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Tikkun Leil Shavuot: A Priority?

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May 13, 2015
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One of the most famed minhagim of Shavuot is the practice of staying up all night learning Torah, formally referred to as Tikkun Leil Shavuot.  Synagogues around the world have programming and shiurim designed to encourage as many community members as possible to forgo a night of sleep in order to engage in this practice.  Strangely, however, in the Shulhan Arukh’s discussion of Shavuot1  there is no mention of this minhag.  Even the Rama, who delineates other minhagim of Shavuot such as eating dairy and decorating the synagogue with flowers,2 omits any mention of Tikkun Leil Shavuot.  Where then does this practice come from and should it actually be encouraged for everyone?


The first discussion of this idea appears in the Zohar I:8.  R. David Brofsky explains that, “This passage describes the ‘wedding’ of the Shekhina with Ha-Kadosh Barukh Hu (the distinct aspects of God as understood by the Zohar), accompanied by the bridesmaids, the Jewish people, who learn Torah all night, as an adornment of the bride.”3 The Zohar discusses this idea once more in Parshat Emor 88a:


Therefore, the pious in ancient times did not sleep that night but were studying the Torah, saying, “Let us come and receive this holy inheritance for us and our children in both worlds.” That night, the Congregation of Yisrael is an adornment over them, and she comes to unite with the King. Both decorate the heads of those who merit this. R. Shimon said the following when the friends gathered with him that night: Let us come and prepare the jewels of the bride … so that tomorrow she will be bejeweled… and properly ready for the King.4


In the seventeenth century, the Magen Avraham again mentions this practice: 


איתא בזוהר שחסידים הראשונים היו נעורים כל הלילה ועוסקים בתורה וכבר נהגו רוב הלומדים לעשות כן ואפשר לתת טעם ע”פ פשוטו לפי שישראל היו ישנים כל הלילה והוצרך הקב”ה להעיר אותם כדאיתא במדרש לכן אנו צריכים לתקן זה.


It is written in the Zohar that the pious in ancient times would stay awake the whole night and study Torah. And most learned people already practice this, and it is possible to say that the straightforward explanation is because Israel slept the whole night and Ha-Kadosh Barukh Hu needed to wake them up, as it is recorded in the Midrash.  Therefore, we need to fix this.5


The Magen Avraham states that, by his time, the practice of learning throughout the night had spread to most learned people.  Furthermore, he brings a different explanation than the Zohar for the minhag: to counteract the lack of anticipation and excitement of Bnei Yisrael who overslept the morning of receiving the Torah.


Today, the practice of staying awake learning Torah has spread to the general population, not just the pious or the learned, as mentioned by the Zohar and Magen Avraham respectively.  While it is certainly praiseworthy for someone to take this practice upon him or herself, the lack of a solid foundation in halakhic sources for the widespread practice means that a person should also consider the consequences of staying up all night to ensure that it does not interfere with other religious obligations.  Indeed, R. Shlomo Aviner asserts that if staying awake will lead someone to be too exhausted to daven Shaharit in the morning with proper kavanah, intent, then one should not stay up all night because davening, a clear obligation, takes precedence over a minhag.  Additionally, R. Aviner cites the Brisker Rav’s bewilderment that so many people take upon themselves the performance of Tikkun Leil Shavuot when many are not as careful to observe the obligation of discussing the Exodus from Egypt until one is overcome by sleep.6


While R. Aviner’s message appears discouraging, it is important to remember that the message of the minhag remains the same.  Shavuot has been established as zman matan Torateinu, the time of the giving of the Torah, and the minhag of Tikkun Leil Shavuot teaches that it is vital to seriously learn and study the Torah that we received.  That message is not limited to the night of Shavuot.  Rather, it should imbue our perspective of the entire holiday, encouraging us to learn during the day if we are unable to do so during the night.   


Notes


1.  See Orah Haim 494.


2.  See Rama to Orah Haim 494:3.


3.  Rabbi David Brofsky, “The Customs of Shavuot,” The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash, available at: http://www.vbm-torah.org/shavuot/shv72db.htm.


4.  Translation is from Rabbi David Brofsky’s article cited above.


5.  Magen Avraham 494. Author’s translation.


6.  Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, “Laws of Staying Awake All Night on Shavuot,” Torat HaRav Aviner, available at: http://www.ravaviner.com/2013/05/laws-of-staying-awake-all-night-on.html.

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Learning on the Marcos and Adina Katz YUTorah site is sponsored today by Steven and Malka Miretzky and Family in memory of their mother & grandmother, Zita Miretzky (Sarah bas Tzvi Hirsch) on her sixth yahrzeit and by the Cohen, Kraut and Silver families in memory of Elaine Bienenfeld Silver z”l and by the Gittleman family for a refuah shleimah for Chaya Breindel bas Miriam and anonymously in honor of the YUTorah team