The scene is familiar. An auditorium or hall is stuffed full of bodies hunched over books. In the corner, there’s a table bearing snacks and caffeinated beverages. It could be any pre-finals study session in any college in the world but it isn’t. You’ve stumbled into a synagogue on the night of Shavuot, when the custom is to stay up late studying Torah, in anticipation of the next morning’s re-enactment of its transmission at Sinai.
Our current practice to stay up all night learning Torah is attributed to Rav Yosef Karo, the 16th-century codifier of the Shulchan Aruch, though its roots are much older. The Zohar speaks of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, who lived in the second century, staying up all night. His reason for doing so is compared to an attendant helping to prepare a bride prior to her wedding. (A common metaphor for the revelation at Sinai is a wedding between God and the Jewish people.) The ultimate basis for the tradition is a Midrash in Shir HaShirim Rabbah to the effect that on the morning when God was to give them the Torah, the Jews slept in, showing a lack of enthusiasm. Throughout the generations, we rectify this national flaw through the many enthusiastic volunteers who spend the entire night engaged in study to show their love of God and appreciation for the gift of His Torah.
There is no particular course of study required for the night, though the Arizal, the famed Medieval Kabbalist, organized a selection of Biblical and Talmudic passages into a text called the Tikkun Leil Shavuot (“Order for the Night of Shavuot”). Some have colloquially come to refer to the all-night study session itself as “tikkun leil Shavuot.” While not technically accurate, it is also not wholly inappropriate. The word “tikkun” in Hebrew can also mean a repair or a correction. While such was not the intention of the Arizal, it is perhaps a fitting way to refer to the night’s activities, seeing as they are intended to make up for the oversight of our ancestors.
The custom as originally established was specifically to stay up learning the Tikkun Leil Shavuot text, which contains excerpts of the books of Tanach, the Jewish Bible, as a means of preparing to receive the Torah in the morning. This original practice now appears to be the exception rather than the rule in most communities. The current practice in most modern American synagogues is to hear speakers, to study in small groups or in pairs, or some combination of the two. Unlike a Passover Seder or reading the Megillah on Purim, staying up on Shavuot night is not an obligation, neither biblically nor rabbinically. It is a voluntary practice, much to be praised, but not for everyone. In fact, it’s preferable that some people do sleep; the recitation of the morning blessings is complicated by not sleeping, so one who has slept typically serves as leader for that portion of the morning service. (If staying up were in fact an obligation, it is unlikely that we would ask someone to forego doing so in order to “take one for the team.”)
The evening’s events are typically punctuated by breaks for food and drink. As with the text for study, the fare can vary widely from community to community. Cheesecake and ice cream are common, but sushi and barbecue are also not unheard of. (Customs likewise vary as to eating meat or dairy meals on Shavuot, so one must exercise caution in his or her late-night snacking.)
Despite its superficial similarity to cramming for exams, the idea behind the Shavuot all-nighter is actually quite different. The purpose of cramming for exams is short-term and immediate: “I have a test in the morning.” While perhaps effective for its intended purpose, cramming is not effective when it comes to long-term retention and internalization of the material. When it comes to Shavuot night, however, there is no test. Our goal is more profound. We seek to demonstrate our love for God and draw closer to Him through His Torah. On Shavuot morning, when we read about the revelation at Sinai and re-enact in microcosm the transmission of the Torah to the Jewish people through Moses, we have prepared ourselves, emotionally and intellectually, to appreciate the “Guidebook to Life” that God has given us. There may not be an exam and our night of study may not be graded, but it helps to direct us on a path that leads to endless credits.