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THE SCIENCE OF SLEEP

By: Zamir Cohen



When would you figure that stress-related ailments, such as a heart attack or a stroke, are more likely to strike –
on a workday following a weekend, or on a workday in the midstof the workweek? It is reasonable to assume that the latter is the more likely occurrence for, after a day of rest the body is energized and calm, making such illnesses far
less prevalent.

This same logic should apply to nightly rest. It makes sense to think that a good night’s sleep lowers the chances of stress-related incidents occurring during the first hours of the waking day.

This is what medical experts have long assumed as well.

However, the ITIMAgency presented a surprising report combining the research of United States scientists and Israel’s Magen David Adom(the Israeli Emergency Medical Service). Their data was based upon records of ambulance calls responding to instances of heart attacks. And much to everyone’s amazement, the logical assumption detailed above was proven wrong.

The facts show that the most common day for heart attacks and strokes to occur in Israel is Sunday, the first day of the workweek – despite the fact that it follows the Sabbath, the national day of rest. In the United States, the most critical day for stress-related illness is Monday, following the two-day rest of the weekend.

Attempts to understand this strange phenomenon lead to the conclusion that, contrary to the previous assumption, the chances of a trauma are greateron a workday that follows the weekend. It turns out that the rapid shift from rest to work produces a greater threat to bodily health, even to the point of sparking life-threatening incidents. (Although it is universally agreed that a seven-day workweek, with no day of rest, causes far more damage.)

This is truly a surprising discovery. Researchers should be even more surprised, however, to discover that the Sages of Israel predated this contemporary discovery by two thousand years, as proven by the following halachic statement:

“The onlookers [in the Temple] would fast four days of the week, from Monday through Thursday. They would not fast on Friday, out of respect for the Sabbath and also not on Sunday, so that they would not emerge from the rest and joyof Sabbath to [a day of] effort and fasting and thus die.” (Mishnayot Ta’anit 4:3 – The Mishnah refers to the Temple “onlookers.” These were Kohanim, Leviim, and laymen who would visit the Holy Temple in Jerusalem on a rotational basis in order to watch the daily sacrificial service, and pray that it be acceptable to Hashem.)

The Sages did not say that “it is not so healthy” or “it might be hazardous to one’s health” to begin fasting on the first day after the Sabbath. They spoke explicitly about preventing a life-threatening situation – “so that they would not emerge… and die.” They weren’t the least bit reluctant to say this; they didn’t for a moment fear that someone might accuse them of exaggeration. If the Torah says it, it must be true – and in this case it was imperative that they relay it, as it concerned a question of life or death.

Despite having neither the data of the Emergency Medical Service nor the latest statistics from the United States, the Sages gleaned this fact from the Torah, and saw that it bore important ramifications, just as they learned from the Torah all the scientific knowledge necessary to fulfill the commandments.

A Dangerous Awakening

The abovementioned report of the ITIM Agency concludes that the highest percentage of heart attacks, strokes, and similar life threatening incidents takes place in the first hour after sleep. Consider the Talmud’s opinion on this subject:

“Five things are closer to death than to life. They are: sleep, standing up, [according to Rashi this implies “standing up” immediately after waking, without pause]...”

Based on this, the Chafetz Chaim wrote in his famous halachic work, theMishnah Berurah, that even though a person must rise each morning with vigor to serve Gd, to fulfill such commandments as tefillin, the recitation of the kri’at shema, and the like, one still must pause a moment upon waking, before leaving bed. This is because standing up immediately canpotentially damage a person’s health.

It turns out that the Sages of Israel, who lived more than sixteen hundred years ago, knew what contemporary researchers have discovered only through the use of statistics and scientific research – that there is danger hidden in the first hour after sleep. Furthermore, they knew something that present day researchers have yet to discover – that a key factor in this danger lies in the rapid awakening and rising from bed, whereas getting out of the bed slowly lowers the risks.

The Importance of Waiting 12 Seconds

In a United States convention of neurologists from all over the world, one of the main topics was the phenomenon of people fainting upon getting up from bed. One of the speakers was Professor Linda McMaron of Great Britain and she gave a lengthy speech regarding her study on this issue. After many years of study and investigation on this subject, she came to the conclusion that the fainting is caused by the sharp transition between laying down and standing up.

Professor McMaron said that it takes
12 seconds for the blood to flow from the feet to the brain. But when a person quickly stands up upon waking up, the blood gets ‘thrown’ to the brain too quickly and the result is fainting. She suggested that, upon waking up, each person, even one that does not have a tendency to faint, should sit on the bed, and count slowly till 12 to avoid dizziness, weakness, and/or fainting.

Her speech was rewarded with loud applause and enthusiastic feedback. Then, another Professor, a Jewish religious man, asked for permission to speak. He said: “By us, the Jews, there is an old tradition – thousands of years old, – to say a prayer of thanks to the Creator of the World for meriting us to wake up healthy and whole. The prayer is said immediately upon waking up, while one is still on the bed and sitting down. There are 12 words in this prayer and if one regulates himself to say it slowly with concentration, it takes exactly 12 seconds to say it... 12 words in 12 seconds.”

He said the prayer slowly in Hebrew:

“Mode Ani Lefanecha Melech Chai VeKayam, Shehechezarta Bi Nishmati Bechemla Raba Emunatecha” – “I thank Thee, O living and eternal King, because Thou hast graciously restored my soul to me; great is Thy faithfulness.”

The auditorium burst into a standing ovation that roared throughout the auditorium. This time, the applause was for the Creator of the World.

The Ideal Amount of Sleep

The number of hours people need to sleep obviously varies from one individual to the next. However, is there a recommended amount of sleep that could engender tranquility, clarity of mind, and the easy absorption, comprehension, and recall of material that has been studied?

A recent study undertaken by a research team under the direction of Robert Stickgold – a professor of psychiatry at Harvard University Medical Schooland one of the most respected experts on sleep in the world – suggests that eight of hours of sleep is the ideal amount required to achieve the goals listed above. In no case should it be less than six hours, whereas more than eights hours of sleep a night is a waste of time!

Professor Stickgold explains that during an eight-hour night, there are two main critical stages during which the brain undergoes both physical and chemical changes:

• The first part of the night.

• The early morning, during the last two hours of sleep.

The interaction between these two stages strengthens and establishes the memory. In the first stage of sleep, information flows from the memory center of the brain, the hippocampus, to the cerebral cortex. Afterwards, over a period of four hours, the brain slowly distributes the new information that was studied and acquired during the day to the appropriate locations amidst the neurons of the central nervous system. “The process is similar to the period required for dough to rise,” says Dr. Stickgold.

In the second stage – known as the active dream state and the period in which sleep ends –
rapid chemical processes also take place. The hippocampus disconnects from the cerebral cortex and the brain once again processes the information that had undergone previous refinement, strengthening the connection between this new material and the nerve cells at all levels of the memory system.

Professor Stickgold surmises that his study has important repercussions for students and others endeavoring to acquire new information or skills in various areas. Namely, that the acquisition and application of new knowledge depends much more on the right amount of quality sleep than on study techniques or time invested by the student. Getting the right amount of quality sleep is even more important than his or her level of intelligence.

It is worth noting that a recent publication of this study merited headlines in the press around the world, particularly in
scientific journals.

We now turn to the Mishneh Torah, the classic text of Maimonides, which delineates all of the laws of the Torah and the relevant customs. Here Maimonides states simply – amidst other remarkable pieces of advice concerning physical and spiritual health – that eight hours of sleep is sufficient for people, while more than that provides no benefit to a person’s health: “The night and the day together equals 24 hours. It is enough for a person to sleep for a third of them, which is eight hours.”

Rabbi Zamir Cohen is the founder of the Hidabroot organization and has written several books on the topics of Jewish thought and law, including his national bestseller, ‘The Coming Revolution’.