For all you goys out there, Yom Kippur — the holiest of all Jewish holidays — begins tonight at sundown. Known as the Day of Atonement, it requires the pious to fast for 24 hours. If they really take it seriously, they won’t be bathing either, which explains why they might be just a tad bit crankier than usual.
Even the devout may not be aware of the deep relationship between sleep and Yom Kippur, and how it all goes back to the story of Jonah. Before Jonah was famously swallowed by a whale, he was instructed by God to visit the wicked city of Nineveh and preach against their sinful ways.
But Jonah was either too lazy or simply didn’t care about the people of Nineveh; he ignored God’s instructions and, instead, hopped on a ship going to Tarshish. There, he went to sleep as a way of hiding from God.
Every year on Yom Kippur, then, Jewish people tell the story of Jonah as a reminder that we must be awake to confront the tasks and challenges presented by the Lord. On this day specifically, we are encouraged to stay awake — not simply sleep through the challenge of fasting.
“A lot of people will just come to services and then go home and then sleep until dinner time,” says Rabbi Peter S. Berg of The Temple in Atlanta. “And that’s doing what Jonah did, which is not facing up to the work that you have to do on Yom Kippur.” Some Jewish communities, in fact, stay up all night following sundown (though that’s admittedly hardcore).
When it comes to the Jewish religion’s greater relationship with sleep, there are prayers said before going to bed and upon waking. Berg also notes that Maimonides, one of the great Jewish teachers and historians, decreed in Jewish law that each person must try to get eight hours of sleep each night.
Best of luck to those who are fasting tonight — and remember, it’s not Yom Kippur if you’re not awake to suffer for it.