Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Bo 5769/ January 31, 2009

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar- Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar- Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University. Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,


“A Night of Vigil”

Benjamin Salant

Kibbutz Sa’ad

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.

The Tannaim

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 Egypt and the other, the redemption that will come in the future.   Rabbi Eliezer, however, has the following to say on the same verse:   “It is a night specially set aside as protection against mazikin-- harmful elements in the world,” meaning that on this night, the eve of Passover, we are protected from harm.  Later the amora, Rav Nahman, also ascribed to this view:   “Scripture says “leil shimurim, a night that is specially set aside against mazikin" (Pesahim 109b).

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.”   Rabbi Eliezer 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. 81:4).  Why?   “For it is a law for Israel, etc.”  So what are we to learn from the words, “that same night is the Lord’s”?  That it was none other than the night on which the Holy One, blessed be He, told our patriarch Abraham:  Abraham, on this night I shall redeem your sons.  When the time came, the Holy One, blessed be He, did not forestall it even by the blink of an eye. Hence, it is a night “of vigil for all the children of Israel throughout the ages,” indicating that all of Israel are to be vigilant on it. [1]

Nighttime Miracles

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 Israel were performed by night (Warsaw ed., par. 8):

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 Israel, delivering them from the wicked, occurred in the night.  To wit:  “But G-d appeared to Laban the Aramean in a dream by night” (Gen. 31:24), “But G-d came to Abimelech in a dream by night” (Gen. 20:3), and “At night, he … deployed against them” (Gen. 14:15), and finally, “In the middle of the night…” (Ex. 12:29).

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): [2]

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).

This optimistic formulation is presented in the name of Rabbi Shmuel ben Nahman (an amora from the land of Israel).   Aside from the elements of joy, light, redemption, and deliverance, it carries good tidings for the future:   on this night, a night of vigil, the Messiah and Elijah will come.


Let us summarize the views presented in the gemara and midrash.  According to Rabbi Joshua, the night of vigil was destined for two acts of redemption, redemption from Egypt and the future redemption, and both take place in the month of Nisan.   According to Rabbi Eliezer, the special aspect of the night of vigil is that it is destined to protect us from those who seek our harm.  

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.



Biblical Commentators

Puzzlement over the meaning of this term is also evident in the Aramaic translations of the Bible and in the works of traditional exegetes.  Onkelos 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 Egypt.   The translation ascribed to (Pseudo) Jonathan ben Uzziel says (in free translation):

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 Egypt during the plague of first-borns, and the Lord’s revelation in the future, redeeming Israel from subsequent exiles. [3]

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 Egypt, and the second the redemption destined to come in the future.

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 Egypt.   This is hinted at by the Sages, when they say:  The time has come for morning recitation of the Shema.”   Apparently Ibn Ezra was the first to interpret this expression according to the sense in which it is generally understood today:  a night devoted to study.

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 Israel.


[1] 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.”

[2] Ha-Levi edition, Mahberot le-Sifrut, 1959.

[3] The Jerusalem Talmud also has a passage about four acts of revelation, however the formulation there  is both longer and different.