By Lucy Cosgrove
Shavuot is a holiday that we all know exists, but probably actually don’t know a lot about. We eat a lot of dairy, go to synagogue, and talk about the Torah. One of the purposes of Shavuot is to complete the counting of the omer, and remember the day that the Israelites received the Torah. From the time the Israelites leave Egypt to the time that they receive the Torah, 7 weeks go by, and those 49 days are what we count in the omer. Then once the days are up, we celebrate Shavuot.
Some may not know of the ritual Tikkun Leil Shavuot (also known as a tikkun), a full night in which teaching and learning of all sorts takes place among different Jewish communities. Traditionally, we are taught that the reason we pull this all-nighter, so to speak, is because when the Torah was actually delivered, the Israelites were disrespectfully droopy-eyed and falling asleep. Many stay up all night learning Torah to prove that we are always striving to improve as a Jewish people and that the mistakes of the past do not define who we are today. A tikkun is also the name of all the texts that were compiled by the Talmudic rabbis to study on the night of Shavuot, and it includes excerpts from all the books of the Tanach and tractates of the Mishna, along with other rabbinic teachings. So tikkun is the name of both this ritual and the texts. There is a controversy between Jewish authorities over whether it is actually necessary to use the tikkun: some say that in using the tikkun, we eliminate the possibility for further learnings and interpretations, and that it is too much of a guided learning. On the other hand, many say that the texts in the tikkun are the essential readings for Shavuot.
The origin of staying up all night is said to have begun with Kabbalist Rabbi Isaac Luria (also known as Ha’Ari) in the 16th century in Tzfat, Israel. Tzfat is a city in Northern Israel that has a reputation as being an incredibly spiritual and kabbalistic location, ever since Jews revived their communities there from the Spanish Inquisition.
On the night of Shavuot in Tzfat, parents and their children go from shul to shul to learn various texts and teachings in honor of the holiday. If children get tired, they walk home alone, safe among the thousands of people walking place to place. Over the years, the tradition has spread to communities outside of Tzfat. Because Shavuot is one of the Shalosh Regalim (one of three Jewish holidays in which Jews traditionally travel to the Kotel), in Jerusalem it is a busy time. Because so many people are out and about in Jerusalem on the night of Shavuot, many head to the Kotel in the early hours of the morning to celebrate and read Megillat Ruth, the story of a woman who holds onto Judaism even when pushed not to. Similar to Tzfat, there is a feeling of community and safety on the streets at all hours, because so many people are walking around throughout the night.
Even within Manhattan alone, Jews observe Shavuot in different ways. One way is by going to the Upper West Side’s JCC for their all night tikkun. This annual tradition consists of many speakers, professors, rabbis, and teachers of all kinds coming to the JCC to lead classes throughout the night for the hundreds of people attending. There is everything from rap-writing, to panels between rabbis, to Israeli dance. When it comes down to it, learning is really what the spirit of Shavuot is all about. After all, Shavuot is a holiday about the Torah, and the words Torah and moreh (teacher) come from the same Hebrew root!