Oz Torah:The all-night tikkun – Shavu’ot


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.

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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.

credit: Rav Kook Torah

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?


On Shavu’ot we celebrate the Ten Commandments. It is the most famous document in the history of our civilisation. It is found above the Ark in the synagogue; it is honoured in other religions.

But wait. Did anyone ask whether we wanted these commandments?

Had we, or rather our ancestors, been consulted, we might have said we preferred freedom without constraints.

A Midrashic answer is, “Perhaps you say,

‘For your harm have I given you the Torah’; I gave it to you only for your benefit” (Deut. R. 8:2).

But another rabbinic statement makes the whole issue very problematical. Commenting on Ex. 19:17, the sages say that God upended the mountain over them like a cask and said,

“If you accept the Torah, all will be well, but if not, here will be your burial-place” (Shabbat 88a).

So God was, as it were, pointing a pistol at our heads!

Maimonides hints at an answer. The law is that if a husband is hesitant about a gett, the court can punish him until he says, “I agree” (Gerushin 2:20). But Maimonides says this is not duress; the beating restores him to his real law-abiding self: as Isidore Epstein explains,

“The doing of good corresponds to the Jew’s real nature”.

So at Sinai God was being dramatic to ensure nothing stopped Israel instinctively agreeing to accept the Torah.

They soon realised what a pearl they had acquired. Twice thereafter they are asked if they want the Torah, and they answer,

“We will do it and obey it” (Ex. 24:7).

So the Jewish heart knew what it was doing in accepting the commandments; and thus began the Jewish contribution to civilisation.


Rabbi Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Australia’s oldest and most prestigious congregation. He was Australia’s highest profile rabbi and held many public roles. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem. Rabbi Apple blogs at http://www.oztorah.com

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