Putting my kids to bed has always been my favorite part of the day. True, some nights bedtime seems to go on forever – feeling like both the best and the worst time of day simultaneously – but bedtime is when my children and I enjoy our best “quality” moments. It’s also when my kids and I have explored Jewish ideas and traditions, ending the day with Jewish prayers and songs.

Here are five tried and true Jewish bedtime rituals that can help make bedtime a time to bond with one another – and with Jewish tradition.

Bedtime stories with a Jewish twist

“It’s her favorite book,”

 

My good friend became a new mom and when I was looking for a present for her and her new baby my eyes lighted on a book of Jewish bedtime stories in a local bookshop. I worried a little that the book seemed too religious but the bright pictures were appealing and fun. Now, a few years later, my friend was telling me it was her daughter’s favorite bedtime book.

My friend and her daughter weren’t particularly religiously observant, and this book with its Jewish stories quickly became one of their main sources of Jewish knowledge. “My daughter’s fascinated with the stories; they’re so unusual.” My friend wound up acquiring a whole series of Jewish-themed books to read to her daughter at bedtime. It was their special place to get to know about Jewish values and traditions and tales.

Shema Yisrael

The Shema is the quintessential Jewish bedtime prayer, declaring our faith in one God. Shema Yisrael, Adonoi Eloheinu, Adonoi Echad. (Hear Oh Israel, the Lord our God the Lord is One.) Traditionally, we cover our eyes while we say it, to better concentrate on the awesome meaning of these words.

These timeless Jewish words gives our kids a powerful sense of who they are. A generation ago, the Shema even led some Jews back to their families after the Holocaust.

Rabbi Joseph Kahaneman (1888-1969), a brilliant scholar, educator, former member of Lithuania’s Parliament, and head of the famous Jewish school called the Ponevezh Yeshiva, recognized the danger facing Jewish children. While World War II raged, Rabbi Kahaneman started an orphanage for European Jews in Israel. In 1946, he returned to Europe, searching for Jewish children who’d survived the Holocaust.

In one town, locals told him that many Jewish families had handed their children in desperation to the local orphanage. The priest who ran the home refuted this claim. Rabbi Kahaneman asked if he could only just meet the children, and the priest relented. Standing amidst the orphans, Rabbi Kahaneman recited the Shema. Soon, Jewish children who’d last heard those words years before began crying out “Mama! Mama!” and placing their hands over their eyes. Then, as now, hearing the Shema at bedtime is a defining Jewish moment for Jewish children.

Saying Thank You

Discussing what we’re grateful for is a great way to wind down at the end of the day with our kids – and a creative way to start discussions. Feeling grateful is also associated with emotional resilience, improved health, and higher levels of happiness.

Prof. Robert A. Emmons of the University of California, Davis, and Prof. Michael E. McCullough of the University of Miami asked two groups of students to spend time journaling: one group was asked to record their day’s activities, and a second group was asked to record what they were grateful for. The results were dramatic. Students who spent time each week chronicling what they were thankful felt markedly more optimistic and happier about their lives. (Students who recorded neutral journal entries reported no such gains.)

Feeling grateful is also a profound Jewish value. Consider asking your children to share something they’re grateful for each night – and give it a try yourself too. This bedtime ritual can boost everyone’s mood and well-being.

Family Stories

“Who am I named after?” “Tell me the story of how Grandma and Grandpa met again.” My kids enjoy hearing about their relatives, and it’s especially fun when tales about family lore lead back to them.

A few years ago, a major study by Emory University psychologists Robyn Fivush and Marshall Duke showed just how powerful passing along family lore can be. Children who know details about their relatives’ lives and family histories show much more resilience and greater emotional health. It turns out that spending time talking about what our families have lived through and the experiences that shaped our ancestors is one of the best gifts we can give to our children. The quiet moments of bedtime are an ideal time to start.

Reviewing the Day

It’s traditional in Judaism to take the moments before bed to think back over the day and try to fix mistakes we might have made. Many Jews review their days and make an effort to forgive anyone who might have harmed them. While this concept might sound a bit heavy, for many children reviewing their days with a parent at bedtime is a great way to let their parents know what’s going on in their lives, and a chance for parents to share their problem solving skills.

Asking questions like “How did you feel when that happened?”, “What do you wish you’d done differently?”, and “What do you think you should do next time?” can all foster discussions and help kids problem solve. Bedtime is a quiet, low-stress place to talk about the challenges of the day, and to talk about hopes for tomorrow.