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Parshot Festivals

The precious tradition of all night Torah study

  • RabbiChaikinUSE
I recall my sense of excitement the first time I was allowed to come to shul with my father on Shavuot for the all-night Torah vigil. I felt so big!
by RABBI YOSSI CHAIKIN | Jun 06, 2019

After dinner, we walked back to the synagogue in the Anderlecht section of Brussels (this was back in the day when those streets were safe for Jews to walk freely). There we sat, with the rest of the assembled community, studying from the sacred texts until first light.

It is an ancient custom to stay awake on the night of Shavuot. The festival marks the giving of the Torah, but we don’t treat it as a mere historical commemoration. We celebrate that the Torah is given to us anew, on this date, every year. And to prepare (tikun) for this great event, we pore over the holy words of the Torah, the written and the oral law.

The Midrash relates that the night before the original revelation at Sinai, the Jews slept soundly and had to be woken when G-d appeared on the mountain. Staying awake is a form of tikun (repair) for this national misdeed.

There are very early mentions of this custom. The Zohar relates that Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai (second century CE) held an all-night vigil on the eve of Shavuot, and extolled to his disciples the value of following this practice.

Doing this, he explained, was the equivalent of adorning (also tikun in Hebrew) the Torah with jewellery prior to it being taken like a bride to the chuppah the next day. The Holy Arizal (Rabbi Isaac Luria, 1534-1572) taught that one who stays up the entire night, not sleeping even for a moment, and engages in Torah study, is guaranteed a year when no harm will befall him.

June nights in Belgium are blissfully short and warm. So it was not such a big deal. Nightfall was at 23:00. So, by the time the services were over, we had gone home to eat the Yom Tov meal and had returned to shul, it was well after midnight. Dawn was at 02:30.

Fast-forward a couple of decades, and I am now living in Johannesburg. June nights are freezing cold, and long… very, very long. Remaining awake is much more of a challenge here.

So, how do we keep ourselves busy for so many hours?

The Holy Shaloh (Rabbi Yeshaya Hurwitz, 1558-1628), following a tradition handed from the Arizal, prepared an anthology of texts to be studied on that night. It consists of the first few verses and last few verses of each of the books of the Torah, Prophets, and Scriptures (Tanach), and the written law. This is followed by the first and last Mishna of each of the tractates of the Talmud, the oral law. Then portions of Kabbalistic works, the Sefer Yetzira and Zohar, are recited. It concludes with a full listing of all 613 commandments of the Torah. This collection is referred to as “Tikun for the eve of Shavuot” alluding to all three meanings of the word “tikun”: prepare, repair, and adorn.

It takes a couple of hours to read through the entire Tikun. On a short northern hemisphere night, there is barely enough time to complete this whole order. But when Shavuot falls in winter, after having completed the Tikun, there are still hours to go.

Our local rabbis have been most creative in keeping their communities up and awake. Traditional lecture-like shiurim may work for the earlier hours of the evening, but as the night progresses and tiredness, then exhaustion, sets in, most of us will quickly succumb to slumber if we are to sit there passively. So guest speakers are hired, debates are arranged on engaging and fascinating subjects, and lay people are asked to share their own Torah thoughts.

Some prefer learning deep intellectual Torah texts. Others like more philosophical study. You can learn one-on-one, with a chavruta (friendship) partner, or in a group. Other than the Tikun text, there is no prescribed or recommended subject. This night it is not really about what you learn, but that you are learning. The key is to study material that will interest you, and most importantly, keep you stimulated and awake.

Warm clothing, good strong coffee, and the Shavuot staple, cheesecake, will of course also help. Come dawn, you will feel spiritually invigorated albeit physically exhausted. But ready to receive Torah.

Chag Sameach!

  • Rabbi Yossi Chaikin is the rabbi of Oxford Shul.

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