Question: May one read chapters of Tanach or Tehillim at night or is this forbidden according to Kabbalah? Is there room for leniency when this reading is being done for the sake of an ill individual or a woman in labor?
Answer: Maran Ha’Chida in his Responsa Yosef Ometz (Chapter 54) quotes the holy Ari z”l who writes that one should not read Tanach at night based on Kabbalistic reasons. He writes that although this is the custom in Jerusalem and Hebron, nevertheless, the custom in these places is that every morning before dawn (when it is still dark outside) Tehillim is read. He continues and writes that he heard from a great Mekubal (who was none other than the great Rashash, Rabbeinu Shalom Sharabi, whom Maran Ha’Chida and his great friend, Hagaon Rabbeinu Yom Tov Elgazi, learned Kabbalah from) that Tehillim is not included in the what the great Ari warned about studying Tanach at night and this is supported from the Midrash (Bereshit Rabba, Chapter 68, Section 14) that Yaakov Avinu read Tehillim at night. Similarly, King David composed and authored most of Tehillim in the wee hours of the night. Maran Ha’Chida concludes: “If one asks me if one is permitted to read Tehillim at night, I will reply that he has on whom to rely. However, I myself am wary about reading Tehillim at night, besides for on the night of Shabbat.” Thus, Maran Ha’Chida was clearly concerned that the great Ari’s words included the reading of Tehillim and he therefore abstained from reading Tehillim at night. Indeed, Rabbeinu Yosef Haim writes in his Responsa Rav Pe’alim (Volume 2, Chapter 2) that he also abstained from reading Tehillim at night based on the opinion of Maran Ha’Chida. Only if he saw a person reading Tehillim at the early morning hours when it is still dark, he would not mention anything to the person; however, even at this time of the night, if the person would come and ask him, he would tell him to study portions of the Oral Torah, such as Mishnah, Gemara, or Zohar. (It is nevertheless completely permissible to read Tehillim on Shabbat night.)
Nevertheless, Rabbeinu Yaakov Niño writes in his Sefer Emet Le’Yaakov (107c) that in spite of the words of the Chida, the custom has become to read Tehillim at night after halachic midnight (for at this point, according to all opinions, the reason prohibiting the reading of Tehillim before halachic midnight applies less after midnight).
The Responsa Yaskil Avdi writes that it seems from the Chida’s works that he retracted his opinion about reading Tehillim at night and he therefore rules there is certainly room to allow reading Tehillim after halachic midnight.
Maran Rabbeinu Ovadia Yosef zt”l rules that there is room to allow reading Tehillim after halachic midnight, for Maran Ha’Chida certainly changed his mind regarding the doubt he raises in his Responsa Yosef Ometz as he writes in his personal diary from the year 5563 (1803): “Tevet, Monday night. I was ill and I could not sleep during the night so I read the entire Tehillim and I then went to pray, with Hashem’s help.” It seems that Maran Ha’Chida also saw room for leniency since Tehillim is not included in the prohibition banning Tanach at night. Thus, those who read Tehillim after halachic midnight certainly have on whom to rely.
All of the above applies only when one reads portions of Tanach, such as Chumash, Nevi’im (Prophets), or Tehillim in the normal manner one would study something. More recently, Maran zt”l discussed a situation when one is not reading Tehillim in a learning manner, rather, if one reads Tehillim as a prayer and supplication for the benefit of an ill individual or a woman in labor. Maran writes based on the Responsa Mei Yehuda that this is even more permissible, for reading Tehillim as a prayer is not comparable to reading Tehillim at night since we see that we recite several verses from Tehillim at night during the bedtime Keri’at Shema. Maran zt”l therefore writes that there is no prohibition to read Tehillim at night, even before halachic midnight, as long as one is doing so for the benefit of an ill individual or a woman in labor. Many other Acharonim rule likewise including the Klausenberg Rebbe (also known as the Sanzer Rebbe, founder of Kiryat Sanz in Netanya, Israel), Responsa Be’tzel Ha’Chochma, and Responsa Be’er Moshe.
Thus, halachically speaking, one should only read Chumash or Tehillim during the night after halachic midnight and not at the beginning part of the night. However, if this is being done for an ill individual or a woman who is going through a difficult labor, one may read chapters of Tehillim even before halachic midnight since reading Tehillim in the form of a prayer and supplication is not included in the prohibition to read Tanach at night. May Hashem heed our prayers and send us all a speedy recovery and salvation to the entire Jewish nation.