Why Do We Stay Up All Night Learning on Shavuot?
Rabbi Dr Harvey Belovski

The Night Before the Morning After: Armed with cheesecake, single malt, and plentiful coffee, the Shavuot aficionados settle down for their annual all-night Torah learning-fest. It's taking place in a Shul, private house or shteibel near you, and for those with stamina it's followed by a full Yom Tov service (sans sermon) that probably won't finish much before 6am.

The official name of this occasion is Tikkun Leil Shavuot, which means ‘repairing the night of Shavuot’, and surprisingly, it is of relatively recent vintage. Let’s explore its origin and the meaning of its rather odd name.

The classic of Jewish mysticism, the Zohar, which first circulated in the 13th century, refers to the practice:

The early sages did not sleep on that night, rather they learned Torah. They said to each other: come, let us bestow a holy legacy upon us and our children in two worlds. (Zohar 3: 98a)

There follows a mystical reference to the special connection between God and the Jewish people that can be achieved on Shavuot night by learning Torah. This idea is augmented in the introduction to the Zohar (1:8a), which asserts that everyone can affect some kind of ‘repair’ on this holy night and that God blesses us then ‘with 70 blessings’.

This takes us back to repair once again, and the name of the evening. What needs repairing? Rabbi Avraham Gombiner, the 17th-century author of Magen Avraham, the premier commentary on the Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law), traces it to a midrashic tradition about the Israelites oversleeping on the morning they were scheduled to receive the Torah:

The Israelites slept all that night, until two hours into the day, since sleep at Shavuot-time is pleasant and the nights are short... God came and found them sleeping; He began to stir them with trumpets and Moshe had to wake them from their sleep for the great encounter with the King of kings... (Shir HaShirim Rabbah 1:57, Pirkey DeRebbi Eliezer 40)

We would have expected our ancestors to have stayed up all night ahead of the magnificent revelation promised for the following morning. However, in common with many modern Shul-goers, they overslept and turned up late for the big occasion, squandering a once-in-history opportunity. Instead of waiting for God to ‘arrive’ at Mount Sinai, as would have been proper, they made God wait for them.

While this rather endearing midrashic narrative has no obvious consequences, the Jewish mystics, led by Rabbi Yitzchak Luria, the great 16th-century kabbalist, felt that it left an enduring blot on the spiritual landscape of the Jewish people. In response, they established the Tikkun Leil Shavuot, a process of ‘rectifying’ our forebears’ lack of vigilance. While they slept and, as it were, kept the Torah waiting for them, we spend the night absorbed in its mysteries. While they dozed through that warm summer night and on into the morning, we deprive ourselves of sleep until after daybreak. And while they had to be woken to hear God’s voice from Sinai, we wait eagerly through the night to re-enact it by reading the Ten Commandments; if the timing is right, there is even the backdrop of the birds chirping their morning song.

In some communities, people study in traditional chevruta-pairs; in others there are classes on a variety of Torah topics or other educational programmes; in yet others, people read from a specially-designed booklet which contains excerpts from every section of the Bible, Mishnah, Talmud, Midrash and Zohar. And in the holy city of Jerusalem, following their learning, people stream to the Kotel to pray together at sunrise. Yet however the Tikkun is performed, it has become an integral part of most communities’ calendars, one intended to reawaken the passion for Torah study that lies at the heart of all successful Jewish life.

The Tikkun is a wonderful, albeit exhausting, way to start Shavuot. Apart from ‘repairing’ the error of our ancestors, it underscores the fact that it is the Torah that defines the special relationship between us and God. The Talmud records that Rav Yosef would arrange a lavish feast on Shavuot, remarking that ‘without the influence of this day, how many Yosefs are there in the street!’ (Pesachim 68b). Rashi (ad loc.) explains:

Without the influence of Shavuot, on which I have studied Torah and become elevated, there are many people in the street whose name is Yosef – what difference would there be between me and them?

Far from being an elitist experience, the opportunity to study Torah and thereby develop a closer relationship with God is open to everybody.

It is a long and tiring night, but well-worth the effort – it is one of Judaism’s ‘real’ experiences, one that has, at least for me, produced some of the truly extraordinary moments of religious life.

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