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As described by Stephanie Hegarty for the BBC, Roger Ekirch, an historian, has evidence — and is convinced — that people used to have

a first sleep which began about two hours after dusk, followed by waking period of one or two hours and then a second sleep…. During this waking period people were quite active. They often got up, went to the toilet or smoked tobacco and some even visited neighbours. Most people stayed in bed, read, wrote and often prayed.… Ekirch found that references to the first and second sleep started to disappear during the late 17th Century. This started among the urban upper classes in northern Europe and over the course of the next 200 years filtered down to the rest of Western society.

Staying up all night learning Torah is, well, hard. Especially, it's not conducive to a good shacharis (for those who say shacharis right after; not all do). I'm wondering whether there's any evidence of the custom having been to learn instead of only the first sleep (but to sleep the second sleep), or to learn instead of only the second sleep (but to sleep the first). Or whether, on the contrary, the custom has very clearly always been to learn instead of both sleeps.

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Thanks to avi for pointing out the BBC article. –  msh210 May 29 '12 at 22:23

1 Answer 1

According to this article about that Ekirch book, coffee was one of the reasons the custom of second-sleep ended. In this article about the history of the tikkun leil Shavuot custom (pdf), Rabbi Dr. Schein attributes coffee as one of the factors for staying up all night on Shavuot.

Also in the Schein article, however, he also attributes the custom of the tikkun leil Shavuot to the growing custom of tikkun chatzot (awaking at midnight to mourn for the Temple). This tikkun chatzot sounds a lot like first- and second-sleep behavior to me.

However, Rabbi Dr. Schein goes on to say:

In a fascinating article, Elliot Horowitz also credits the introduction of coffee for the spread of the custom of staying awake at night. In the 15th century, the drinking of coffee originated in Yemenite Sufi circles in order that they could stay awake for their nocturnal rituals, and by the end of the 16th century coffee had spread throughout the Muslim world. Horowitz points out that both coffee and the custom of tikkun hazot spread westward from Sefat to Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries.

The Horowitz article he cites is "Coffee, coffeehouses, and the nocturnal rituals of early modern Jewry", AJS Review, 1989, pp.17-46. I assume that that would be a better source for your question that the Schein article is.

Another source cited in the Schein article is: Moshe Hallamish, Kabbalah in Liturgy, Halakah and Customs, Ramat Gan: Bar Ian University, 2000, pgs. 595ff. This might also help you out by tracing the history of the Tikkun Leil Shavuot.

Interestingly, Rambam in Hilchot De'ot 4:4, he talks about what seems like eight continuous hours of sleep, which implies that "second sleep" was unknown to him (especially since he doesn't emphasize that they are continuous).

So maybe this is less than an answer but more than a comment.

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Why don't you link directly to yutorah? –  Shmuel Brin May 30 '12 at 18:56
    
@ShmuelBrin ok, done. usually i catch these things –  Charles Koppelman May 30 '12 at 19:00
    
related meta.judaism.stackexchange.com/a/1315/759 –  Double AA Jul 30 '12 at 7:32

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