Imagine sleeping late for the most important appointment of your life! According to Jewish tradition, that is exactly what the Jewish people did the morning they were to receive the Torah at Mount Sinai. To make certain that this doesn’t happen again, many Jewish communities stay up for an all-night study session the first evening of Shavuot (Erev Shavuot). This special tradition, called a Tikkun Leil Shavuot, hopes to ensure that the Jewish people make it to their Mount Sinai meeting on time.
Shavuot, also called the Festival of Weeks, is the second of the three Festivals of the Jewish year. Like many Jewish holidays, Shavuot has both agricultural and religious significance. Shavuot celebrates the harvest and dedication of the first fruits of the agricultural year and the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. For this reason, Shavuot is also often called both Hag HaBikkurim (Holiday of the First Fruits) and Hag Matan Torah (Holiday of the Giving of the Torah).
However, the connection between Passover and Shavuot is perhaps the most important aspect of this holiday’s celebration. Passover celebrates the escape of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. But what happened after that miraculous escape at the Sea of Reeds? Seven weeks later, the Israelites stood at Mount Sinai and were given the Torah. As Passover celebrates physical freedom, Shavuot celebrates spiritual freedom through the covenant made between G-d and the Jewish people millennia ago.
Unfortunately, Shavuot often falls during the summer and many people forget about this celebration altogether (There is no excuse this year, as Shavuot is at the end of May). Additionally, Shavuot may be less “memorable” because it doesn’t have a unique experience as part of its celebration. Sukkot has the sukkah, Passover has the Seder, Purim has the costumes, and Shavuot is primarily a synagogue based holiday exactly at the time when synagogue attendance starts to wane in the summer season.
Nevertheless, participating in a Tikkun Leil Shavuot is a great way to throw you into Jewish learning and provides a great opportunity to become re-inspired to explore Judaism anew. I have participated in all-night study programs that explore everything from classical biblical texts to the growth of the Israeli wine industry. With a diversity of learning experiences, everyone has the opportunity to stay engaged and awake. Plus, all-night learners really feel a sense of accomplishment if they make it to dawn on Shavuot morning.
Study is central to the Jewish people. Jewish study is not about mastering knowledge; rather it is about using what is learned to affect how we live. We study the Torah all year, every year because the work that we put into study has the potential to transform our lives. This is why Ethics of the Fathers reminds us that the process of Torah study is to “turn to it, and turn to it again, for everything is in it. Pore over it, grow old and gray over it. Do not budge from it. You can have no better guide for living than it” (Avot 5:25). Take some time this year to study our tradition.
Shavuot begins the evening of Tuesday, May 18, 2010, the 6 Sivan 5770. For more information about Shavuot, check out www.myjewishlearning.com.