On the holiday of Shavuot, is the practice of learning Torah all night long a commandment or a just a custom?
The practice of staying up all night to study Torah on the holiday of Shavuot is a custom and not a commandment. However that does not mean that a personshould snuggle into bed thinking that he is not missing anything by not joining in with the rest of the Jewish people on this exalted night. On Shavuot night, a person who longs to come closer to G-d can do so in the study hall, rather than sleeping off his holiday meal in bed. The festival of Shavuot commemorates G-d the giving the Torah to the Jewish nation on Mt. Sinai. The Midrash teaches that the Jewish people at Sinai slept all night instead of waiting anxiously for the giving of the Torah. By staying up the whole night and studying, we rectify the slighting this caused to the honor of the Torah. The Zohar states that the early sages would learn Torah all night to insure that the blessing of Torah would be passed on to their children. A person who learns Torah with joy on Shavuot night is insured the blessing of life in this world and the world to come. The Arizal emphasizes that a person should stay awake all night and be rapturously involved in the study of Torah. This pious behavior guarantees that the person will not die in the coming year. He states that the holiness of Shavuot night is so exalted that a person should take special care to say only words of Torah and not to utter a single unnecessary comment. For these reasons, many synagogues hold lectures all through the night on Shavuot, in order to provide a festive environment for people who have trouble staying up all night learning alone at home. In the holy writings of the “Shelah,” Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz, a kaballist who lived in Safed several hundred years ago, an interesting story is told about Shavuot night in the study hall of Rabbi Yosef Caro, the author of the Shulchan Oruch. The Rabbi and his students were living in Turkey at the time and as was their habit, they spent the evening diligently studying the Tikun of Shavuot Night, a special order of holy texts established by the sages of the Zohar. In the middle of their learning, they heard a supernatural voice emerging from the mouth of their revered Rabbi. All of the neighbors heard the booming voice of the Divine Presence, which, with the exile of the Jewish People, had fallen from its throne. All those in attendance fell upon their faces, unable to look at the holy sight of the great Rabbi as the awe-inspiring voice sounded from his lips. Rabbi Shlomo HaLevi Elkabetz, author of the song “Lecha Dodi” and one of the students present, documented the scene in a letter quoted by the Shelah. “Listen my most devoted and beloved friends,” the Voice said. ‘Happy are you and those who gave birth to you, how fortunate you are in this world and the next, you who took it upon yourselves to honor me with the crown of your learning this evening. For it is now many years that my crown has fallen and there are none to console me. And I am cast into the dust, and now you have returned my glory of old.’” “Be strengthened, friends and loved ones, know that you are the lofty chosen few, for you have merited to enter the palace of the King, for all of your learning and the breath of your mouths have come before G-d and pierced many heavens until your voices ascended to the reaches of the angels. All of the Celestial Host stand hearing your words of Torah to listen to your voices. And behold, here I am, …I have come to speak with you and praise you, how fortunate you are my beloved, for keeping sleep from your eyes, for through you I have been magnified this evening….” “You are not like those who are lying on their ivory beds in sleep, which is like a tiny portion of death. You have cleaved to G-d and He rejoices with you… Therefore my children be strong and brave. Be joyous in the study of Torah and in attaining the fear of G-d, my friends. Do not cease from your learning, for a cord of loving kindness is wrapped around you, and your Torah learning is cherished by G-d.” “Hearing these words, we stood on our feet. Then the Voice returned and said, ‘Do not ceaseyour studies for a moment, and now come to the Land of Israel, for not all times are equal and G-d does not require legions to bring salvation, for you shall eat from the exalted goodness of the Land. And if you take heed and listen to these the words, surely the goodness of the Land you shall eat. Therefore, be quick to come to the Land of Israel for it is I who supports you. And you shall dwell in peace, and peace shall be upon your households and all that you own will enjoy shalom. G-d grants valor to His nation; G-d will bless His nation with peace.’” For people who don’t feel up to a rousing Shavuot experience like this, or if someone is afraid that he will be too tired to pray the morning service properly if he stays up all night, then he should not feel bad about retiring early. Those who do stay up all night should try to hear the morning blessings from someone who slept and then simply answer Amen. In the words of Rabbi Elkabetz at the close of his epistle, this Shavuot “May the merciful G-d instill within your hearts to have mercy upon yourselves, and may we merit to be united in the Holy Land to worship G-d in unison.” Hag sameach and lashana haba b’Yerushalayim habinouyah. _____________________ 1. Mishna Berurah, Orach Chaim, 494:1. 2. Pirkei d’Rebbe Eliezer, Chapter 41. 3. Zohar, Emor, Folio 98A. Also, Introduction to Zohar, Part One, Folio 8A. 4. Gateway to Meditaton, Page 89A. Also “Pri Etz Chadash,” Gate 23:1. 5. Shelah HaKodosh, on Shavuot, Pg. 30.