Just Dozing

This is an odd question for the Talmud. In its usual spirit of debate, the Talmud has a fine disquisition on the nature of the snooze, specifically on the difference between sleeping and dozing. Having given many talks that have been sleep aids for others, my personal distinction is that a dozer at a lecture nods, hits chin to chest and then bounces up again before repeating, while a sleeper usually puts ear to shoulder, lightly (or heavily) snores while a rivulet of saliva moves from closed lips to the neck. I have obviously studied this close-up.


This debate actually appears at the end of this tractate of Talmud, and those who study Talmud daily came across it last week in the context of eating the paschal lamb. The sacrifice may have been eaten at a late hour, and one can imagine that such a feast would make a person sleepy and generally lethargic. The sacrifice was also eaten in groups; the small communities that formed around each offering were the basis of our larger community that spawned into a nation through the experience of the exodus. If, the mishna says, some participants at the Seder fell asleep and interrupted their meal, they may continue eating when they wake up. If, however, everyone in the party fell asleep, then they were forbidden from continuing their meal because no one in that group maintained vigilance for the mitzva.


In a discussion of the mishna, the ensuing gemara or exposition on the mishna, the sages distinguish between dozing and sleeping. If one merely dozes but makes a full, conscious come-back, then the ritual stream has not been broken. But sleeping signals that one has ended one activity and moved on to another. In fact, elsewhere the Talmud concludes that sleeping is 1/60th of death itself. A sleeping person cannot put his or her fully conscious self into anything. Edgar Allan Poe hated sleep and called it a little slice of death. Gandhi famously said,

“Each night, when I go to sleep, I die. And the next morning, when I wake up, I am reborn.”


What then is dozing? Rabbi Ashi replied in the Talmud that: “One is asleep but not asleep, awake but not awake, and if he is called, he will answer but will be unable to make a reasonable answer. When they later inform him of what happened, he will remember it.” This entering and exiting of awareness does not constitute an all-out interruption of an activity. The Hebrew word for dozing is onomatopoeic – “le-namnem,” and creates an audial and visual image of nodding.


And then the Talmud illustrates with an example. Abaye was sitting next to Rava – two very famous wise men of the Talmud – at the Seder. Abaye saw Rava nodding off after beginning the afikoman or last piece of matza and asked, “Is the master sleeping?” Rava was awake enough to respond and told his study partner that he was just dozing. You never want to catch a sage off his game.


The debate engages us in a fascinating tangle about consciousness in the performance of commandments and invites us to challenge our own level of awareness and intention as we walk through daily routines. When you doze, according to the Talmud, you are somewhat aware of your surroundings, but you cannot exactly place where you are. When you are asleep, you have no idea.


What happens when you go through life not sleep-walking but doze-walking, being there and not there, awake and not awake? When it is brought to your attention, you sit up and realize the truth of what I read on the t-shirt touting coffee: “Life is short. Stay awake for it.”


Shabbat Shalom