בשכבה ובקומה
[Lot’s daughters] gave their father wine to drink that night. The elder went and slept with her father, and he did not know of her sleeping or getting up[2]

The episode with Lot, the nephew of Avraham, and his daughters is well known. They got him drunk, and conceived children from him. He was so drunk that he was totally unaware of what was happening, as it was happening. This begs the question, what is a person’s level of responsibility when they are in this state? Obviously a person is accountable for getting themselves this drunk. However, when they are completely not in control, oblivious to their surroundings and to their actions, are they responsible? If a mitzvah is accomplished in this state[3], do they get credit? If they transgress a prohibition, are they punished? These questions are equally applicable to someone who is asleep. They too are totally unaware of what is happening. What is a person’s level of responsibility when they are sleeping?

There are many authorities[4] who unequivocally assume that someone who is asleep is totally exempt from mitzvah observance. As such, they wouldn’t get credit for mitzvos accomplished while asleep, or be punished for transgressions. The same would then be true if someone reached the level of drunkenness of Lot. An example of this ruling is regarding the holiday of Sukkos. During that festival, there’s a mitzvah to sleep in the sukkah. What if the sukkah is so small it only fits one person at a time? One authority suggested[5] that after the first person falls asleep, they’re now exempt from mitzvos. As such, gently pull them out of the sukkah (without waking them), and then the next person can go to sleep, and so on[6]. However, there seems to be three very strong proofs against this opinion[7]. We’ll present them one by one.

The first is from the Arizal[8]. The Arizal is of the opinion that a person must sleep while wearing tzitzis. He proves this from a story[9] about Dovid HaMelech, who was once in the bathhouse. He all of a sudden realized that since he was unclothed, he was completely bare of mitzvos. He was very distraught. He had no tzitzis, he had no tefillin. He was only appeased when he remembered he had the mitzvah of bris milah engraved on his body. The Arizal asked on this story that why wasn’t Dovid upset when he would go to bed? He would be without mitzvos then as well. The conclusion must be that he would wear tzitzis while he slept. While there are those that dismiss this proof to wear tzitzis while sleeping[10], you see the Arizal assumed that a person accomplishes mitzvos when asleep[11] [12].

The second proof is from a dispute in the Rishonim regarding the laws of Sukkos[13]. If a person is sleeping in the sukkah and it begins to rain, they can go inside and continue to sleep. What happens if it then stops raining? Some say[14] that you have to wake up the person, so they can go back into the sukkah. Others disagree. Since they were allowed to leave, and it’s a big inconvenience to interrupt one’s sleep and move their bed back into the sukkah, they’re allowed to continue to sleep outside the sukkah. However, if this dispensation weren’t true, you see you’d have to wake them up to go back into the sukkah. Both sides of the dispute seem to agree that a person that is sleeping is obligated to be sleeping in the sukkah, to the point that you have to wake them up[15].

The third is a surprising dispute in the laws of prayer. A minyan needed for public prayers consists of ten men. What happens if one of the ten is asleep? Do they count for the minyan? Some say no, since they can’t possibly respond to the prayers being recited[16]. Others disagree[17], and say nevertheless they count for the minyan. Neither opinion however seems bothered that the person sleeping is exempt from mitzvos. Someone exempt from prayer surely can’t count for a minyan. We see then that they both agree a person sleeping is obligated[18].

Regardless of who is right, all would agree that it’s possible to fulfill a mitzvah by going to sleep[19]. All it takes is the proper intent. Why am I going to sleep? Because it feels good? Because I’m tired? Those are definitely benefits of sleep. However, they’re self-focused. If we have in mind that sleep is part of our Divine service, it counts as a mitzvah. If we have in mind we’re going to sleep to gain energy to serve Hashem properly the next day, we take a mundane act and make it holy. This is true for everything we do, all day long. We can take any human function and make it special. It just takes a moment of forethought.

Good Shabbos

[1] Based on a shiur from Rav Asher Weiss, given in 5773. The audio and accompanying text are accessible at

[2] Genesis 19:31

[3] Rav Asher Weiss is careful to point out that we can’t say a drunk (or sleeping) person can perform a mitzvah (מקיים), as they’re not aware of what they’re doing, which is classified as מתעסק. However, some mitzvos can be accomplished passively (מתקיימת על ידו), such as tzitzis (which will be discussed shortly)

[4] This opinion was made famous from an often quoted ruling of Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach zt”l (see next note). He was preceded by the Aruch HaShulchan Orach Chaim 25:6, who says that even though there is a prohibition of hesech hada’as (forgetting you’re wearing) with tefillin, someone who is asleep isn’t transgressing. Even though they are surely not thinking about the fact that they’re wearing tefillin, since someone asleep is like they’re not alive anymore, they are exempt from mitzvos. This opinion is also shared by the Netziv in his Meishiv Davar 1:47 (see note 11). Rav Asher Weiss didn’t bring this, but the earliest source I found for this opinion was the Keren Orah to Menachos 36b s.v. גמרא אמר רבה

[5] This oral ruling of Rav Shlomo Zalman was eventually printed in Halichos Shlomo Sukkos 9:17. He understood the mitzvah to sleep in the sukkah wasn’t fulfilled while actually asleep. The mitzvah is to go to sleep in the sukkah

[6] I heard a shiur on Sukkah from Rav Aharon Feldman shlita, where he approvingly quoted this ruling of Rav Shlomo Zalman

[7] Indeed, Rav Asher Weiss concludes from these proofs that a person who is sleeping is obligated in mitzvos. I subsequently found in the sefer Shevivei Eish Moadim Sukkah § 34 that the author asked Rav Chaim Kanievsky shlita if we find someone sleeping outside the sukkah, which is a prohibition, should we wake them, and he responded in the affirmative. The Maharil Diskin parshas Emor also says this. If someone sleeping is exempt from mitzvos, why wake them? Presumably he agrees that they are in fact obligated. However, someone could perhaps get out of this and say that he said to wake them so that they’ll get the mitzvah of sleeping in the sukkah. Or maybe it was so the onlooker won’t see that the person neglected to sleep in the sukkah. Another authority who possibly agrees to Rav Asher Weiss is Rav Shlomo Kluger in his Sefer HaChaim 2:639 (chiddushim to Sukkah 3a). There, he discusses if the main mitzvah of sukkah is eating there or sleeping there. According to Rabbah (ibid 2a), part of the mitzvah of sukkah is a person needs to be able to see the sechach. Rav Shlomo Kluger sees from this that Rabbah holds the main mitzvah is eating, as when you’re sleeping how will you fulfill the mitzvah of seeing the sechach? It sounds like he’s assuming that a person fulfills mitzvos while they’re sleeping. Otherwise, why is he only asking that you can’t see the sechach?

[8] Pri Eitz Chaim Sha’ar HaTzitzis Chapter 1 (at the end), brought by the Magen Avraham to Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 21:1 § 2

[9] Menachos 43b

[10] Magen Avraham loc. cit. says that he had a mezuzah for his house, so he didn’t need to wear tzitzis to accomplish mitzvos while asleep. The Arizal presumably held that a mezuzah is not a mitzvah with one’s body, so Dovid would have still felt he was “bare” of mitzvos. However, a few lines in the gemarra before this story mentions that Jews are surrounded with mitzvos, such as tefillin on their arm and head, tzitzis on their clothes, and mezuzah on their doorposts. This story seems to be a response to that concept

[11] Cf. Meishiv Davar loc. cit., who questions this proof because he held a person is exempt from mitzvos while asleep. You see the Arizal disagrees. Rav Asher Weiss adds that the Magen Avraham must also disagree, being that he dismissed the proof in a different way than the Netziv

[12] Rav Asher Weiss admits that he really feels that this discussion in Menachos isn’t relevant to our discussion. See Beis HaLevi § 47 and Teshuvos Pri Yitzchak 2:33, who debate the intent of this gemarra. The Pri Yitzchak’s approach, to which Rav Asher Weiss concurs, is that the gemarra isn’t discussing fulfilling mitzvos, but rather the inherent segulah of these mitzvos

[13] Brought by Beis Yosef to Tur Orach Chaim § 639

[14] Ran to Sukkah 13b (in the pagination of the Rif) s.v. היה

[15] However, see note 7

[16] Taz to Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 55:6 § 4

[17] Shulchan Aruch loc. cit.

[18] Rav Asher Weiss actually brought other sources. The above sources are those that I felt were the most fascinating. The other sources were: In Shulchan Aruch Yoreh Deah § 372 the Rema rules that if there’s a corpse next to a sleeping Kohen, we must wake him up. Rav Asher Weiss sees no reason to differentiate between the prohibition of a Kohen becoming ritually impure from the deceased and other prohibitions or mitzvos. Another is Sefer Chassidim § 337, which says to wake up one’s sleeping father so he can go pray in shul. While it could be the Sefer Chassidim just means you’re allowed to since this is showing honor to one’s father, Chayei Adam 67:11 understood differently; see there. Another is from Bava Kamma 2:6 and Tosafos to Bava Kamma 4a s.v. כיון דכייף, who bring from the Yerushalmi 2:8 that a person sleeping is obligated to pay for damages they cause. Another is the Teshuvos Maharsham 6:85 and the Teshuvos Imrei Yosher 2:108 debate if it’s permissible to be put under anesthesia when receiving a bris milah, but neither have an issue with the fact that a person is exempt from mitzvos while they’re unconscious. His final proof is the fact that someone who slept through the entire time for prayers can make it up later and pray twice, known as tashlumin (Shulchan Aruch 99:1 with Mishnah Berurah § 4). Tashlumin is only relevant for someone obligated to pray. Someone who was exempt from prayers doesn’t require tashlumin. We see then that while they were sleeping they were obligated in prayers. Obviously the great Rabbanim who hold someone who is asleep is exempt from mitzvos were aware of these sources, and somehow had ways to answer these proofs

[19] See Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 231:1