It is told in the name of Rav Chaim of Volozhin that Hashem created the earth round so that there would always be someone learning Torah. When one side of the world is sleeping, the other would be learning so that the world would continue to exist. Indeed, in Volozhin, there was always someone learning at all hours of the day and night.
Chazal (Eiruvin 65a) actually taught that the moon itself was only created so that we could study Torah at night uninterrupted by the distractions of day.
Chassidim took the concept a bit further. They considered the long winter nights to be like an extended Chol Hamoed, when each night was elevated by the melodious sounds of Torah study.
In fact, the Steipler Gaon zt”l used to remind his chavrusos on the nights of Purim and Motzoei Yom Kippur that “the world probably rests upon us tonight,” knowing that few people are learning all night on those occasions (Toldos Yaakov).
An even deeper significance was given to nighttime learning by the Vilna Gaon. Rav Chaim of Volozhin, his talmid muvhak, used to relate that his rebbi only slept two hours during a 24-hour period, in four half-hour shifts. During these short “naps,” he regularly experienced an aliyas neshamah, during which his soul ascended to heaven. When he awoke from these interludes, he often shared new insights that he gained during his sleep. He explained that, in fact, sleep had been created expressly for the purpose of understanding things that could not be gained when awake, since the soul was burdened by the limitations of the body. However, during sleep, when the soul was somewhat freed of its physical shackles, it gained the ability to soar into previously unheralded worlds (Sefer Leilos Kayomim, page 20).
As we enter those “wonderful nights,” we, too, should reconsider our nighttime schedules, albeit not on the level of some of these giants of the past. First of all, many people who come home tired from a long day’s work are afraid to open a Gemara because they know they will just fall asleep. However, the exact opposite is true. The Torah teaches that the best way to fall asleep is amidst Torah study.
Rav Meir Tzvi Bergman, son-in-law of Rav Elazar Menachem Man Shach zt”l, slept in the Chazon Ish’s home for two years. Every day, as soon as he arrived, exhausted after a long third seder, the Chazon Ish would tell him, “Take a Gemara and sit and learn over there.” Rav Bergman would learn for 15 minutes and fall asleep. The Chazon Ish would then awaken him and tell to go to sleep (Maaseh Ish, volume 2).
Furthermore, Rav Michel Yehudah Lefkowitz zt”l would advise people to review one Mishnah, the thirteen Ikarim or a deep Torah thought before going to sleep (Darchei Hachaim, page 245).
These gedolim clearly held that one should sanctify his sleep with the power of Torah just before going to bed. We may conclude that one purpose of nighttime learning is actually to elevate the time of sleep so that it, too, is as productive as it can be. It may not result in Rav Tzadok’s Resisei Laylah, the Arizal’s or the Gra’s night chiddushim in Kabbolah or the Chofetz Chaim’s revelations, but it will certainly elevate our somnolent selves above the sleep of the animals and that of most of the world.
However, on an even deeper level, there is something about night that connects us to Hashem even more profoundly than whatever we do during the day. The Maharal (Nesiv Ha’avodah 3 and Siddur, page 198) explains that night “moreh sheha’olam hu beyad Hashem Yisborach – signifies that the world is in the Hand of Hashem.” He goes on to cite the posuk (Tehillim 31:6) which we recite upon going to sleep: “In Your Hand I place my soul.” This action of going to sleep knowing that we are entrusting our very existence to G-d is a microcosm of the world itself submitting to Hashem’s majesty every night. For this reason, the Maharal concludes, the night prayer, Maariv, is associated with Yaakov Avinu, since he was closest to Hashem, as evidenced by his image being engraved upon the heavenly throne.
Rav Moshe Chaim Luzzato (see, at length, the Ais Laasos edition of Derech Hashem 4:6:16, page 422) also teaches that night is the main time for the type of song called rinah. This special melody represents “the joyous song celebrating the triumph over evil.” The Gemara (Bava Metzia 83b) sees night as representative of this world, and therefore, the more Torah we learn at night, the closer we come to the ultimate eradication of evil in the world. This explains the posuk (Eicha 2:19) which states, “Kumi roni balaylah – Arise, cry out at night.” It is the song of the night that mixes the lament over churban and the joy of Torah study which can best bring geulah, redemption (see Shemos Rabbah 47:8).
Rav Chaim Shmulevitz’s talmidim relate that even when he slept, he was clearly engaged in deep Torah learning. With his night chavrusos, he would often seem dissatisfied with the conclusion of a sugya, declaring, “I’m going to sleep on it and see what happens.” Invariably, when he awoke, he had achieved clarity on the subject and even included the approach in his shiur (Sefer Moach Velev).
Even if we don’t achieve Rav Shmulevitz’s clarity in Torah after sleeping, going to sleep right after learning will surely place us in the category of kumi roni balaylah, purifying our dreams and granting us the night tranquility that eludes so many.
Rav Yaakov Orenstein, a disciple of Rav Yehoshua Leib Diskin, once got up in the middle of the night and began dancing around the room. The rebbetzin became a bit concerned at his behavior, but he explained that he had gone to sleep with a difficult question bothering him about a Gemara. In his dream, Rav Akiva Eiger came to him with a brilliant answer, which he was later able to share in the bais medrash. Since his wife was pregnant at the time and later gave birth to a boy, they named him Akiva after the great gaon. Rav Orenstein, too, was combining the rigors of night with the joyous rinah of Torah.
There is another advantage of learning Torah at night. Even learning the same amount of time, with the same intensity and depth, acquires for a person levels of closeness to Hashem that are otherwise unreachable. The Gemara (Bava Basra 10a) declares that “Torah scholars who dismiss sleep from their eyes in this world will merit being satiated from the radiance of the Shechinah in the World to Come.” Furthermore, those who learn in a bais medrash at night are considered as if they performed the avodah in the Bais Hamikdosh (Menachos 110a). In addition, Chazal (Chagigah 12b) tell us that if a person learns Torah at night, “Hashem extends to him a thread of chesed by day.”
We see from all these statements of our sages that learning at night elevates someone to madreigos to which he could not otherwise aspire.
An example of this is reflected in a story told by Rav Simcha Zissel Broide, rosh yeshiva of Chevron. He once spotted one of the tzaddikei Yerushalayim, Rav Avrohom Weissfish, standing outside the new movie house on Strauss Street that many gedolim had attempted to prevent from opening. To the rosh yeshiva’s shock, Rav Avrohom Weissfish was copying down the starting times of each of the films being shown. The rosh yeshiva didn’t say anything, but Rav Weissfish felt that he needed to explain. “You see, rebbe,” he said, “unfortunately we couldn’t prevent this makom tumah from invading our holy city. But what we can do is add shiurim in Torah every time one of these productions takes place.” The avreichim indeed learned every night to counteract the defilement brought into the community, and every one of them made extraordinary strides in their learning because of the combined zechus of learning at night and doing it for the sake of Klal Yisroel.
All in all, it would seem a prudent and wise time investment to begin learning in a bais medrash at night. The potential rewards are enormous, the possibilities endless. Let us look forward to uplifting and productive nights of learning ahead with a gezunten vinter for all.