With the holiday of Shavuot just around the corner, many people wonder what significant customs are associated with the holiday. Most people have attended a Pesach seder, lit Chanukah candles and heard the shofar on Rosh Hashana. But what about Shavuot? What special customs are observed on Shavuot?
In this article, we’ll discuss the Tikun Leil Shavuot, literally the rectification of the night of Shavuot. The custom of studying Torah all night and the recitation of the tikun composition, is for many the most difficult Shavuot custom to observe.
The Shulchan Aruch Harav and other poskim (halachic decisors) quote in their volumes of responsa the widespread custom of staying awake the first night of Shavuot and learning Torah. They base their opinions on a midrash that says when B’nai Israel were about to receive the Torah, they prepared for the event for three days. Yet, on the morning of Shavuot, when they were about to receive the Torah, they overslept and had to be awakened by HaShem. As a rectification for the misdeed of our ancestors, we study Torah all night and end with praying Shacharit at daybreak.
Many rabbinic commentators extol the virtues of those who forfeit their night’s sleep and study Torah. The Sfat Emet, late 19th-century leader of the Ger chassidic sect, stated that by staying awake on the night of Shavuot, we exhibit our love for the Torah. The Yeshot Ya’akov expressed a similar sentiment. He also emphasized the importance of studying Torah Sheb’al Peh (the Oral Torah) by referring to a midrash stating that HaShem had to compel B’nai Yisrael to accept Torah Sheb’al Peh, as they had only agreed to accept the Torah Shebichtav (the Written Law).
The reciting of the Tikun Leil Shavuot composition was considered especially important. Rabbi Chaim Yoseph Dovid Azulai, of late 18th-century Jerusalem, stressed the importance of reciting the Tikun Leil Shavuot rather than studying other areas of Torah literature. The Chida, as he was better known, wrote that the Tikun Leil Shavuot is based on the Zohar and was instituted by the famous 16th-century kabbalist, the Arizal. He felt that to dismiss the study of the tikun in favour of studying Talmud or Mishnah was a disservice to the great kabbalist.
After staying up all night learning, many people suffer from fatigue during the Shacharit prayers. As this results in reduced concentration and devotion, there were many noted rabbinic personalities who felt it would be better to study part of the night and sleep for the remainder, in order to ensure proper kavannah (concentration) during the morning prayers. The Maharal of Prague wrote that the spiritual gain of learning all night is offset when one davens Shacharit afterward in this manner.
The practice today in most Ashkenazi and Sephardi synagogues is to study all night, followed by Shacharit immediately at daybreak. Many chassidic groups, however, follow the recommendations of the Maharal and stay up for part of the night, recite the Tikun Leil Shavuot and go to sleep afterward.
This coming Shavuot, whether you plan to stay awake learning all night or not, have a Chag Samayach!