Each year the gift is tendered,
recalling, at the outset,
how we stood as one before You
trembling and awestruck
on the bedrock of the mount.
Do You glory in Your people, on
the night before the Giving,
as they learn until the morn?
Intent upon their study
they sit beside each other
for once are laid aside.
Do You feel the stirring charge
that permeates the room;
do You relish the diversity,
the myriad ideas?
Do You revel in the wrestling
all for Heaven’s sake,
as each one seeks a different face
that speaks to her alone?
The Midrash tells us that on the night before the Giving of the Torah, the Children of Israel went to bed early in order to be well-rested for the fateful following day. However, they overslept, and Moses had to wake them up as God was already waiting on the summit of Mount Sinai. To compensate for this, the tradition arose, once only among the orthodox, to stay awake all night to learn Torah. This is called “Tikkun Leil Shavuot – The Rectification of the Night of Shavuot.”
Legend has it that the custom of all-night Torah study dates to Ottoman Salonika in 1533 when Rabbi Joseph Caro, the author of the Shulchan Aruch invited Rabbi Shlomo Halevi Alkabetz and other Kabbalistic colleagues to hold Shavuot-night study vigils for which they prepared for three days in advance, just as the Israelites had prepared for three days before the giving of the Torah. During one of those study sessions, an angel appeared and taught them Jewish law.
(The mass-consumption of coffee in the Ottoman empire is thought to have aided in this all-night ritual of Torah study on Shavuot!)
In traditional communities, although any subject might be studied on Shavuot night, Talmud, Mishnah, and Torah are the most common. People may learn alone or with a chavruta (study partner), or attend late-night shiurim (lectures) and study groups.
However, in recent years, all-night study sessions are no longer the domain of the orthodox.
In May 2015, the Times of Israel reported that Modern Orthodox rabbinical organization Tzohar added an extra session to its Shavuot overnight programming to serve as a platform for Conservative and Reform rabbis. The decision followed criticism of Tzohar for leaving non-Orthodox rabbis out of their lecture schedule for the holiday and the subsequent decision of some participants not to attend. Tzohar’s partner organization for the event, the Tzavta cultural center, said it made the decision to hold the extra session given the importance of being seen “as giving space and voice to all streams of Judaism…we have turned Shavuot learning into a tradition that will pull hundreds more secular, traditional and religious Jews together.” (Tzavta Executive Director Hayman Gold).
The Vice President of Tzohar Rabbi Yakov Gaon added, “We remain steadfastly committed to ensuring the widest range of Israeli Jews are able to experience the joys of studying Torah and recognize the undeniable link between the delivery of the Torah at Sinai and our lives thousands of years later,” He emphasized that Shavuot’s theme of Jewish learning was ideal for bridging differences between denominations.
“Our people face many threats of all different types; physical and spiritual. Overcoming these challenges can only be achieved if we refrain from creating unnecessary internal divisions and appreciate that we are one people with one heart and one soul.”
In recent years, the annual event of nighttime lectures and Jewish studies sessions at Tzavta has attracted a mixed crowd of religious and secular Jews, of over 1,500 people.
In an article from the Jewish Chronicle from 2015, http://www.thejc.com/judaism/judaism-features/136554/you-dont-have-be-frum-study-shavuot Rabbi Joe Wolfson recalls that while he was at University, “one of the keenest consumers of our Jewish society’s educational offerings was a practising Christian who would attend everything from Hebrew lessons to in-depth Talmud classes. I once asked him what the learning was like at church. He looked at me surprised, “We don’t do learning”. He explained that although the vicar would frequently preach based on a biblical story, the culture of study as a religious act – with its intense debate and diversity of opinion, accessible to, and expected from all members of the community – was something uniquely Jewish.”
Rabbi Wolfson says that he realised then that whereas all religions endorse prayer, “Judaism’s unique contribution is to see study as an equally important dimension in which humans encounter the divine. The metaphor of Sinai as wedding canopy for the marriage of God with Israel is no abstract image. If Judaism is a relationship between God and His people, then the study of Torah – an interaction between people, text, and God – is the way in which that relationship finds daily expression.”
He notes that in recent years, both in Israel and the diaspora, there has been a resurgence of interest in traditional texts among those who do not identity as religious. He says, “While for myself I cannot separate the study of Torah from the presence of God – like trying to talk about a novel without mentioning its central character – I understand that Torah study can still be meaningful for those who are not believers. This seems to be anticipated by the Talmud itself, “Let them forget Me but not forget My Torah, for if they remember My Torah they will eventually return to Me”. Although secular Torah enthusiasts may reject the conclusion of that statement, they would agree with its implicit assumption that Jews can be engaged with Torah even if they have forgotten God.”
He says that ex-MK Ruth Calderon brings a beautiful depiction of studying Torah. He says, “She described Jewishness as a lens for viewing life. The more one studies, the deeper one’s intimacy with the ocean of texts, the more profound one’s appreciation becomes of the nuances and rhythms of life. The Jerusalem Talmud quotes a conversation between two sages as they saw the dawn over the Galilee mountains, “Thus is the redemption of Israel, at first a tiny glint of light, then it begins to spread, and finally its light bursts everywhere.” ”
Rabbi Wolfson adds, “The tradition is authoritative but also diverse and to regularly study ancient texts brings that tradition alive. Hillel, Rambam and the Shach cease to be historical figures encased in dusty tomes and become members of the same study hall.
“Diverse emotions accompany intensive learning. One can be humbled by the vastness of the Torah and how much there is to learn, and yet simultaneously sense oneself not only as observer but also as participant, contributing one’s own insights to the texts that millions have encountered before. For while every subsequent generation is further removed from the original light of Sinai, nevertheless with every new year there is more Torah in the world, more additions to the ever expanding corpus.”
Rabbi Wolfson concludes with a story, “Once on a flight from Tel Aviv to London I sat in my scruffy jeans and T-shirt next to an elderly Chasid. After an hour of politely ignoring one another – we were both English – my neighbour could no longer contain his interest in the classes that I was preparing using the Responsa Project, software that has digitised all classical Jewish texts.
“There followed an intense and warm discussion about the sale of Joseph.
“Later I went for a walk on the plane and someone I slightly knew engaged me in conversation. He was secular but had grown up ultra-Orthodox. He told me that his family had refused to speak to him for many years and that the gentleman I was sitting next to was his great-uncle. Would I ask him if he would speak to his nephew?
“I reported the request to my neighbour. He looked perturbed. He hinted that his nephew had suffered serious abuse – “things that should never be done to a child” – but that his public apostasy was so severe that he could not bring himself to talk to him.
“Rather than continue the conversation I searched on my laptop for the Talmud’s advice on giving rebuke: “Push away with the left and draw close with the right”. According to the ancient story, the errant student of a rabbi who failed to mind this maxim became the founder of Christianity. I showed the screen to my neighbour. He paused and then nodded. I swapped seats with my acquaintance and the Chasidic uncle and estranged nephew sat next to one another for the rest of the flight.
“Judaism must not be reduced to bagels, humour, vague values and victimhood.
“Shavuot recalls that at Sinai a shared inheritance was received that has space for all varieties of Jewish self-understanding.”
*Hillel Smith is an American artist and designer creating contemporary Jewish work with deeply traditional content. In particular, much of his work explores the history and potential of Hebrew typography, which he sees as the common thread linking Jews together across time and space. Other projects he’s working on include an animated GIF for each day of the Omer, at bestomerever.tumblr.com, and a Hebrew mural series (some here and some here under Murals). Anyone can subscribe to project updates via eepurl.com/bdqZIT.