Every Jewish holiday has its complication. On Yom Kippur, I’m starving. On Sukkot, I must eat outside in the cold. On Pesach, I get indigestion from all the matza that I must eat and I am staying up and eating dinner really late on the first two nights of the holiday. Shavuot comes and finally I have a holiday when I can just relax and enjoy myself with my family with some good food. Life is good. Until the Zohar comes along and tells us that the Torah is compared to a bride and the Jewish people her groom, and staying up all night immersed in Torah study symbolically parallels the bridal preparations for a wedding. Other reasons were also suggested for this custom. Now when Rav Yosef Caro wrote the Shulchan Aruch, he made no mention of staying up on the night of Shavuot. However, the Magen Avraham (494:1) cites this custom and he writes that most of those who learn practice this custom. What’s the result? My sleep schedule is thrown for a loop and I am exhausted for much of the holiday and I wonder every year, why do I do this year after year? And I know the answer. Well, I’m the rabbi of my shul so of course I need to stay up all night. I need to set an example. It’s sort of like how every shul rabbi needs to study daf yomi whether or not he feels that it is the most productive use of his time because so many of his congregants are doing the daf. If everyone is doing the daf, the rabbi must do the daf! Similarly, if the congregants are staying up all night, then the rabbi also must stay up all night!
Then I engage in the calculations of would I be more productive if I sleep all night and learn during the day instead with a normal schedule and would I be more alert for shacharit if I daven at a later time than at vatikin after having stayed up all night. We have grinches out there who assert that this is a silly custom for these and other reasons and they argue that many people who stay up all night don’t really learn much Torah. I understand where they are coming from.
That being said, if a Jewish custom has been around for hundreds of years, there is something to the staying power of the custom. But I think there is more to this custom than simply that’s what we’ve been doing for hundreds of years. I think that there is real value to the all night learn-a-thon on Shavuot night that we call tikkun layl Shavuot. I remember my rebbe, Rav Michael Rosensweig, speaking to our shiur in YU about the value of tikkun layl Shavuot. Rav Rosensweig is someone who certainly cares about the quality and content of one’s learning and not simply sitting in a shiur when you are not actually engaged in Torah study. He told us that usually the goal of Torah study is primarily the content, but there is also a value to the experience and it is the experience that we primarily celebrate when we stay up late on Shavuot night studying Torah. We join with Jews across the world and we join with Jews hundreds of years before us who prepared for the celebration of matan Torah of Shavuot by pushing ourselves to study Torah late into the night on Shavuot. When we feel passionate about an experience, we don’t often think what that experience will do to us the next day. For example, if we go out on a date with someone and we are having an amazing time, the hours will fly by and we are not thinking about how exhausted we are going to be the next day because we are in love. We are in the moment.
The night of Shavuot is the time to be in the moment, to try to remind ourselves of the gift of matan Torah, that indeed it is not just an obligation but a gift. In fact, there are two brachot that we recite on the Torah each and every day. The first bracha is a birkat hamitzva, when we bless God that He commanded us “la-asok b’divrei Torah,” to occupy ourselves with words of Torah. We view the pursuit of Torah knowledge as an obligation. But there is a second bracha that we recite daily, the bracha of “asher bachar banu,” when we bless God that He has chosen us from all the nations and gave us the Torah. This is not a birkat ha-mitzvah, but a birkat hodaya, a blessing of thanksgiving. Here we refer to the Torah not as an obligation, but as a precious gift, and every day we express our gratitude for that gift. When we stay up all night studying Torah on the night when we celebrate receiving the Torah, even if we may struggle to stay awake and concentrate, we celebrate the anniversary of receiving this gift.
But there is one more part to the birkot ha-Torah. We don’t only view it as an obligation and as a gift, but we offer a prayer at the end of the first birkat ha-Torah. We ask God, “v’ha-arev na.” We ask God that the words of Torah should be sweet in our mouths and in the mouths of our fellow Jews. We want Torah study, which we know is a gift, to be exciting and enjoyable.
That’s what Shavuot night can be for us – exciting and enjoyable. This coming Shavuot night, let us push ourselves and try to find something enjoyable to study by ourselves or with a friend or a family member. Shavuot night is about the “chavaya,” the experience of Torah, at a time that is different than our regular Torah study routine. That’s partially what makes it exciting and that’s okay. Hopefully, if we take advantage and find a good group of people to study with and we find Torah topics to study that are engaging, we will emerge the next day not just groggy, but we will wake up feeling the sweetness of Torah.