On Saturday night, Jews around the world will stay up all night studying Torah.
Some will be excited, some will be bedraggled, but all will resist sleep for this time-honored tradition on Shavuot night.
There is no biblical or talmudic commandment to spend the night of Matan Torah — the giving of the Torah — studying, so when and why was it initiated? The midrash tells us that the Jews at Sinai overslept instead of waiting eagerly to receive the Torah. To show that we are enthusiastic and ready to accept all the commandments, we stay up all night and study Torah. The custom is called tikkun leil Shavuot. The Kabbalists practiced it in the 16th century, and generations since have followed suit.
A more offbeat explanation can be found by reading the coffee grinds. History suggests that after coffee was popularized in Europe in about 1580, people were able to remain focused all night and the custom truly took root.
But although the Kabbalists started it and coffee continued to make it possible — and we also have our cheesecake sugar buzz to keep us alert — still that doesn’t fully explain why the tradition has had such staying power. Jews always have had a particular intellectual tradition that values lifelong learning and scholarly creativity, and that, in my view, is why we welcomed the practice of spending the night in study.
In the Middle Ages, textual study distinguished us from others. But following the Renaissance, and surely in Western society today, education and literacy hardly are exclusive to Jewish people. Still, it is important for us to recognize that our faith and beliefs integrate with a visceral thirst for learning. Dedicating one night to Jewish study rather than sleep is both a symbolic manifestation and a practical actualization of our commitment to learning and acquiring wisdom.
So, mug of coffee in hand (and cheesecake on the side), what should we study on Shavuot night?
The answer varies according to the individual. Each of us should find the area of Judaism that excites us the most and embrace it on the anniversary of Matan Torah. It can be Jewish thought or ethics, the Bible, Prophets, or Talmud — but delve into the text and material and find meaning in a way so that it becomes part of your identity moving forward. Follow generations of Jews in seeking knowledge and God’s truth, and find your own personal connection to God and God’s Torah by pursuing the study of whatever speaks to you in the strongest way.
This night, we were all given the unique opportunity of perpetuating God’s word, and this tikkun leil Shavuot is when we begin to accept that privilege for the next year and into the future.
How should we study on Shavuot night?
There are two basic approaches. One is by listening to a series of lectures on topics of interest and the other is by finding a study partner and engaging in self-directed learning, focusing on one area in depth.
If you choose to find a partner, seek out someone who will challenge you to push your intellectual limits and inspire you to look at old texts in new ways. Your study partner should be someone who shares your interest in a particular Jewish topic and is knowledgeable in the area.
Advance planning is critical in order to make your evening of study meaningful. Line up the right study partner, peek into the texts you wish to study, and confirm that they indeed will be as appealing and manageable at 3 a.m., when the caffeine high has dissipated, as they appear to be now.
For most of us, even those who regularly dedicate time for learning, the night tends to be a mix of peer-to-peer learning with a partner and listening to lectures.
Personally, I have had positive experiences with both approaches. One year, I attended a series of related talks on the concept behind the prayer highlighting the ten sages who were killed by the Romans. This prayer is said on both Yom Kippur and Tisha B’Av, but there are important differences between the two versions that offer unique insights into this tragic event.
On another occasion, a partner and I spent the night studying Chronicles I and II and analyzing issues that never had been addressed in my 12 years of formal Jewish education. The opportunity to review a broad swath of history in one night created a unique perspective.
For health reasons, I can no longer drink coffee, and staying up all night now has become difficult to impossible for me. But past experience still inspires me to challenge myself and continue to learn in the great Jewish intellectual tradition, even if I won’t be doing it at 3 a.m.
Dr. Alan Kadish of Teaneck is president of the Touro College and University System. He is also a cardiologist, researcher, and teacher.