Friday Candle Lighting: 7:25 PM
Shabbat Ends: 8:25 PM
Dynamite of the Soul
“Until the morrow of the seventh week you shall count.” (23:18)
Staying awake all night may not sound “religious,” but there are several times during the Jewish year when the custom is to burn the midnight oil until the sun peeps through the blinds.
Many people stay up after the Seder on Pesach until the time of the morning prayers in order to recount and analyze the great miracles of the Exodus. As the Haggadah says: Rabbi Eliezer, Rabbi Yehoshua, Rabbi Elazar ben Azaria and Rabbi Akiva stayed up all night talking about the Exodus until their talmidim (students) came to tell them that it was time to recite the morning Shema Yisrael.
On Yom Kippur, those with sufficient strength stay up all night in prayer and supplication, atoning for their sins. On Hoshanah Rabbah, the time when the decrees of Yom Kippur are given over to those agents who will carry them out, there is a tradition to learn all night.
On the night of Shavuot there is also a widely observed custom to stay up all night. The Sages of the Kabbala formulated an order of study call a tikkun (lit. “fixing”) for the night of Shavuot. This includes passages from the written Torah, the oral Torah, the mystical Zohar, as well as a list of all 613 mitzvahs.
The Zohar commends those who stay awake in anticipation of receiving the Torah. The giving of the Torah was, as it were, the wedding of the Jewish People and the Torah, and so it is fitting that we should be engaged in preparing the ornaments of the bride the previous night.
Another reason: On that first Shavuot morning there were some who overslept and had to be awoken to receive the Torah. In order to rectify this, we stay up.
But there is a deeper reason for our not sleeping on the night of Shavuot.
Sleep is the taste of death.
If fact, the Talmud tells us that sleep is one-sixtieth of death. One part in sixty is the threshold of perception. Similarly, Shabbat is a “taste” of the World-to-Come. It is precisely one-sixtieth of the World-to-Come.
Sleep is the taste of death in this world. King David died on Shavuot. But before he died, he never even tasted the taste of death, because he never fell into a deep sleep. Therefore, on the occasion of his yartzeit, the anniversary of his death, we avoid the “taste of death” by staying up all night.
The angel of death came to King David to try and take his life. But it had no power over him since he was immersed in learning Torah, and Torah is the essence of one’s life-force in this world. The only way that the angel of death could take David’s life was through cunning. He managed to distract David from his learning, and in that split second he was able to take his life from him. So, on this night of Shavuot, which is both the anniversary of the giving of the Torah and the end of King David’s life, we stay awake all night and immerse ourselves in Torah study.
Torah breathes life into Man. But it was not always this way. When G-d first created Man, he was animated by G‑d’s utterance, “Let Us make Man.” It was the power of these words spoken by the Creator that gave Man the ability to live and breathe and think and act.
However, this was only until the Jewish People stood at the foot of Sinai. When Hashem said, “I am Hashem, your G-d” as the first commandment, the life-force that animated Man parted from the body and the entire Jewish People died. Miraculously their souls were put back into their bodies, but what animated them now was a different utterance. No longer was their life-force derived from “Let Us make Man.” Now they were like new creations. Their inner essence was powered by “I am Hashem, your G-d.” From this moment, the Torah became the animating dynamic of the Jewish Soul.
And when the Mashiach, the scion of King David, arrives to herald the era of the revival of the dead, it will be the Torah, the dew of life, which will be the mechanism to awaken the body from its long sleep.
Then we will finally understand the words we have sung for so long: “David, Melech Yisrael, chai vekayam!” David, king of Israel, lives and endures!
- Sources: Tehillim 73:5, Yalkut Shimoni; Talmud Berachot 3b; Tehillim 19:9; Book of Our Heritage, Rabbi Eliyahu Kitov, translated by Rabbi Nachman Bulman; Time Pieces, Rabbi Aaron Lopianski