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Why do Many Jews Stay up all Night Studying Torah on Shavuot?

Responsa in a Moment: Volume 7, Issue No. 7, May 2013

Question: It is customary to study Torah all night at a Tikkun Leil Shavuot. What are the sources and the customs related to this practice?


I) Some of the Primary Sources

There are a vast number of primary sources about this custom. We shall summarize some of the main sources in chronological order, based on the scholars who have studied our topic (see the Bibliography below) followed by some general conclusions:

  1. Rabbi Isaac Hirsch Weiss suggested in Bet Talmud (Vol. 2, 1882, p. 87, in a note) on the basis of Eusebius that Philo of Alexandria (ca. 20 b.c.e.-50 c.e.) hints at something akin to a Tikkun Leil Shavuot in his On the Contemplative Life. This was repeated by modern scholars such as Halamish (p. 595) and Hamburger (p. 268). However, it is clear from Philo himself (Philon Ha’alexandroni: Ketavim, ed. Daniel-Nataf, Volume 1, Jerusalem, 1986, pp. 176-177 and 196-202) that the custom of staying up all night praying and listening to their “president” had nothing to do with Shavuot. Rather, the sect of Jews known as the Therapeutae used to engage in these practices on a holiday which occurred once every 50 days (For a brief summary, see Encyclopaedia Judaica, Vol. 15, cols. 1111-1112, s.v. Therapeutae. For recent scholarship, see David Golinkin, The Status of Women in Jewish Law: Responsa, Jerusalem, 2012, pp. 322-323 and the literatureibid. in note 9).
  2. Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra (Spain and many other countries, 1089-1164) hints at the idea of staying up all night on the night of Shavuot in his commentary to Exodus 19:11: “perhaps a person should not sleep on the night when they will hear God’s voice in the morning, as is the custom of the High Priest on Yom Hakippurim [see Mishnah Yoma Chapter 1]”.
  3. The first real source for the Tikkun custom is the Zohar, most of which, according to modern scholars, was written by Rabbi Moshe de Leon at the end of the 13th century. In these passages, Tikkun means to decorate or prepare theShekhinah for her union with the male aspect of the world ofSefirot and also relates to the mystical rituals that relate to this event (Faierstein).

The Zohar draws a parallel between the seven weeks of counting the Omer and the counting of days by a menstruating woman. The Children of Israel who left the impurity of Egypt counted seven weeks and [rather than immersing in a mikveh], they immersed before the giving of the Torah in the dew which fell on the camp at night [Numbers 11:9]. Therefore, the Jewish people count seven weeks until the Giving of the Torah in purity, and in order to avoid all impurity on the night of Shavuot when they will become one with the Holy Torah, they spend the night studying Torah. “Therefore, the early pious ones did not sleep on this night and studied Torah and they said: we will inherit for ourselves a holy inheritance, for us and our children after us forever.”

Furthermore, the Zohar says that Shavuot eve is the wedding night of the Shekhinah. Since the Shekhinah plans to enter the huppah[wedding canopy] on the morrow, the Kabbalists must become one with the Shekhinah “and to be with her that entire night and to rejoice with her in the Tikkunim [literally: repairs] with which she is repaired” and to adorn her with jewelry. The Tikkun of theShekhinah and her adornment are done by studying Torah, Prophets, Writings, midrash and mysticism all night long.” And Rabbi Shimon [bar Yohai, the purported author of the Zohar] and all of his companions sing the song of Torah and innovate words of Torah and Rabbi Shimon and all his companions rejoice.” (Zohar, Volume 3, fols. 97b-98b; the Introduction to the Zohar, fol. 8a; and cf. Tikkunei Zohar, Tikkun 70, fol. 136a – see Wilhelm, p. 126; Hamburger, p. 268; Tishbi at length; Halamish, pp. 595-597; Faierstein)

  1. Moshe de Leon frequently repeated ideas from the Zohar, which he had written in Aramaic, in his Hebrew works (See Gershom Scholem, Encyclopaedia Judiaca, Vol. 16, cols. 1209-1210, s.v. Zohar). This is what happened in relation to our topic. In his Hebrew work entitled Sod Hag Hashavuot, found in Ms. Schocken 14, Moshe de Leon uses some of the same imagery found in the Zohar: “…the early Sages z”l were accustomed, the pillars of the world who know how to draw grace from the Heavens, not to sleep on these two nights of Shavuot, and all night they read from the Torah, the Prophets, and the Writings and from there they skip around in the Talmud and legends and they read in the wisdom of the secrets of the Torah until the light of day… and on them the bride adorns herself and enters next to His Highness, and the fiftieth night is this night for God to connect the Written Torah and the Oral Torah, and her special children on earth bring her into the huppah… they are the bridesmen of the bride…” (Wilhelm, p. 126).

According to the Zohar and this Hebrew work, the Tikkun custom was only to be observed by a select group of Kabbalists. Wilhelm (p. 127) was of the opinion that this custom was a theoretical custom invented by Moshe de Leon, but was not actually practiced, since it is not mentioned in any works of laws and customs until the 16th century. Yehuda Liebes and Moshe Halamish felt, on the other hand, that this was an actual custom practiced by Kabbalists beginning ca. 1290 (Halamish, p. 596).

  1. A similar passage to Ms. Schocken 14 is found in Or Zarua, a kabbalistic commentary on the prayers, written by Rabbi David ben Judah the Pious. Claiming to be a grandson of Nahmanides, he lived in Spain in the early 14th century. (Ms. British Library 711 quoted by Hamburger, p. 269 and Halamish, pp. 596-597).
  2. Rabbi Yitzhak ben Shlomo Ha-ezovi wrote in his Agudat Ezov(Turkey, ca. 1500): “One must engage in the Oral Torah all of Shavuot Eve, and in the daytime will come the acceptance of the Written Torah, and then he is crowned with both. And so was the custom of the early pious ones that they did not sleep the entire night [or: nights], for they were engaged in Torah and they would say: ‘We will come and we will inherit a holy inheritance for us and for our children in two worlds’ “. It should be noted that the last sentence is a quote from the Zohar cited above (parag. 3). (Hamburger, pp. 269-270; Halamish, p. 597, note 13).
  3. The earliest description of an actual Tikkun seems to be an epistle of Rabbi Shlomo Alkabetz (1505-1584), who later wrote the piyyut Lekhah Dodi, which we sing every Friday night. It was first published in the first edition of Rabbi Yosef Karo’s Maggid Meisharim (Lublin, 1646) as well as in Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz’s  Shenei Luhot Habrit, Massekhet Shavuot(Amsterdam, 1648).  It describes a Tikkun observed by Rabbi Alkabetz and Rabbi Yosef Karo (1488-1575), who later wrote the Shulhan Arukh, which took place inAdrianople ca. 1530 or 1534.

These two mystics stayed up all night studying. After studying selected passages from the Torah, the two haftarot of Shavuot, three chapters of Psalms, the Song of Songs, Ruth, and the end of Chronicles, they studied two tractates of the Mishnah. They then heard the voice of the Shekhinah coming out of the mouth of Rabbi Yosef Karo. Rabbi Alkabetz preserved the entire speech – which was similar in nature to the other revelations which Rabbi Yosef Karo received from the Maggid and recorded in his work Maggid Meisharim. Indeed, Prof. Werblowsky devoted an entire monograph to Rabbi Yosef Karo and his Maggid. “The voice of theShekhinah praised the scholars who were crowning the Shekhinahon this night, and if you were ten, I would ascend even higher. They then continued studying and then the Shekhinah spoke again and told them to continue studying and to make aliyah for not all times are equal, for I will give you sustenance” in Eretz Yisrael. A similar event happened on the second night of Shavuot. (Wilhelm, p. 128; Hamburger, p. 281; Halamish, pp. 599-600; Werblowski, pp. 19-22, 108-110; Jacobs translated the entire epistle). This fascinating passage makes a direct connection between the Tikkun of studying all night on Shavuot and the Tikkun of making aliyah. Indeed, Rabbi Yosef Karo made aliyah to Safed in 1536 and Rabbi Shlomo Alkabetz in 1535. Interestingly enough, Rabbi Yosef Karo did not codify this custom in his Shulhan Arukh,which he wrote in Safed (first edition,Venice, 1564-1565).

  1. Rabbi Avraham Galante (d. 1589) was also a member of the mystic circle in Safed. He describes the Tikkun in a list of “good and holy customs practiced in Eretz Yisrael“: “Erev Shavuot they sleep one or two hours [in the afternoon] after they did the needs of the Festival, because at night after eating they gather in the synagogues, every community in its synagogue, and they do not sleep all night long and they read Torah, Prophets and Writings and mishnayot and Zohar and derashot [exegesis] of verses until morning light, and then the entire people immerse in a mikveh in the morning before Shaharit as it says in the Zohar Parashat Emor (see above, parag. 3)…” (Wilhelm, p. 125)
  2. Rabbi Shimon Lavi (Spain, Fez, Tripoli, ca. 1490-1585), author of the famous piyyut “Bar Yohai Nimshahta Ashrekha” had a different order of study on the night of Shavuot. He wrote in his commentary to the Zohar, ca. 1571: “We are accustomed today on the first night of every Shavuot [to study or recite] 32 piyyutim which are based… on the hokhmah [esoteric wisdom]. May the Lord God of Israel help us to recite them in the Holy Land” (Hamburger, p. 270; Halamish, p. 597).
  3. Rabbi Avraham Halevi Berukhim of Safed (ca. 1590) says that “all ba’alei Torah” [masters of Torah] must learn all night (Hamburger, p. 275). Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon Elbaz of southern Morocco (ca. 1575-1599) says that “all ba’alei Torah… should study the Oral Torah all night, the night when the bride adorns herself to enter the huppah with the groom on the morrow, and this should be the intent in their reading” (Halamish, p. 597; cf. Hamburger, p. 275). The last sentence harks back to the Zohar (above, parag. 3).

It appears that until ca. 1600 the Tikkun Leil Shavuot was observed primarily by mystics and kabbalists. Beginning at that time, it appears that kabbalists began to advocate that all Jews should observe the custom of the Tikkun.

  1. Rabbi Moshe Ibn Machir was the Head of the Yeshivah at Ein Zeitun near Safed in the late 16th century. He wrote in hisSeder Hayom (Venice, 1599) “… every person, whether he is the smallest of the small and a commoner among commoners, should value himself and aggrandize himself regarding this matter… and if he can connect to a community of people of truth and seekers of justice [i.e. kabbalists?], how good and how pleasant that he should be counted among the sons of the king’s palace and of the bridesmen of the bride” (Hamburger, p. 275).
  2.  Similarly, Rabbi Hayyim Vital of Safed (1542-1620), the main disciple of Rabbi Yitzhak Luria, wrote in his Sha’ar Hakavanot (ed. Jerusalem, 1873) that “the custom has already spread in Israel to engage in Torah study the entire night of Shavuot” (Hamburger, p. 270). He further states that whoever does not sleep even one moment and will study Torah, it is promised to him that he will live that year and no evil will befall him that year. He lays out the texts studied, an order still practiced by many until today: the first three and the last three verses of every Torah portion, the sections of the Torah and the Prophets which have some connection to Shavuot,  such as the Ten Commandments, the omer, thehafatarot of Shavuot and the Book of Ruth. The rest of the night is devoted to “the secrets of the Torah and the Zohar according to what your mind can grasp” (Wilhelm, p. 127; cf. Halamish, p. 599).
  3.  By the time that Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz (Prague, Poland, Jerusalem, Tiberias, ca. 1565-1630) wrote the Shelah inEretz Yisrael the 1620s, he could testify that “this custom had spread in all of Eretz Yisrael and in the entire kingdom, no one is left out, all from the great to the small, and they accepted it upon them and their descendants [cf. Esther 9:27]”. He encouraged this and added: “On this night of Shavuot, sleep should be denied from anyone who wants to cling to holiness and let him engage in Torah all night”. His order of study is different than that of Rabbi Hayyim Vital: the first and last three verses of every weekly Torah portion (and sometimes more), the first and last three verses of every book of the Bible, the first and last mishnah of every tractate of Mishnah, the first and last mishnah of Sefer Yetzirah [an important mystical text], the Zohar – Emor (above, parag. 3), the 613 commandments, and the Song of Songs. The study is divided into 13 parts; kaddish is recited after each part. (Hamburger pp. 276,  283-285; Wilhelm, pp. 128-129; Halamish, p. 601)
  4. This trend of popularizing the Tikkun is epitomized by the printing of an order of study at the end of Tikkunei Shabbat, Cracow 1612 and as an independent booklet entitled “The order of reading a Tikkun for the nights of Shavuot and Hoshanah Rabbah” published in Venice, 1648. By 1839, the Tikkun booklet had been printed 88 times (sic!), primarily inAmsterdam andVenice. (Wilhelm 130 and 143; Halamish, pp. 602-603; cf. the two editions listed in the Bibliography below).
  5. Even so, in the middle of the 17th century in Germany it was still considered the custom of pious individuals. Rabbi Yosef Yuzpeh Hahn (d. 1637) wrote in his Yosef Ometz that in his day only “the meticulous, who follow the kabbalah” study all night, while Rabbi Yosef Yuzpeh Shamesh of Worms wrote in 1648 that “there are studiers of Torah who do not sleep on this night, rather they learn all night until the morning” (Hamburger, p. 277).
  6. Rabbi Avraham Gumbiner (Poland, d. 1683) mentions the Tikkun in his classic commentary Magen Avraham to theShulhan Arukh (Orah Hayyim 494). He states that most of the studiers now follow this custom. He also gives a midrashic rather than a mystical explanation for the custom: “Because the Israelites were sleeping all night long and God had to wake them up, as it says in the midrash, therefore we have to repair (letakein) this” (Hamburger, pp. 271, 277; Wilhelm, p. 130).
  7. The anonymous author of Hemdat Yamim, which was written in Jerusalem ca. 1700, devotes a lot of space to the Tikkun. He says that the custom has spread to the entire Diaspora. They study Torah all night “in order to adorn the lovely bride, to prepare her to enter the huppah on the morrow” (cf. the Zohar, parag. 3 above). He adds a new idea that the Tikkun is a way of atoning for every sin regarding the honor of the Torah. He therefore attacks those who think that it is enough to remain awake all night and to sit in the Bet Midrash without learning. It is also a custom to speak Hebrew all night. He is opposed to the recitation of the kaddish many times; this was encouraged by the treasurers who got people to pledge money for every kaddish. He added two prayers of his own: one for before the Tikkun and one for before immersing in the mikveh early in the morning. He also requires a second Tikkun on the second night of Shavuot (Wilhelm, p. 129; cf. Halamish, pp. 600, 601-602).
  8. In 1696, Rabbi Ya’akov Reisher (Prague, ca. 1670-1733) wrote in his Hok Ya’akov commentary to the Shulhan Arukh(Orah Hayyim 494) that in the house of his teacher and father-in-law Rabbi Shimon Spira in Prague they did not do a Tikkun with a minyan but each person studied what he wanted by himself. The fixed text of the Tikkun was only enacted for Amei Ha’aretz [ignorant Jews] who do not know how to learn by themselves (Wilhelm, p. 130).
  9. On the other hand, Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Kaidanover (d. 1712) says in his ethical work Kav Hayashar (Frankfurt de Main, 1705) that every person who is God-fearing should learn all night on Shavuot the Tikkun written by the students of the Ari as described by Rabbi Hayyim Vital (above, parag. 12) (Hamburger, p. 278).
  10. Two years later, Rabbi Elhanan Henli Kirchhahn related to our custom in his Simchat Hanefesh: “The custom is in the communities that they stay up and learn the entire night of Shavuot, to serve God, may His name be blessed” (Hamburger p. 279; I have translated from the Yiddish).
  11. Rabbi Yehiel Michal Epstein, the author of Kitzur Shelahpublished in 1709, encouraged the Jews who live in small towns to observe the Tikkun custom: “even though the Tikkun [booklets] have been printed a number of times, in any case… perhaps the Tikkunim have not spread in theyishuvim [i.e. small villages] who can learn what is possible from the books which they have, even though they cannot learn the entire Tikkun [booklet], even so, since their intent is for the sake of Heaven, God will unite the intent with the act and it is good for them” (Hamburger, p. 277).
  12. By the year 1747, when Rabbi Ya’akov Emden (Altona, 1697-1776) published his Siddur Sha’arei Shamayim, many simple Jews were attending the Tikkun but not really learning. This led to the following criticism: “The custom has already spread on the basis of the Zohar and the Ari to be awake on this night to study Torah… but those who stay up should be careful not to engage in useless conversations, and even more in joking and frivolity, because then sleep is good for them and enjoyment for the world” (Hamburger, p. 279). In other words, it is better to sleep than to stay up, joke around and not learn.
  13. Rabbi Yosef Hayyim David Azulai, the Hida (1724-1806), was an important halakhic authority who was born in Jerusalem but spent much of his life in Italy and other countries. He testifies that “most Jews have the custom of learning on the first night of Shavuot on the basis of the holy Zohar”. (Hamburger, p. 277).
  14. Rabbi Eliezer Papo (Bulgaria, 1786-1828) returned to an emphasis on the mystical purpose of the Tikkun in his influential ethical work Pele Yo’eitz (Constantinople, 1828): “Reading the Torah [i.e. the abbreviated version found in the Tikkun booklets] on the night of Shavuot according to the order enacted by Rabbeinu the Ari z”l is wondrous and makes an impression on High, adornments to theShekhinah, blessed is a person who merits this… and this is a great Tikkun [repair] for the blemish of seeing forbidden sights, such as statues and woman, and which he damaged in a number of nights… that he was awake to anger his Maker with gambling and frivolity and similar evils” (Hamburger, pp. 270-271).
  15. Yet, just a few years before, Rabbi Aaron Wormser wrote in his Me’orei Or (Metz, 1822), that the Tikkun “is only for benei aliyah“, for the elite (Hamburger, p. 279)
  16. On the other hand, a few years later, Rabbi Moshe of Zalshin informs us in his Tikkunei Shabbat (1831) that on the night of Shavuot and Hoshana Rabbah “the poor come to hear the learning” (Hamburger, p. 279). In other words, they would come to listen to the recitation of the Tikkun booklet even if they themselves could not read Hebrew.
  17. Rabbi Yitzhak Seligmann Baer, the leading Ashkenazic expert on liturgy in the 19th century, gave a brief history of the Tikkun in his Tikkun booklet (Rodelheim, 1878, Introduction, note 1). He says that the night is the best time to study Torah, citing numerous Talmudic passages (Hamburger, pp.  272-273). He also emphasizes that the custom has spread to the entire Diaspora (ibid., p. 279).
  18. Finally, Rabbi Yosef Hayyim of Baghdad(ca. 1833-1909), writing in his Ben Ish Hai first published in 1899, echoed the warning of Rabbi Ya’akov Emden, that since many people attend the Tikkun all night long, they must be careful not to engage in small talk (Hamburger, p. 277; cf. Halamish, p. 601 re. his attitude towards women at the Tikkun).

II)   Summary and Conclusions

The Tikkun Leil Shavuot is based on the Zohar ca. 1300 (parags. 3 and 4) but it is not clear that it was actually practiced at that time. The first testimony of an actual Tikkun seems to be that of Rabbi Shlomo Alkabetz ca. 1530 (parag. 7).

Regarding the texts studied, Moshe de Leon mentions Bible, Midrash and Kabbalah or Bible, Talmud and legends (parags. 3-4). Rabbi Alkabetz mentions selected passages from the Bible and Mishnah (parag 7). Beginning with Rabbi Hayyim Vital (parag. 12) and Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz (parag. 13), the practice became to recite some verses from every section of the Torah, Prophets, Writings, Mishnah, Sefer Yetzirah etc. Even so, some rabbis said that only the Oral Law should be studied (parags. 6, 10), while Rabbi Shimon Lavi studied 32 piyyutim (parag. 9).

From its inception until ca. 1600, the Tikkun was only practiced by an elite group of kabbalists. Beginning ca. 1600 (parag. 11 and ff.), many rabbis encouraged all Jews to recite the Tikkun booklets all night long on Shavuot. This led to many illiterate Jews attending the Tikkun; some just listened while others talked. Some rabbis continued to stress that the Tikkun is meant for the elite (parag. 25), while others warned the simple Jews to refrain from idle talk (parags. 22, 28).

The creation of a fixed text of verses to be recited (parag. 12 and ff.) had the positive effect of enabling the Tikkun to spread very rapidly to all Jewish communities, but it turned the Tikkun into a rote exercise without any real Torah study. Even so, some rabbis studied other texts (parags. 6, 9, 10), while others emphasized that the fixed Tikkun is meant for ignorant Jews, but more learned Jews should actually study Torah all night (parag. 18).

In recent years, Jews throughout Israel and all over the world have begun to hold text classes all night with the teacher switching off every hour. These Tikkunim have succeeded in attracting many Jews who are not observant or affiliated. This seems to be the best approach for our generation. On the one hand, it preserves the original custom of studying Torah all night on Shavuot as preparation for Mattan Torah – the Giving of the Torah – as recommended by the Zohar ca. 1300 and as practiced beginning in 1530. On the other hand, most Jews today cannot relate to reading the traditional Tikkun booklets. Even if they understand the Hebrew and Aramaic, they cannot actually learn such a booklet, because it consists of the first and last three verses of dozens of different books. A person who wants to follow the kabbalistic practice ofreading the Tikkun booklet is welcome to do so, but many Jews will prefer to study Torah all night either by studying Bible, Mishnah, Talmud, Midrash and other texts in a serious fashion or by listening to lectures on these and other classic Jewish texts.

I hope and pray that more and more Jews will attend Tikkunim every year and that studying Torah all night long will bring us closer to God and His Torah.

David Golinkin
Rosh Hodesh Sivan 5773


I) Studies

Meir Bar-Ilan, Mehkirei Hag 8 (5757), pp. 28-48

Morris Faierstein, Conservative Judaism 61/3 (Spring 2009), pp. 76-79

Moshe Halamish, Hakabbalah Batefillah Bahalakhah Uvaminhag, Ramat Gan, 2000, pp. 595-612 (reprinted from Mehkirei Hag 5 [5754], pp. 62-78)

Binyamin Shlomo Hamburger, Shorshei Minhag Ashkenaz, Bnei Berak, 5762, pp. 268-364

Elliot Horowitz, AJS Review 14/1 (Spring 1989), pp. 24, 36-37, 42-43, 45 (on the influence of coffee on the Tikkunim and other customs)

Louis Jacobs, Jewish Mystical Testimonies,New York, 1977, pp. 98-104 (a translation of the epistle in parag. 7 above)

Yehoram Mazor, Mehkirei Hag 5 (5754), pp. 79-87 (about Tikkunim in the Reform movement inIsrael)

Yishayahu Tishbi, Mishnat Hazohar, Vol. II,Jerusalem, 1961, pp. 531-532, 570-572 (a Hebrew translation of one of the Zohar passages in parag. 3 above)

R. J. Zwi Werblowsky, Joseph Karo: Lawyer and Mystic,Philadelphia, 1977, pp. 19-22, 108-110 (a discussion of parag. 7 above)

Y.D. Wilhelm, “Sidrei Hatikunim“, Alei Ayin,Jerusalem, 1948-1952, pp. 125-130

II) Tikkun Booklets

Seder Tikkun Leil Shavuot V’leil Hoshana Rabbah, Warsaw, 1873 and reprints (according to the order of the Shelah with somekavanot of the Ari)

Yitzhak Seligmann Baer, Seder Halimmud B’leil Hag Hashavuot U’v’leil Hoshanah Rabbah, Rodelheim, 1878 and reprints

All four volumes of Rabbi Prof. David Golinkin’s Responsa In A Moment – Halakhic Responses to Contemporary Issues as well as other books by the author are available for purchase from the Schocken-JTS Press Bookstore.

David Golinkin is President of The Schechter Institutes, Inc. and President Emeritus of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies. For twenty years he served as Chair of the Va’ad Halakhah (Law Committee) of the Rabbinical Assembly which gives halakhic guidance to the Masorti Movement in Israel. He is the founder and director of the Institute of Applied Halakhah at Schechter and also directs the Center for Women in Jewish Law. Rabbi Professor Golinkin made aliyah in 1972, earning a BA in Jewish History and two teaching certificates from The Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He received an MA in Rabbinics and a PhD in Talmud from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America where he was also ordained as Rabbi. For a complete bio click here.

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