In preparation for receiving the Torah the next morning, one Midrash recounts that the ancient Israelites went to bed early.
But this seemingly responsible decision led to a grievous error when the Israelites slept in the next morning and Moses had to wake them.
Sixteenth-century kabbalists in Safed, when looking at this particular story, decided that it needed an act of tikkun, or “repair.”
Enter the Tikkun Leil Shavuot, when Jews stay up from dusk till dawn the night of Shavuot — the holiday that celebrates the giving of the Torah — studying to be ready to receive the Torah in the morning. Many communities will hold classes on a variety of different topics, where participants might study passages from the Torah, explore a topic in social justice or do some yoga. The holiday is also associated with synagogue confirmations and eating dairy, especially cheesecake.
“The notion [is] that we stay up all night and that we learn and sort of explore all the different ways of elevating our being, not only our intellects, but also our hearts,” explained Rabbi Rachel Kobrin of Congregation Adath Jeshurun, which will host a Tikkun Leil Shavuot for the Kehillah of Old York Road. “We challenge ourselves intellectually, but we also always have sessions that challenge us emotionally. We challenge ourselves, and we bring ourselves, through this process, closer to Torah and closer to an understanding of Torah and a deeper connection to Torah.
“Then, at sunrise, we have this service where we reenact, where we hear the Ten Commandments, and we sort of experience Torah being given. In a very literal sense, it’s like we’re ready for Torah by not falling asleep.”
Kobrin said she expects about 150 people to participate in the all-night program.
Probably the largest Tikkun Leil Shavuot in the Philadelphia area, though, will be the one run by Center City Kehillah, a project of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia. Center City Kehillah expects about 300 participants, Director Miriam Steinberg-Egeth said.
The Jewish Night of Learning for Shavuot is its biggest event of the year. More than 20 different organizations, mostly synagogues, are partnering for the event, with clergy and community members leading dozens of sessions throughout the night on topics that they personally decided on and submitted. These sessions include topics like “Interplanetary Shabbat,” “Jewish Food Justice: What Ancient Practices Teach Us About Contemporary Food Justice Issues,” and “Shavuot: The Night of the Forbidden Texts.”
Over the years, Steinberg-Egeth said, the number of participating organizations has increased, and the event has become more pluralistic and grown in prominence. This year, for the first time, she had to turn down ideas submitted for sessions.
“Shavuot is coming into its own as a religious experience,” Steinberg-Egeth said. “People are excited where, for a lot of years, there was not so much for people to hold onto as meaningful Shavuot experiences, and this is just the intense, celebratory, community experience where people see all the kinds of Jews that Center City has in it all in one place at the same time. It is so beautiful, and it is so powerful and incredible, and people want to be part of it, so people are willing to stay up late and do things that are kind of inconvenient in order to be there.”
Germantown Jewish Centre will also host its own Tikkun Leil Shavuot. It’s something that, Rabbi Adam Zeff said, the synagogue has been doing for at least the 20 years he’s been involved. He expects about 150 to 200 participants.
This year’s theme is “Can We Listen? The Torah of Hard Conversations.” Because of the Parkland shooting and school walkouts, the community decided to put a particular emphasis on teen involvement this year. The teens, for example, chose the topics of the sessions throughout the night, which include “Jewish Values & Foreign Policy” and “Gender Identity Beyond the Binary.”
“People who disagree with each other are not talking to each other,” Zeff said. “They may be yelling at each other, but they’re not talking to each other and trying to learn from and with each other, and that’s what we’re trying to model.”
When he was growing up, Zeff said, Shavuot was a “nothing holiday,” so he’s glad to see it’s now something that’s engaging to people.
“Learning is at the heart of what we do,” he said. “Learning together is such an important part of Jewish life, so the fact that [Shavuot has] become a time that welcomes people into that learning is really a wonderful change to see in our Jewish community.”