Q. Who introduced the custom to stay up for all or part of the night of Shavu’ot and study Torah?
A. Tikkun Leil Shavu’ot, the name by which this custom is known, has various possible meanings. According to some, tikkun denotes “preparing”. By a night spent in study we prepare spiritually and intellectually to renew on Shavu’ot our acceptance of the Torah.
How essential it is to be ready to receive the Torah is suggested by the Midrash which states that the Israelites overslept on the night before the Torah was given and had to be woken up with thunder and lighting. Later generations therefore decided to stay up on Shavu’ot night to ensure that they would be awake and ready when the Holy One, blessed be He, wanted them.
Others say that tikkun means “perfecting”; our night of study restores the perfect harmony between Israel and God who are united on Shavu’ot by the giving of the Torah.
The kabbalists introduced an anthology of readings for the night of study and to this the name tikkun is also given, suggesting the idea of “arrangement”, since the contents of the book are arranged in a traditional order.
There are excerpts from each of the twenty-four books of the Bible with some passages given quite fully, e.g. the Creation, the Exodus, the Song of Moses, the Ten Commandments, etc. Then come passages from the Oral Law, stressing that both Written and Oral Law come from God. Kabbalistic literature is represented with extracts from the Sefer Y’tzirah (Book of Creation) and the Zohar, the book of the Jewish mystics. Finally comes an enumeration of the 613 commandments.
The various passages are chanted to appropriate melodies which reflect the musical motifs characteristic of, for example, the Torah, the prophets and the Talmud.
Not every community which arranges a night of study utilises this anthology. Often it is replaced or supplemented by the presentation of specially chosen themes, so as to highlight the concepts of the Torah and their applicability to every age.
The Shulchan Aruch does not refer to Tikkun Leil Shavu’ot, though its author, Rabbi Yosef Karo, who was both lawyer and mystic, is said to have observed the custom. One of the commentators to the Shulchan Aruch, the Ba’er Hetev, states that whoever spends the night of Shavu’ot in study will complete the year in good health.
There is an excitement about the all-night wakefulness punctuated by coffee and cheesecake, and perhaps a snatch of song or traditional dancing, coming to an end at dawn with the recital of Shacharit. But more than that, it manifests one of the signs of the times in Jewish life today in that Jews are rediscovering their heritage.