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A Vigil is a period of night watchfulness or vigilance in keeping awake and alert, either voluntarily or involuntarily. It may extend through only a part of the night, or through the entire night or period of darkness as dictated by necessity or according to custom or assigned duty.

Students frequently keep an all night vigil dedicated to intense studying before an important day of exams (examination exercises) the next morning which will determine their academic standing for the subsequent period or term or year.

An important event is often the occasion of a sleepless vigil the night before: for example, a wedding, an ordination, a trial in court; or the achieving of a long-desired goal.

Family members at the bedside of a sick or dying relative often keep vigil around the clock together with medical and nursing personnel.

Combat personnel and civilians facing the certain and immanent approach of deadly danger to come on them in the morning, and prisoners scheduled for execution, involuntarily keep vigil in fearful anticipation of death.

In military and nautical terms a regular vigil is called a watch, as for example a night-watch on a sentry-posting for security against intrusion or attack. Hospital, police and security personnel frequently refer to the regular posting or assignment to the night shift as the "graveyard shift", normally eight hours of duty.

In ancient times there were four night watches of vigilance:

first watch (1800-2100 hrs) during the first through the third hours of the night
second watch (2100-0000 hrs) during the fourth through the sixth hours of the night
third watch (0000-0300 hrs) during the seventh through the ninth hours of the night
fourth watch (0300-0600 hrs) during the tenth through the twelfth hours of the night

The first watch normally began at sunset and the last watch normally ended at sunrise.

In modern times military vigils of readiness often precede special operations against insurgents.

In religion a vigil is undertaken as an exercise of devotion or is assigned or voluntarily undertaken as a penance.

The first mention of a vigil in the Bible is the night of the Passover, when the Israelites departed from Egypt during the night with a mixed group of foreigners. (Exodus 12:29-42)

It is a night to be much observed unto the LORD for bringing them out from the land of Egypt: this is that night of the LORD to be observed of all the children of Israel in their generations. Exodus 12:42 (KJV)

Other translations render the phrase as "a night of vigil unto the Lord".

The traditional duty of disciples of Jewish Rabbis on the night of the pasch was to make certain their teacher remained awake through the night.

In the Gospels Jesus tells his disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane on the night of the Passover to "remain here and keep watch", but they failed to do so (Matthew 26:38-45; Mark 14:34-41). The Jewish tradition of the paschal vigil is the reason the Sanhedrin was awake when Jesus was arrested and remained awake all night long (Luke 22:54-71).

Christian tradition also observes a vigil of prayer and worship beginning the Saturday evening and night before Easter Sunday morning in particular, as well as other liturgical vigils assigned as special observances throughout the Church year. Christian monks and hermits, and knights through the Middle Ages kept vigil the night before taking their final vows or receiving from the sovereign the accolade (knighting), or before setting forth on some great mission or task.

Saints and mystics in a variety of religious traditions often voluntarily keep long vigils for the purpose of self-denial of the body, and to seek visions of transcendent reality or personal experiences and revelations of God. The Indian prince Siddartha Gautama the Buddha in his search for enlightenment had fasted to such an extreme over a period of years that his spine was visible through the skin in the front of his abdomen. He reached the conclusion that such severe methods do not bring one closer to spiritual freedom or enlightenment.

St. Paul cautioned against such practices in his letter to the Colossians 2:23. He himself frequently kept vigils of prayer for the church (2 Corinthians 11:27).

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