Staying up Shavuot Night
I know that many people stay up the entire night of Shavuot, and my synagogue is arranging a schedule of classes throughout the night. To me it seems a bit crazy attempting to stay awake at so unproductive a time. Then the morning services arrive and the congregants are half asleep (or more). Is there any point to this custom? Should I go along with it?
The Aish Rabbi Replies
The truth is, the custom of staying up the first night of Shavuot is a fairly recent one. You will find scant reference to it in any of the classic works on Jewish law. It seems to have been practiced by only a select few in earlier days (based on a passage in the Zohar). Only in recent centuries has it become widespread among those who study Torah full time and even among those who do not. (See Shavuos, ArtScroll Mesorah Publications pp. 66-70.)
The following reason has been suggested for this custom. There is a Midrash which states that on the morning of the Revelation at Sinai the Jewish people overslept. God descended upon Mount Sinai to give the Torah to Israel, and we hadn't even arrived yet! Moses had to rouse us and hurry us over to the mountain for this earth-shattering event. To make up for this, we stay up the entire night of Shavuot – in order to be absolutely certain we will be awake Shavuot morning, when the episode of the Revelation is recounted in the synagogue (Magen Avraham O.C. 494:1).
Should you stay up personally? I would say it depends. If you know the time will not be productive for you, or if you feel your prayers the morning after will be a waste of time, it is probably better not to overdo it. You could stay up later than usual and push yourself for the sake of Torah without doing so to the point of diminishing returns. If the whole point of staying up is in order to be awake for the Shavuot morning services and by staying up all night you sleep through them, then little has been accomplished.
However, I’d like to suggest a different way of looking at this. The Torah God granted us at Sinai is not simply a law book. It is no mere list of rules and regulations, enabling us to earn reward. It is God’s special gift to Israel. Studying Torah enables us to understand God’s wisdom and values and form a relationship with Him. The Sages view the Revelation at Sinai as a marriage. God formed an eternal bond with the Jewish people and gave us His Torah as the symbol and special expression of His love.
We must therefore see Torah study as an exhilarating experience, as a means of getting closer to God and strengthening the love between us and Him. To me, staying up all night studying is an expression of that love. We show God that we are crazy about the wonderful gift of His Torah. And as any person in love, we at times do crazy things in our excitement.
There are many stories of great rabbis who simply could not go to sleep at night when they were bothered with a question they could not answer. I believe it was the Gaon of Vilna who stayed up for days straight until he could resolve a difficult problem. Such is the way of people obsessed with understanding God.
As a result, it’s okay once a year to overdo it as an expression of our love for Torah. During the rest of the year we keep things in the proper balance and must be responsible about our service of God. But on this one night of the year, we show God – and ourselves – just how crazy about His Torah we are.
By the way, I recently wrote an article for aish.com about this topic. See here: Shavuot: Crazy, Stupid Love.