Tikkun Leil Shavuot has evolved over the last decades as a holiday ritual.
Since Jews stopped bringing sacrifices, the festival of Shavuot has looked like a generic Yom Tov, without distinctive rituals. Shavuot had an unusual sacrifice (Leviticus 23:17-20), but now another ritual has emerged.
The prayer book identifies Shavuot as “the season of the giving of the Torah.” The Torah itself does not identify an exact date for the revelation at Sinai, but it also does not identify the date of Shavuot. According to the Bible, we count seven complete weeks after the beginning of the barley harvest (Deuteronomy 16:9-11) and then celebrate the Festival of Weeks, Shavuot, on the 50th day. Another verse gives the starting date for the count as “after the Shabbat,” which our tradition identifies as the day after the beginning of the festival of Passover (Leviticus 23:15-17), when the barley offering is brought.
The Torah reading on Shavuot (Exodus 19:1-20:23) describes the revelation at Sinai and presents the text of the Ten Commandments.
If we re-enact receiving the Torah on Shavuot in the daytime, then perhaps we should re-enact the night before receiving the Torah on Shavuot at night. In the middle of the 16th century, mystics in Safed began staying up all night, studying Torah, to show eagerness to receive the Torah again.
Finally, Shavuot had a distinctive ritual, called Tikkun Leil Shavuot.
I first experienced Tikkun Leil Shavuot in the early 1960s in the Bronx. In the local Orthodox synagogues, the most fervently observant men studied alone or in groups of two or three — and a pack of male teenagers joined them, trying to study, but also competing to see who could stay up all the way though morning services at dawn. Refreshments, if I remember right, consisted of watermelon.
A little later, when I got to Yeshiva University, on Shavuot night young men and some of their teachers filled the study hall, still all male, and sponsored by an Orthodox institution.
Still later, with young children at home, my wife and I would host a few friends at our home — sometimes another couple with or without children. Now we were men and women learning together, no longer sponsored by an institution; we had fruit and home-baked goods, too.
We were not alone. Tikkun Leil Shavuot had started to change and grow. Men and women took part, with the support of other Jewish institutions. In a few decades, Tikkun Leil Shavuot has transformed from the esoteric practice of some Orthodox men to a celebration shared by men and women of all Jewish movements.
In Berkeley, Calif., in the middle 1990s, I encountered a new phase of Tikkun Leil Shavuot. The entire community met at the Jewish Community Center for a full schedule of hour-long sessions from midnight to dawn; teachers came from every Jewish institution in town, including the Reform Congregation Beth El, the Orthodox Congregation Beth Israel, the University of California Hillel, the adult education Lehrhaus and many others.
Two or three sessions competed in the same time slot, so everyone could chose to stay in the comfort zone or deliberately exit that zone. Hundreds of people socialized during the short breaks between sessions, eating pastries, drinking coffee and meeting friends from across the spectrum of Jewish observance.
Rabbi David Wolkenfeld reports that in the Lakeview neighborhood in Chicago, four synagogues combine for the Tikkun Leil Shavuot: Anshe Sholom B’nai Israel (Orthodox), Anshe Emet (Conservative), Temple Sholom (Reform) and Mishkan (non-denominational liberal).
Another model for the expanded observance of Shavuot night took place in our community until last year: Dr. Jeffrey Devries and his wife, Debbie Kirschner, held an open-house Tikkun Leil Shavuot at their home in Huntington Woods. The event did not belong to any institution, and attracted male and female participants from many parts of the community. Scholars led different sessions from midnight to dawn.
This year, Vera Wexler and Jordana Wolfson are planning the community-wide open house Tikkun Leil Shavuot in Jordana’s home in Huntington Woods (May 19 at 11:45 p.m.). Among the sessions, I plan to teach “The History of Tikkun Leil Shavuot;” Deb Kovsky, “#Me Too: The Women of Megillat Esther and Megillat Ruth;” Rabbi Stephen Belsky, “Jethro Null: The Perseverance and Disappearance of Moses’ Father-in-Law;” Dr. Matt Vandherhoek, “Joseph and his Brothers At It Again: Two Classic Approaches to Exile;” Rabbi Avi Spodek, “The Tree of Life;” and Vera Wexler, “Heroes and Villains . . . Or Did They?”
If you would like to attend, or for information about the program, call Vera Wexler at (248) 350-0916.
Wexler explains some of the good points of all-night study on Shavuot in a private home.
“It opens doors,” she said. “People who might not feel comfortable showing up for a formal class might feel attracted to an informal meeting; people who might feel intimidated about teaching in a synagogue might have the courage to teach in the middle of the night at someone’s home. And Shavuot is open-ended, too. It is the season of the giving of the Torah, so anything in Torah is relevant to Shavuot.”