Traditional all-night study sessions during Shavuot evolved across all streams of Judaism.
By Louis Finkelman, Contributing Writer
Shavuot, commemorating the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, begins on Saturday night, June 8. All over the world, some Jews do not go to sleep on Shavuot night, devoting the hours to Torah study.
Rabbi Nachman Levine of Oak Park gives a quick overview of how that practice developed and changed over the years.
According to Levine, the first hint of the practice appears in the Zohar (Emor), which criticizes our ancestors at Mount Sinai for sleeping the night before receiving the Torah. In the 16th century, a circle of Zohar students in Salonika (then part of the Ottoman Turkish empire) atoned for our sleepy ancestors by spending the night chanting verses from throughout the Hebrew Bible. Thus began Tikkun Leil Shavuot (tikkun means “repair,” leil means “night”).
A leader of that circle, Rabbi Yosef Karo, kept a diary recording his experience of visits from a mysterious spirit that encouraged him to make progress in Jewish observance. The spirit told Karo not to stay up the second night of Shavuot, but instead to move to Israel.
By the next Shavuot, Karo and many of his group had moved to Safed, where they continued to spend the night of Shavuot awake. The plan for the night’s traditional readings — from the Torah, Prophets, Mishnah, Zohar and a list of the 613 Commandments — took shape there, guided by Rabbi Yitzhak Luria.
Another practice, which began in the late 18th century if not earlier, has people devoting the night to any area of Torah study. Individuals who already have a course of study would simply continue their usual studies the night of Shavuot. This, according to Levine, became the dominant mode in learned Ashkenazic communities. Rabbi Sasson Natan of Keter Torah Synagogue in West Bloomfield notes that many younger Sephardic Jews now prefer this mode over the traditional readings.
A third mode, a schedule of public lectures on Torah or other Jewish topics, has, Levine notes, become popular in recent years.
Local Lecture Series
Synagogues in the Detroit area plan to offer lecture series.
Congregations Etz Chayim, Beth Shalom and Temple Emanu-El in Oak Park plan a joint study night at Beth Shalom (where Etz Chayim meets), beginning with a roundtable discussion among rabbis of different movements including Rabbis Dorit Edut, Eliezer Finkelman (disclaimer: me), Robert Gamer (Beth Shalom), Asher Lopatin (Etz Chayim) and Matthew Zerwekh (Temple Emanu-El). 11:30 p.m.
Congregation Or Chadash in Oak Park plans a series of lectures at a private home in Huntington Woods. For location, call shul president Deb Kovsky Apap at (248) 910-9008. (Disclosure: I am part of the rabbi team of Or Chadash).
A sampling of the lectures: At 11:30 p.m., Rabbanit Jenna Englender, “Where Is the Torah Now?” At 12:30 a.m., Rabbi Stephen Belsky will explore the meaning of a mysterious word in the Hebrew Bible, “refaim,” which might mean “angels,” “giants” or “aboriginal ghosts.”
At 3:30 a.m., Larry Winer of Lawrence Technological University will present the letters exchanged by President George Washington and Moses Seixas, warden of the Hebrew Congregation (Touro Synagogue) in Newport, R.I., in 1790. Winer will connect the letters with Shavuot. He also will give the lecture at the joint Tikkun at Beth Shalom.
B’nai Israel Synagogue in West Bloomfield, which meets at Temple Kol Ami in West Bloomfield, has a roster of lectures, including one on “Loving Your Fellow Jew” and another on “What Ever Happened to the Karaites?” Teachers include Rabbi Brent Gutmann of Kol Ami and Rabbi Mitch Parker of B’nai Israel. From 6 p.m.-dawn.
Congregation B’nai Moshe in West Bloomfield will hold a study session June 8 beginning at 7:30 p.m.
Congregation Beth Ahm in West Bloomfield will begin a study of the Ten Commandments at 7:30 p.m.
Temple Beth El in Bloomfield Township will gather from 7-9 p.m. to learn, followed by Havdalah in a private home in Birmingham; RSVP to firstname.lastname@example.org.
At Adat Shalom Synagogue in Farmington Hills, Rabbis Aaron Bergman and Rachel Shere and Hazzan Dan Gross plan a night of study on “How to create a community while still honoring the needs of the individual.” Starting with Minchah at 7:30 p.m. RSVP to email@example.com.
At Bais Chabad in West Bloomfield, a learning session will run from 12:30-4:30 a.m. (late Saturday night), which will feature several lectures, including one by Rabbi Nison Deitch, a visiting scholar from New York. Rabbi Shneur Silberberg of Bais Chabad will hold a study session for younger men at 12:30 a.m. Refreshments will be served.
“Shavuot-on,” June 8-10, Woodward Avenue Shul, 25595 Woodward, Royal Oak. Learn for three days with renowned scholar, author and speaker Rabbi Shais Taub. Starts Saturday at 9 p.m. with a lecture on “Emotional Sobriety.” To RSVP and see the full schedule, go to thewas.net/shavuot.
For details about other Shavuot programs, check synagogue websites.
As a festival, Shavuot should feature good food, along with study. Rabbi Natan reports Keter Torah congregants donate pastries and fruits so that at each break in the night’s reading, participants can say a blessing and enjoy bodily pleasures along with the spiritual. As Rabbi Yehoshua says in the Talmud, you should dedicate the festival “half for God and half for yourself” (Pesahim 68b).
Read more: Shavuot Events in Metro Detroit