Parashat Bo 5769/ January 31, 2009
the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of
“A Night of Vigil”
What is a night of vigil? The phrase appears in this week's parasha, twice in a single verse: "That was for the Lord a night of vigil to bring them out of the land of Egypt; that same night is the Lord’s, one of vigil for all the children of Israel throughout the ages” (Ex. 12:42). This question is asked in the gemara, the midrash, and explained by many biblical commentators.
Today we associate the Seder night, the eve of Passover, with the term leil shimurim, a night of vigil (the root sh-m-r means "to watch"). This biblical term somehow changed its meaning through association with Tikkun leil Shavuot, the custom of sitting up all night and studying on the eve of the Feast of Weeks, Shavuot. From there, according to the Even Shoshan dictionary, the term was understood to mean “a night of wakefulness, without slumber," which is what the Seder night often is. The Mandelkern concordance ties it to “the part of the night watch (Hebrew ashmoret) during which miracles took place.” Since this is the only place that the term appears in Scripture, a great many views and interpretations of its meaning have been offered.
Tractate Rosh ha-Shanah
11b presents two views, set forth by two of the greatest tannaim:
“Rabbi Joshua said:
They were redeemed in the month of Nisan,
and the future redemption will take place in Nisan.
Whence do we know this?
Since Scripture says leil
shimurim, a night that has been specially set
aside [meshumar], and comes from the six days
of Creation.” Rabbi Joshua associates
the double appearance of the word shimurim in
the verse with the notion of two redemptions, one from
A more detailed version of Rabbi Joshua and Rabbi Eliezer’s remarks is found in the Mekhilta of Rabbi Ishmael, Bo (Tractate de-Pis’ha, ch. 14):
A night of watching unto the Lord, etc.
In that night they were redeemed, and in that
night they will be redeemed in the future – these are the words of Rabbi
Joshua, as it is said: “that same night is the Lord’s.”
says: In that night they were redeemed;
in the future, however, they will not be redeemed in that night but in the
month of Tishre, as it is said:
“Blow the horn on the new moon, etc.” (Ps.
“For it is a law for
In the above text two items are added to Rabbi
Eliezer’s opinion—the date of the future redemption and the
promise given Abraham. The
Tanhuma adds a further element, emphasizing that
many miracles to save
That night G-d came to Balaam, etc. (Num. 22:20) – in
accord with the verse, “That was for the Lord a night of vigil” (Ex. 12:42);
and all the miracles that were done for
Other parallel versions and variants appear in the Yalkut and in the proem to Lamentations Rabbah. Another interesting version appears in Exodus Rabbah (ch. 18, par. 12): 
On the same day as they descended to Egypt they left Egypt, and on that same day Joseph came out of prison, therefore this night is one of great rejoicing for all Israel, as it is said, “that same night is the Lord’s, one of vigil for all the children of Israel throughout the ages” (Ex. 12:42). In this world He wrought a miracle for them in the night, which was a miracle that passes, but in time to come the night will become day, as it is said, “And the light of the moon shall become like the light of the sun, and the light of the sun shall become sevenfold, like the light of the seven days” (Isa. 3026), like the light that the Lord created at the outset but sequestered in the Garden of Eden.
Why does it say, “That was for the Lord a night of vigil”? Since on that night the righteous had redemption, just as Israel were redeemed when they left Egypt; on that night He delivered Hezekiah, on that night He delivered Hananiah and his friends from the furnace, on that night he delivered Daniel from the lion’s den, and on that night the Messiah and Elijah will be revealed, as it is said: “The watchman replied, ‘Morning came, and so did night’” (Isa. 21:12).
formulation is presented in the name of Rabbi Shmuel
ben Nahman (an
amora from the
Let us summarize the
views presented in the gemara and
According to Rabbi Joshua, the night of vigil was destined for
two acts of redemption, redemption from
This view, as we noted, was also ascribed to by Rabbi Nahman. It is also recorded in the Halakhah. The Shulhan Arukh says of the Seder night, that it is “a night guarded against those doing harm, and on this night one should not fear any danger” (Orah Hayyim 481.2). There is therefore a tradition not to recite the Shema upon going to bed that evening.
Puzzlement over the meaning of this term is also evident in
the Aramaic translations of the Bible and in the works of traditional
explains it simply as a “night of vigil,” meaning that the night is safeguarded
by the Lord for this specific time in order to take them out of
This night is called leil
shimurim because it is reserved [Heb.
nishmar] for four instances of Revelation:
the revelation of the Lord of the Universe
during Creation, the Lord’s revelation to Abraham, the Lord’s revelation in
Rashi cites the ideas in the gemara and the midrash, as presented above.
Rashbam and Nahmanides emphasize the idea of expectation. That is, just as the Lord waited for this night to arrive in order to take the Israelites out of Egypt, so the children of Israel wait for this night in order to celebrate the Passover.
Sforno (based on Tractate Rosh
ha-Shanah 11) emphasizes the expectation of two
acts of redemption, the first delivering them from
Ibn Ezra, in his
longer commentary (based on the Passover Haggadah)
says: “Some interpret this as meaning
that they not sleep, but only give thanks and tell of the Lord’s mighty acts
during the exodus from
Hizkuni follows the approach taken by Ibn Ezra, interpreting leil shimurim as a night that is to be kept, not for sleeping, but for giving thanks and recounting the mighty miracles that the Lord wrought for us on that same night.
As we said above, the reason for the multiplicity of views
about the term, leil shimurim,
is that it is a unique term in Scriptures (appearing twice, but only in a
single verse), and hence is difficult to understand.
Another difficulty is presented by the fact
that in its first appearance it is the night of vigil of the Lord's, and in its
second, of the children of
 The question of whether the future redemption will occur in Nisan or Tishre is discussed by Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Joshua in Tractate Rosh ha-Shanah 11a: “Rabbi Eliezer says: in Tishre the world was created, and in Tishre they are destined to be redeemed,” whereas Rabbi Joshua says: in Nisan the world was created and in Nisan they are destined to be redeemed.”
 Ha-Levi edition, Mahberot le-Sifrut, 1959.
 The Jerusalem Talmud also has a passage about four acts of revelation, however the formulation there is both longer and different.