A Peculiar Custom
Let’s take a walk
for a moment. It’s Shavuot night; the festive meal has finished. Like so many
other festival nights, you’d expect the events to play out in a familiar
pattern. The guests head home, the older family members help clean up, but
slowly, one by one, the family drifts off to sleep. But this night, something
different happens. Rather than going to sleep, the members of the household
stay up all night—and learn Torah.
question is, why? What is so special about this night that so many people
forego a night’s sleep to stay up learning instead?
this practice, we’re going to take a step back in time to the very first
Shavuot—the day G‑d gave us the Torah at Mount Sinai.
A Lazy Reception
The giving of the
Torah at Mount Sinai is one of the most fundamental and famous moments in our
history. But any great event is only as momentous as the preparation that leads
up to it. This story is about the preparation the Jewish people took the night
before the giving of the Torah.
The Midrash records
a fascinating story.
The night before the giving of the Torah, the Jewish people did what anybody
does before an important event—they turned in early for a good night’s sleep.
This seemingly innocent decision, however, led to embarrassing consequences.
The next morning, when it came time for the Torah to be given, the place was
empty. The entire Jewish people had slept in. The Midrash even recounts that
Moses had to wake them—causing G‑d to later lament, “Why have I come and no one
is here to receive me?”
remains a shameful part of our history—and it is at the heart of the custom of
staying up late. In order to rectify our forefathers’ mistake, we stay up late
every Shavuotnight to show that our
enthusiasm isn’t lacking at all.
But there’s still
much that remains to be explained. Who started this custom of staying up late?
How widespread is it? Perhaps most importantly, why is it still necessary to
rectify an event that took place thousands of years ago? To explain this, let’s
start by taking a look at the sources for this custom.
Kabbalah, Halachah, Customs, Oh My
The custom of
staying up late has developed in stages over the years. Tracing its sources
leads us on a fascinating journey through our history and the many facets of
Let’s start at the
Zohar, the earliest source for the custom. This ancient Kabbalistic work,
written in the years after the destruction of the Second Temple, recounts that
Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai—the author of the Zohar—as well as “the early pious
would stay up learning Torah on Shavuotnight.
The Zohar does not mention anything about the Jews sleeping in, instead writing
that this practice was a preparation for and in honor of the “bride’s” (the
Jews) upcoming marriage to the “groom” (G‑d, or the Torah). However, the Zohar
does mention that their learning was to help “fix” the bride.
Our journey now
skips over a thousand years, leading us to a fascinating occurrence that took
place sometime in the early to mid-1500s in Turkey. Rabbi Joseph
Caro, the author of the Code of Jewish Law, invited Rabbi Shlomo Alkabetz, the
composer of the Friday night prayer Lecha
Dodi, to his house to learn that Shavuot night. R. Alkabetz relates that,
as they started to learn Mishnayot, R. Caro began to speak, his voice turned
powerful and loud, his words sharp and enunciated. Those present instantly
grasped that this was not R. Caro speaking. The voice praised them, telling
them that their learning had pierced the Heavens and reached G‑d Himself. As
their words ascended, the voice continued, the angels became silent, some
standing still while others wept, all stopping to listen to the sound of their
learning. This story quickly spread like wildfire throughout the Jewish world.
We continue to
the town of Safed, Israel, to the famous Kabbalist Rabbi Isaac Luria, commonly
known as the Arizal, or Ari for short. The Ari famously never wrote any of his
teachings down; most of them were instead recorded by his most prominent
student, Rabbi Chaim Vital. Rabbi Vital records that the custom of staying up
late is a truly important one, and writes that it had already become widespread
throughout Jewry. He then makes a promise: those who stay up Shavuot night—refraining
from even a second of sleep—and spend the night learning will be protected from
any harm that year.
Our final step
takes us to the Magen Avraham, a prominent halachic authority who lived from
1635 to 1682. He quotes the Zohar about staying up late and then, for the first
time in history, suggests the above-mentioned reason for this practice—that
it’s to rectify our forefathers’ mistake of sleeping in the first Shavuot.
Though there are
many Kabbalistic reasons for this custom, the reason of the Magen Avraham is
the most widely known and cited. Nowadays, this practice of staying up is kept
in virtually all communities.
Let’s Talk Details
So perhaps you’re
sold. This Shavuot, you’re going to stay up and learn Torah. There’s one
problem—the Torah is a pretty large collection of works. Where do you start?
Can you learn whatever you want, or do you have to learn a specific volume?
This question is
discussed in detail among the rabbis. Nowadays,
there’s a widely accepted booklet known as the Tikun Leil Shavuot that includes the entire text you need to learn.
The halachic authorities strongly encourage reading this text,
which includes the beginning and end of every section of the Tanach and the
Mishnah, choice selections of key Kabbalistic texts, and a list of the 613
mitzvahs of the Torah.
Through learning the beginning and end of the basic sections of the Torah, it
is as if we learned the entire thing.
learning other Torah topics is perfectly acceptable, since the main objective
is simply to stay up and learn Torah, and indeed many synagogues offer a
variety of Torah classes on Shavuot night.
parameters for saying the Tikun:
● You can start before the meal and
continue afterwards from where you left off.
● You should stay up until daybreak (alot hashachar), after which you can
head off for some much-deserved sleep.
● If you feel that you can’t stay up that
late, you should at least try to stay up until chatzot,the halachic
● Finally, if you didn’t manage to finish
the text by night, you should try to finish it off the next day.
If you have sons,
and they’re able to stay up late, you should encourage them to stay up with
Though women are not obligated to stay up and learn, many women
choose to do so, and there are often Torah classes for women on Shavuot night.
festival, Jews in the Diaspora have an extra day on Shavuot than the Jews in
Israel. There is some debate whether or not you should stay up the second night
as well, but the opinion of most rabbis—and the
custom of Chabad—is
that we do not (phew).
Many have the
custom to go to the mikvah a few
minutes before daybreak to immerse themselves. This is the
Chabad custom as well.
An Unusual Preparation
Let’s take a
moment to talk about the story we quoted earlier in the Midrash about the Jews
sleeping in on the first Shavuot.
Imagine for a
moment that you were there. Some 3,000 years ago, you’re there in the desert
the night before G‑d Himself gives us the Torah. You’re probably a little
uncertain what to do the night before such an event. So you ask around, and
your friends tell you that they’re going to get a good night’s sleep. Seems
reasonable, right? The thing is, how much sleep do you actually think you’ll
get? When we go to sleep early before a big event, we usually don’t get that
good night’s sleep we’re craving. We toss, we turn, we get up, we go back to
sleep. Maybe we cram in an hour or two of shut-eye. We’re too pent up—too
excited, too nervous—to really get any sleep in.
But the Jewish
People did. They slept like babies—so well, in fact, that they slept in the
next day. The fact that the night before G‑d was going to give them His
infinite Torah, they were able to sleep so well, seems to imply that they were
genuinely not excited or even overly enthusiastic about the event.
There’s a problem
with that, however.
It just isn’t
The Jewish people
were excited for the giving of the
Torah. They were so excited that 49 days
beforehand—almost two months—they began counting the days to the giving of the
Torah. And they weren’t just counting the days. Kabbalah explains that, during
each one of those days, the Jews worked on a different personal characteristic,
refining it, elevating it, painstakingly working on it until they’d managed to
make it pure. They did this for 49 days, with the goal in mind that in 49 days
they would have completely refined their entire personality. They were so
enthusiastic about accepting the Torah that they were willing to completely reinvent
themselves in preparation for it.
And they did.
And yet, on the
night before the giving of the Torah, 49 days later, the night before the event
they’d been waiting for for so long, they went to sleep. And slept perfectly,
without a sound. And slept in.
Rebbe explains that we’re misunderstanding this story. The Jews didn’t go to
sleep out of apathy; they went to sleep out of enthusiasm. To explain this,
let’s take a moment to talk about sleep.
Since the dawn of
time, countless philosophies have dealt with a question: what happens when we
sleep? Kabbalah has its own explanation. When we are awake, our soul stays
inside our body, animating our thoughts, actions and emotions. When we sleep,
however, the soul leaves the body, leaving behind a mere remnant—just enough to
keep us alive. The rest ascends to Heaven and learns Torah with the angels and
other souls there. Then, right before we wake up, it returns. Now, though this
happens to everybody, how much the soul learns in Heaven—and how much is
remembered – is dependent on how much we studied during the day.
Now let’s come
back to the Jewish people in the desert. For 49 days, the Jewish people had
worked upon themselves, refined themselves, elevated themselves. At that
moment, the night before the Torah was to be given, they were holier than
they’d ever been. And they were unsatisfied. They were unsatisfied because they
felt it wasn’t enough. No matter how much they worked on themselves, they were
limited people, trapped by the physical confines of the body. How could they,
as coarse, corporeal beings, ever be ready to accept the Torah—the height of
spirituality? They needed one more preparation—something that would really
express their readiness to accept the Torah.
For one night,
just one, they wanted to experience something truly spiritual.
And so they went
to sleep. They lay down, left their bodies behind, and let their souls ascend
to Heaven to learn Torah. They experienced a truly spiritual revelation—the
experience of sleep, as witnessed by the genuinely righteous. This preparation,
the complete divergence of the physical and the cleaving to the spiritual—this was their final preparation for the
Yet now we must
understand a different issue. If this was what was going on in their mind, what
was the problem? Why was it considered a sin? Why, over 3,000 years later, are
we still trying to rectify what they did?
the Rebbe continues, was that, by going to sleep, the Jews demonstrated that
they had completely misunderstood the point of the Torah. The Torah wasn’t
given to us so that we can become spiritual beings, devoid of all vestiges of
physicality. If that was the goal, G‑d would have been better off giving it to
the lofty angels. Instead, the purpose of the Torah is for us to use it to
elevate and refine this physical world. Judaism isn’t found in the songs of
angels or in the piety of ascetics. Judaism is in the struggles of our desires—in
getting up early to pray, in giving charity at work, in staying up late to
learn a verse or two. Judaism is working with our physical nature and, little
by little, civilizing it, refining it, and, ultimately, elevating it.
By going to sleep—by
opting to choose the spiritual over the physical—the Jews demonstrated that
they had missed the entire point.
We therefore stay
up. We stay up to fix their mistake. Most importantly, we stay up to show G‑d
that we haven’t missed the point. We get it. We could opt to go to sleep, to
cleave to the spiritual and ignore our physical body. But instead, we spend the
night learning, working with our body, inspiring it, purifying it. We stay up
so that every part of us, both the physical and the spiritual, is prepared for