Celebrated seven weeks after Passover, Shavuot is the holiday that commemorates the moment when Jews gathered at the foot of Mount Sinai and were transformed from a tribal people who were once slaves into a cohesive nation—a nation bound to each other and to God through codified law.
Among the traditions that have come to be associated with the holiday is Tikkun Leil Shavuot. Literally translated as “Order for the Night of Shavuot,” the tikkun is an all-night text study—a festival feting the word of God. These days all branches of Judaism sponsor some sort of tikkun. This year, congregations across Boston will feature tikkuns that offer text study as well as lectures from guest scholars.
I have only participated in one all-night Tikkun Leil Shavuot. It was the late 1980s and I was working at the Jewish Theological Seminary. I learned that the custom of staying awake all night on Shavuot originated after the children of Israel, who were camped at Sinai, almost slept through the most important moment of their history—the giving of the Torah. To ensure they woke up, God sent along thunder to rouse them. These days, to stay awake all night is to ensure that no one will be asleep when it comes time to receive the Torah symbolically on the morning of Shavuot.
The actual practice of staying up all night on Shavuot to learn Torah is attributed to Rabbi Joseph Caro, the 16th-century editor of the Shulchan Arukh. But in an earlier era, the Zohar records an instance of a second-century rabbi, Shimon Bar Yochai, who stayed up all night studying Torah on Shavuot. To describe his devotion to Torah, Bar Yochai invoked the common Jewish metaphor of intense study as tending to a bride before her wedding. Extending that metaphor, the revelation at Sinai is often invoked as a wedding between God and the Jewish people.
A friend in Jerusalem tells me that Tikkun Leil Shavuot acts as a veritable festival of learning for the whole country. There is every kind of tikkun based on myriad levels of observance and agendas. She tells me there is even a tikkun that the Israel Bar Association organizes to discuss the country’s secular laws.
Rabbi Noah Cheses of Young Israel of Sharon says members of his congregation will host an all-night learning festival with three tracks—one for adults, another for high-school students and another for middle-school students. Cheses noted: “We will also have an open beit midrash for people to learn with chevrutahs, or study partners. The learning will conclude with a sunrise service, which will mark the moment in which we re-experience the revelation at Sinai again in our own personal lives.”
For those who do not stay up all night, Congregation Shaarei Tefillah in Newton offers additional daytime learning on the first day of Shavuot. Temple Emanuel, also in Newton, packs in an evening of learning until midnight. Rabbi Wesley Gardenwartz, Temple Emanuel’s senior rabbi, said, “A tikkun is an opportunity for a community to step back from the pressures of daily life and think deeply about textual, spiritual and philosophical issues.”
In that spirit, the night of my long-ago tikkun also included a feminist interpretation of what Shavuot has come to mean in the lives and times of women. Before they could receive the law of God, Moses said to the Israelite men: “Be ready in three days; do not approach a woman.” My study partner pointed to that verse as the blatant exclusion of women from Jewish life. She asserted that in one of Judaism’s holiest moments—the giving of the Torah—women were “untouchables.” Since then, a long exile for women from Jewish ritual has persisted. But during that exile, we never stopped watching, listening and waiting for the opportunity to reclaim our spirituality.
That brings me to Merle Feld’s poem called “We All Stood Together.” On Shavuot I think of her description of what has prevented women from studying, thinking and writing about Torah over the centuries. In Feld’s Shavuot poem, the narrator’s brother freely writes down everything he witnesses the day the Torah is given. A history is recorded. But what happened to most of the women who wanted to remember that day?
It seems like every time I want to write
I’m always holding a baby
one of my own
or one for a friend
always holding a baby
so my hands are never free
to write things down
This Shavuot I will think of the sisters and mothers who cannot attend a Tikkun Leil Shavuot because they are holding babies and caring for aging parents. These are women who clean up after others and only in the deepest night in a tikkun of their own making do they reflect on their lives and their collective history.