In the night His Song is with me: Messages of Tikun Leil Shavuot
Tikkun Leil Shavuot is a widespread minhag to spend the entire night of Shavuot learning Torah. Where does this minhag come from, and what is special about learning at night?
The Shulchan Arukh on Shavuot (OH 494) does not mention this practice, although we do have record of Rav Yosef Karo himself learning through Shavuot night, in a letter from Rav Shlomo Alkabetz cited by the Shelah.
However, Magen Avraham of the 17th Century, printed on the page of the Shulkhan Aruch, cites from the Zohar that the pious ones had the practice to stay up all night learning. The Magen Avraham offers the well known explanation that we do this to make up for the fact that the Jewish People overslept on the morning of Matan Torah.
From the Zohar, it sounds that this practice was kept by the most pious members of society. In the days of the Magen Avraham, it seems this practice had spread to many of the learned people. In modern times, this practice has become even more widespread. Whether by attending a single shiur or studying all through the night, we engage in Torah study and show how precious we hold the gift we received at Shavuot, zeman matan torateinu (Pesachim 68b).
Great praise is given for one who learns at night. Reish Lakish describes a special reward: “Whoever occupies himself with Torah at night, the Holy One, Blessed be He, extends a thread of kindness over him by day, as it is stated: ‘By day, the Lord will command His kindness.’ And what is the reason that ‘by day, the Lord will command His kindness’? Because ‘and in the night His song,’ i.e., the song of Torah, ‘is with me’” (Avodah Zarah 3b).
Rambam writes that the majority of one’s wisdom is acquired at night: “Although it is mandatory to study by day and by night, no man acquires most of his wisdom at any but during night-time. Therefore, whosoever desires to attain the crown of the Torah should take care of all of his nights, not to spend even one of them in sleeping, eating, drinking, conversation, or in like matters, but in study of the Torah and in matters of wisdom” (Hilkhot Talmud Torah 3:13).
What is so special about learning at night?
I would suggest a few ideas:
Night is a particularly opportune time for learning Torah because there are generally fewer distractions. The world is quiet, less is going on demanding attention. This is more conducive to focused learning. I may be more mindful of my experience engaging the text, my encounter with God through the Torah.
In addition, learning Torah at night may be a more solitary activity. While Jewish sources speak very highly of the benefits of a study partner, a rebbi, and community, perhaps the opportunity to be alone with the Torah that night time provides can be a different and powerful learning experience. The whole world is asleep and I encounter the Torah. There is only me, the Torah, and the Shechinah, as Rabbi Ḥiyya describes: “Anyone who occupies himself with Torah at night, the Divine Presence is across from him, as it is stated (Lamentations 2:19): “Arise, cry out in the night, at the beginning of the watches; pour out your heart like water before the face of the Lord, lift up your hands toward Him” (Tamid 32b).
The encouragement to learn at night urges us to seek out each of our personal pieces of Torah and our individual connection with the Shechinah revealed through our learning.
Finally, learning at night requires extra effort. The natural thing to do at the end of a long day, when the sun goes down, might be to go home, eat dinner and go to sleep. Yet while the rest of the world begins to rest, we stay up and show the effort we make to learn and fulfill God’s precious commandments. Chazal established the proper activities at the end of a long work day: “He will come from the field in the evening, enter the synagogue, and until it is time to pray, he will immerse himself in Torah. If he is accustomed to reading the Bible, he reads. If he is accustomed to learning mishnayot, a more advanced level of study, he learns. And then he recites Shema and prays as he should. When he arrives home, he eats his meal with a contented heart and recites a blessing” (Berakhot 4b). Even at the end of a long day, our day has been framed by Torah and Mitzvot.
While staying up every night learning, as David HaMelech or certain holy rabbis did, may not be realistic for most of us, especially with the pressures of life, family, work etc., we can apply these messages to our Torah learning nevertheless. In a second version of Reish Lakish’s statement, night time refers to this world, as opposed to the world to come. If we extend that idea, night time can be understood as a metaphor for any situation where Torah learning is more difficult and requires extra effort, whether a particularly challenging sugya, or particularly difficult circumstances. We persevere and are promised that our learning at “night” will have special success and will pull us through the difficult times.
May the words of Torah be sweet in our mouths always!