This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Pulling an All-Nighter*

One of the most popular observances of the Shavu'ot holiday is the Tikkun, an all-night study session. The tradition can be implemented in diverse and flexible ways, whether through formal lectures, individual or group study of texts, or more creative formats. In almost all cases, the Tikkuns are conceived as educational experiences, designed to instruct participants in Judaism and its sacred texts.

The earliest mention of this custom is found in the thirteenth-century Kabbalistic masterpiece, the Zohar. The practice occupies a very important place in that work, to the point where several of its most central passages and discourses are portrayed as having originated in the context of all-night study session conducted by Rabbi Shimeon ben Yohai and his legendary circle of mystics.

Rabbi Shimeon's Tikkun was not so much an educational event as a mystical rite. In the Zohar's rich symbolism, Shavu'ot, the anniversary of the revelation at Mount Sinai, is depicted as a metaphysical wedding of the male and female aspects of the divine. The masculine image of an exalted king is joined with the Shekhinah, the divine presence in our world, portrayed as a princess.

The Torah scholars are members of the wedding party, and their task is to bedeck the bride in her finery, so that she will be ready to be presented to the groom in her full splendour.

Metaphorically understood, the ornaments represent spiritual teachings, expositions of the Torah according to its most profound and mysterious levels of meaning. The literal meaning of tikkun in the Zohar is "ornament" or "decoration."

The Talmud enumerated twenty-four different ornaments that a Jewish bride was expected to wear at her nuptials. For the Zohar, this invited the metaphoric analogy with the twenty-four books that make up the Hebrew scriptures.

It was in this allegorical setting that the Zohar visualized its mystical protagonists staying awake all night to regale each other with their gems of Kabbalistic exposition, in preparation for the marriage of God and Israel that will take place on the festival day.

In Kabbalistic theology, mystical interpretations of Torah have the power to influence the upper spiritual realms, even to bring about the creation of new worlds.

The fact that the practice of Tikkun is not attested before the thirteenth century does not necessarily prove that it did not exist. The Zohar ascribed all-night vigils to "the pious of earlier generations," leading some scholars to infer that they had an earlier history, perhaps even an ancient one.

In one passage, the Zohar provided a possible clue to the origins of the Shavu'ot vigil. In the course of a discussion about the metaphysical benefits of nocturnal study, Rabbi Judah remarks that the nations of the world conduct similar activities.

Indeed, vigils of prayer and study were a venerable part of Christian worship, especially in the monastic orders. The Zohar's author would likely have been familiar with the practice.

The Christian vigils were usually held on the eves of holidays. A fitting occasion for all-night worship was the Pentecost, the Christian equivalent to the Hebrew Shavu'ot. ("Pentecost" means "fifty" in Greek, referring to the fifty-day count leading between Passover and Shavu'ot).

Modeled on the Jewish celebration of divine revelation, the Christian festival commemorated an event from their scriptures, wherein Jesus' disciples experienced an outpouring of the holy spirit on Shavu'ot, in a dramatic episode replete with Sinai-like pyrotechnics.

The Jewish and Christian versions of the holiday exerted influences on one another in diverse customs and motifs, and the all-night vigil was an appropriate practice for Jews in medieval Spain to borrow from the non-Jewish environment. The Jews might even have assumed (as they occasionally did) that were merely repatriating an authentic Jewish ritual that had been plagiarized by the Christians.

In spite of the Zohar's enthusiastic championing of the Shavu'ot Tikkun, we do not possess a single record or report of one being observed until three centuries later.

The oldest description of a Shavu'ot night Tikkun involves two of the most high-powered figures in our spiritual history: Rabbi Joseph Caro, author of the Shulhan 'Arukh, and Rabbi Solomon Alkabes, the famed Kabbalist and liturgical poet. Alkabes visited Caro at his home in Nikopolis, (currently in Bulgaria), and the two decided to take part in a study vigil that involved intense recitation and chanting of representative passages from the Bible and Mishnah.

At midnight, Rabbi Caro was overpowered by what was perceived as a powerful supernatural voice issuing from his throat. The voice spoke in the name of the Mishnah mystically personified as the Shekhinah, the divine presence in the world. The voice went on to commend the participants for rescuing her from disgrace and neglect, and it reassured them that their words of Tora were being joyfully appreciated in the highest celestial realms.

The sublime speaker advised the rabbis that their vigil would have had even greater potency if it had been conducted by an assembly of ten participants. The rabbis therefore determined to assemble such a group and to repeat their ritual on the second night of the festival, notwithstanding the fact that they did not get any sleep during the intervening day.

The second night's Tikkun turned out to be every bit as spectacular as promised. The mystic voice made its appearance at an earlier hour, and then made a second appearance at midnight, instructing the scholars in Torah mysteries. It assured them of their exalted status in the celestial hierarchy, and urged them to take the next step in their spiritual development, by emigrating to the holy land.

The impact of that Tikkun was profound and enduring, not only for its participants, but for the history of Judaism. The voice's exhortations were successful in persuading the protagonists to immigrate to the Land of Israel, where they were to become central figures in the Safed circle of Kabbalists who would influence the character of Jewish thought and practice in many significant ways.

Rabbi Caro would continue to be visited by the personified Mishnah throughout his life. It was, according to Kabbalistic terminology a Maggid, a supernatural mentor of a sort that was relatively common among Jewish mystics. For half a century, Caro's Maggid would advise, admonish or encourage him on matters of personal morality, asceticism and devotion in prayer. The rabbi would record go on to his visions in a spiritual journal that has survived in the guise of a booklet titled Maggid Mesharim. This work provides an unprecedented portal into the inner life of one of Judaism's most distinguished scholars.

Over the years, I have attended many Shavu'ot Tikkuns, where I was privileged to learn Torah from capable and knowledgeable teachers. So far, however, none of those sessions has reached the level described in the Kabbalistic accounts, of being addressed by a supernatural guide, let alone of creating new worlds.

This article and many others are now included in the book

Sanctified Seasons
Sanctified Seasons

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