The end of the Counting of the Omer is nearly upon us.
We have spent the past seven weeks eagerly, anxiously, perhaps, counting up to Shavuot--to receiving the Torah anew. Shavuot, or the Feast of Weeks, is one of the three pilgrimage festivals annually observed--the other two are Passover and Sukkot. Each of these festivals is intimately tied to the agricultural cycle of the Land of Israel as well as representing the reenactment of a tremendous moment in history.
Passover and Shavuot, in a sense, are bookends of a spiritual journey. On Passover generally and on the Seder night specifically, we are to see ourselves as if we are literally leaving Egypt along with our forebears. Fifty days later, we are in the desert, ready to receive the Torah. I find the emphasis on the Torah being given in the desert to have a special resonance with Shavuot as it is now conceived of--the Torah was given in the desert, we learn, so that anyone can take hold of it, anyone can enter the Covenant and cast their lot with the Jewish People. How incredibly appropriate, then, that we read the Book of Ruth on Shavuot which tells the story of Ruth, whom the rabbis see as being an exemplary example of a convert to Judaism. She is often thought of as being the first convert to Judaism. On Shavuot, a once enslaved people experiences, as our tradition tells us, a unique, collective experience of the revelation of the Torah at Mt. Sinai. "Na'aseh v'nishma," the Israelites proclaim--we will do and we will hear.
Although Shavuot, unlike many other Jewish holidays, lacks specific mitzvot which are associated with it, many customs have been inextricably linked with Shavuot over the many centuries. One of these, related directly to Shavuot's designation as Zman Matan Torateinu is the custom to remain awake on the first night of Shavuot learning Torah. This all-night study session is called a tikkun Leil Shavuot, repairing or rectifying the night of Shavuot and is observed in communities spanning the denominational and ideological spectrum.
The practice of remaining awake for the entirety of the first night of Shavuot is of Kabbalistic origin. It began in 1533 when Rabbi Joseph Caro, who authored the Shulchan Aruch, or set table, an authoritative and definitive code of Jewish law or Halakhah and who was also a Kabbalist invited other Kabbalists to join him for an all-night Torah study vigil. An angel appeared to them during the course of the vigil and instructed them to move to the Land of Israel. The practice truly took off in Safed, a city in Israel which was the center of the Lurianic school of Kabbalah.
The noted 16th century Kabbalist, Rabbi Isaac Luria, popularly known as the Ari or the Arizal, whose teachings form the foundation of the Lurianic school which bears his name compiled an anthology of texts to be studied during the tikkun on the first night of Shavuot. These included portions from the beginning and end of each of the books of the Tanakh—Hebrew Bible. He also included unabridged formative passages from the Torah, such as the story of creation, the Exodus from Egypt, the giving of the Ten Commandments and the Shema.
He incorporated passages from each of the 63 tractates of the Mishnah, the corpus of Jewish oral law. He also included the reading and study of Sefer Yitzirah, or Book of Creation, a very early Kabbalistic text, as well as passages from the Zohar, the seminal work of Kabbalah. Study of the 613 mitzvot as was compiled and enumerated by the Rambam, Rabbi Moses Maimonides, an 11th century Torah commentator and famed physician was also included amongst the texts to be learned and studied. He divided these texts into thirteen sections. After each section was learned, the Kaddish d’Rabbanan, or Rabbi’s Kaddish, traditionally said after Torah has been learned in the presence of a minyan was recited. While many study the Ari’s Tikkun Leil Shavuot, many choose to instead study topics and texts of their choosing.
The notion that we must do tikkun or rectification on the first night of Shavuot is of Midrashic origin. According to the Midrash, some of the Jewish people inadvertently overslept on the night before the giving of the Torah on Mt. Sinai and G-d was thus forced to awaken them. Thus, the Tikkun Leil Shavuot is meant to repair or rectify this error.
Holding a Tikkun Leil Shavuot has become an increasingly popular custom in many communities. While many do learn all night, concluding with a Shacharit or morning service at sunrise, others learn for only part of the night. If a person will experience difficulty staying awake throughout the night, they certainly do not have to.
The topics and texts learned at a Tikkun Leil Shavuot vary based upon the participants and what the teacher or teachers are interested in teaching. Today, people study a wide variety of Jewish subjects, ranging from the traditional—Torah and Talmud study—to the modern, including contemporary Jewish texts, such as poetry or more modern commentaries. Teaching as part of a Tikkun Leil Shavuot is very enjoyable for the teacher as well as for the participants, as we can all learn from one another and bring our own knowledge and perspective to the table. The possibilities are endless. This Shavuot, may we all reflect upon the giving of the Torah and what this means to us as individual leaders and as members of communities.
An earlier version of this article appeared at http://judaism.bellaonline.com.