I hear there’s a custom to stay up all night during Shavuot. What’s the origin and meaning of this practice?
Jewish tradition says a lot about studying at night. Maimonides says: “Even though it is a mitzvah to learn both during the day and at night, one gains the majority of wisdom at night; therefore, [no one should] lose even one night to sleep, food and drink, conversation, and the like—rather, one should engage in the study of Torah and words of wisdom” (Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Talmud Torah Chapter 3:13).
Shavuot is known as chag matan Torah—the holiday of the giving of Torah. Staying awake on Shavuot night is a response to a midrash (biblical commentary) that says the Israelites slept so deeply the night before the Torah was revealed at Mount Sinai that they had to be awakened with thunder and lightning (Shir haShirim Rabbah). In contrast to our groggy ancestors, we demonstrate our eagerness to receive Torah by pulling an all-nighter.
This all-night study session is called a tikkun leil Shavuot (Shavuot night healing). Traditionally, it includes a small section from every book of the Bible and every section of Talmud in order to symbolically study the entire body of Jewish religious writings. In many communities, the content of the study is up to the group and may include modern Jewish thought, yoga, storytelling and meditation. The practice of studying all night comes from the kabbalists of Sfat, who developed the all-night study vigil as the way to celebrate the revelation of the Torah at Sinai. The first recorded tikkun leil Shavuot took place in 1533 when Rabbi Joseph Caro, author of the Shulchan Aruch, met up with Rabbi Shlomo Alkabetz, of Lecha Dodi fame.
Caro and Alkabetz understood that there is something special about engaging in spiritual practice at night. A recent article in the New York Times suggests that: “Different sleep cultures encourage different patterns of spiritual and supernatural experience. That half-aware, drowsy state is a time when dreams commingle with awareness. People are more likely to have experiences of the impossible then.” The kabbalists say the heavens open up at midnight on Shavuot, making it a powerful time for our prayers and thoughts to ascend.
Engaging in a tikkun leil Shavuot intensifies the experience of directly encountering the Torah, fully present at Sinai. As we study Torah with a group of others, we prepare for zman matan torateinu—the moment the Torah is revealed to each of us. As the rabbis said, “Anything any student in any age will say was already given to Moses at Sinai.” Anything we say about the Torah is part of what was originally transmitted to Moses. Revelation of the Torah began at Sinai and has never stopped. May the Torah you need be revealed to you this year, and may your engagement in Torah lead to tikkun—the healing you seek.