Oz Torah: Shavuot

Insights into Judaism: The date of the holiday, foliage in shul, Book of Ruth, staying up all night to learn.

Tags: Shavuot
Rabbi Dr. Raymond Apple

Judaism בית הכנסת המקושט לרגל חג השבועות
בית הכנסת המקושט לרגל חג השבועות

The Red Letter Date

As a child Moses found that Shavu’ot was already a red-letter date in his life. Not just because the Torah was due to be given to him that day, even though that is so highly important.

But some of the sages link Shavu’ot with the birth of the baby who was going to become Israel’s leader and teacher.

Born on 7 Adar, he was hidden for three months, coming out of concealment on 7 Sivan, i.e. Shavu’ot.

What protected him during these months? God’s gift of Nature! As a baby his ark was hidden amongst the bulrushes, like a tree that protects a person with its shade, nature gave Baby Moses safety.

When Shavu’ot came into being the date already had significance in Moses’ life.  

Foliage and flowers

Shavu’ot sees foliage and flowers in the synagogue, reminding us of two things – the flourishing of nature that is at its peak at this time of year (in Israel and the northern hemisphere), and the rabbinic notion that when the Torah was given even the barren rocks of the mountain sprouted greenery.

In some places the favourite flower is lilies of the valley, recalling the midrashic allegory that the people of Israel are the lily that figures in the Song of Songs.

As with many aspects of Jewish ritual and ceremony, Christianity borrowed an idea and presented it as its own – the decking of churches with plants and flowers to mark Whitsun.

The greenery teaches both a spiritual and ethical lesson.

Spiritually it reminds us that the world’s blessings which come from God are a major reason to bless the Creator.

From the ethical point of view it reminds us that the precious gifts of nature will be compromised and jeopardised if we in our generation fail to appreciate and cultivate them.

Ruth's name

The Book of Ruth is read on Shavu’ot.

There are many attempts to explain the name Ruth.

There are lexicographers who derive it from re’ut, friendship, since her insistence on staying with her mother-in-law Naomi was so touching.

Others think it comes from the word ra’ah, to see, indicating her moral beauty – or, according to the Midrash, because ra’atah, she looked to the leadership of Naomi.

There is a Talmudic opinion that the name is connected with her descendant David who delighted God (rivahu, coming from ravah) with his poems and psalms.

It is interesting that in g’matria, the letters of Ruth add up to 606 which combines with the seven rabbinic Noahide mitzvot to make 613, the traditional enumeration of the commandments.

The Shavuot all-nighter: Staying up to learn tikkun

Staying up all night to study on Shavu’ot is back in fashion.

Other religious all-nighters are also on the way back, such as long Sedarim on Pesach, when some people keep going until almost dawn, like the five rabbis in B’nei B’rak in Rabbi Akiva’s day.

We might even see a revival of the all-nighter on Yom Kippur, when the pious used to stay in the synagogue reading T'hillim. Even the Hoshana Rabbah night-time study sessions are creeping back.

All these occasions defy the darkness and turn Judaism into the religion that never sleeps, like God Himself whom Psalm 121 calls “The Guardian of Israel (who) neither slumbers nor sleeps”.

The Shavu’ot night-time experience is called Tikkun Leil Shavu’ot because the kabbalists’ anthology of texts for study is called tikkun, “arrangement”, since the contents of the book are set out in a set order – an idea akin to the name Seder (“order”) for the Pesach evening celebration, or the title Siddur for the prayer book.

The Shavu’ot evening Tikkun has excerpts from each of the 24 books of Tanach, with some passages given extensively such as the Creation, the Exodus, the Song of Moses and the Ten Commandments. There are rabbinic texts, showing that both Written and Oral Law are Divine and binding.

The Kabbalah is represented by extracts from the Sefer Y'tzirah (Book of Creation) and the Zohar, the handbook of the Jewish mystics. Finally comes a list of the 613 commandments.

Not every community uses the set anthology but replace or supplement it by material that highlights the concepts of the Torah and their applicability in every age. Spending the night in this way is user-friendly and gets everyone discussing.

Kabbalistic circles have a different night-time tikkun, the Tikkun Chatzot (“Order of Midnight”) when midnight prayers recall the destruction of the Temple and yearn for the restoration of the sanctuary. The practice derives from a Talmudic passage about God lamenting the destruction.

Another meaning of tikkun is “preparation”. Through a night spent in study (like David, who woke at midnight to pray and learn) we prepare ourselves spiritually and intellectually to renew our acceptance of the Torah.

There is an analogy with the mikveh, a means of preparation for the union of husband and wife. This is based on Avot D’Rabbi Natan, which says Moses immersed before the Revelation when God and Israel metaphorically “married” one another.

The Midrash states that the Israelites overslept on the summer night before the Torah was given, and had to be woken up with thunder and lightning. Later generations, ashamed that their forebears were not ready to hear the word of God, decided to stay up on Shavu’ot night to ensure that they would be awake and eager when the Holy One, Blessed be He, wanted their attention.

There is another sense in which tikkun has become fashionable – “repair”. We speak of tikkun olam, repairing a broken world. The night of study restores the harmony that joins Israel and God, covenant partners bound to each other throughout history.

The Shulchan Aruch does not refer to Tikkun Leil Shavu’ot, though the codifier, Joseph Karo, mystic as well as lawyer, is said to have observed the practice. A commentator to the Shulchan Aruch, the Ba’er Hetev, says that whoever studies on Shavu’ot night will merit to complete the year in good health.

These days it is especially young people for whom the Tikkun has a fascination and appeal. It’s exciting to stay awake and mark the hours with coffee and cheesecake and then end at dawn with Shacharit. But there’s more to it than that.

One of the most encouraging signs of the times is that young people are rediscovering their heritage. Yesh tikvah l’acharitenu – there is hope for our future, as the Biblical prophets used to say. Tikkun Leil Shavu’ot is part of the revitalisation of Judaism.

Who would ever have imagined that Torah study would become the great Jewish growth industry?  Who would ever have foreseen that Jews of every shade of opinion, even the secularists, would engage with the classical texts?