Staying Awake All Night on Shavuot: Reexamining the Custom

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by R. Ari Enkin

There is a widespread custom to remain awake all night on Shavuot immersed in Torah study.1 The Arizal teaches that those who do so will live out all their allotted years and be saved from every trouble and woe.2 Although the custom of staying awake all night on Shavuot is certainly commendable, it might just be that it is overemphasized. This is especially true considering that observing this custom often results in a laxity in other, more important duties.

Let us examine the custom in its original sources, as it appears in the Magen Avraham. It is stated in the Zohar that the chassidim harishonim would remain awake all night immersed in Torah and that it has become the custom of most scholars to do so. The reason for this custom is to remedy the behavior of the Jewish people, who were fast asleep as God was about to reveal the Torah at Mount Sinai, forcing God to awaken them.3 We, therefore, remedy their behavior.

Note that it is specified that the custom is one that was practiced by the “chassidim harishonim”. While the chassidim harishonim and their practices are meritorious and certainly worthy of emulation, there are many other customs of the chassidim harishonim that are all but ignored today. For example, we are told that the chassidim harishonim would spiritually prepare themselves for a full hour every day before reciting the morning prayers.4 In fact, this practice is codified in Shulchan Aruch as a requirement, not merely a custom!5 Nevertheless, with the exception of a handful of extremely pious individuals, there is hardly anyone who does so today. There are other customs of the chassidim harishonim that are no longer observed, as well.

It is also interesting to note that most such “chassidim harishonim” customs that have gone dormant actually derive from much more authoritative sources, such as the Talmud and halachic codes. Oddly enough, the custom of staying awake all night on Shavuot, which may very well be the only custom of the chassidim harishonim widely observed today, is “only” kabbalistic in nature. Perhaps overemphasizing a custom found only in kabbalistic literature is inappropriate when many routine customs found in halachic sources are ignored.

One will also note that staying awake all night is described as being the custom of “most scholars.” Nowhere is it suggested that it is the custom of “all scholars,” and it certainly does not seem to be a custom that was intended to be imposed on the general populace. In fact, the Abudraham, who meticulously documents customs of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, makes no mention of this custom among the many other customs of Shavuot that he does cite. Finally, the same Magen Avraham who records the custom of staying awake on Shavuot is already on record as having ruled that if one will be unable to recite Shacharit properly as a result of staying awake all night, then it is better not to do so.6 As mentioned, staying awake all night on Shavuot is at best a custom while reciting Shacharit with concentration is a halachic requirement, with the proper recitation of Shema being a biblical one.7

There are a number of other, often neglected halachic concerns with staying up all night, as well. For example, one must be very careful not to get distracted from one’s Torah studies with idle talk and certainly not gossip.8 So too, many of those who stay up all night are too busy catching up on sleep the next morning and neglect to eat the daytime yom tov meal before midday, which is to be preferred.9 There are also halachic issues with eating and drinking as it gets closer to sunrise.

The Brisker Rav, expressed his surprise that people are so particular to stay awake the entire night of Shavuot, which is a custom, while the halachic requirement to remain awake discussing the Exodus from Egypt on the Seder night until one is overcome by sleep is largely ignored. In fact, the custom of staying awake all night on Shavuot was not widely observed in Brisk. It is also noted that those who choose to sleep at night on Shavuot can “make up” the time by studying that many hours on Shavuot day.10

It is also worthwhile to examine the Midrash that the authorities cite as the source that the Jewish people were fast asleep on that first Shavuot night:

The Jewish people slept that entire night because the sleep of Shavuot is pleasant and the night is short. Not even a mosquito came to sting them. The Holy One Blessed Be He came and found them sleeping and proceeded to wake them up, as it says, “On the third day in the morning there were sounds and lightning.” Moshe woke up the Jewish people and took them out to greet the King of kings…11

Rabbi Tzadok Hakohen and others note that nowhere in this Midrash (or anywhere else) are the Jewish people criticized for their conduct. In fact, this very Midrash teaches that sleeping on Shavuot night is especially delightful, seemingly recommending that we take advantage of the opportunity to do so. Indeed, as we see, God Himself actually made sure that the Jewish people would enjoy ideal sleeping conditions that night, ensuring that not even the insects would disturb them! Furthermore, recall that the Jewish people had just completed three days of exhaustive preparations for receiving the Torah, as God had commanded them. There was good reason for them to sleep.12

Make no mistake, this writer is not dismissing the custom of staying awake all night on Shavuot nor suggesting that those who regularly observe it cease doing so. This paper is merely intended to offer a contextual and historical perspective on the custom. Those who are unable to remain awake all night on Shavuot might want to consider remaining awake until midnight, or at least until a later hour than usual.13 It is also meritorious to simply wake up at dawn and recite Shacharit at sunrise even if one must sleep most of the night beforehand.14 Every person should evaluate for himself each year whether or not it is worthwhile for him to remain awake on Shavuot night lest “his gain be offset by his loss.”15

 


  1. Zohar, Emor; Magen Avraham 494. 

  2. Sha’ar Hakavanot, Chag Hashavuot; Mishna Berura 494:1; Be’er Heitev, OC 494:7; Kaf Hachaim, OC 494:6. See also Pele Yoetz, s.v. “Atzeret.” 

  3. Elya Rabba 494:3; Magen Avraham 494; Kaf Hachaim, OC 494:6. 

  4. Berachot 30b. 

  5. OC 93:1. 

  6. Magen Avraham 619:11. 

  7. See Siddur Ya’avetz 175:12, and Pele Yoetz, s.v. “Atzeret.” 

  8. Siddur Ya’avetz 175:11; Kaf Hachaim, OC 494:11; Pele Yoetz, s.v. “Atzeret.” 

  9. Aruch Hashulchan, OC 288:2; Ohr L’tzion 3:18, n. 11. 

  10. Uvdot V’hanhagot L’beit Brisk vol. 2, p. 79, cited in She’eilat Shlomo 1:26–27, 222. See also the personal practice of Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, cited in the book Hashakdan, vol. 2, p. 240. 

  11. Shir Hashirim Rabba 1:57. 

  12. See Eliyahu Kitov, The Book of Our Heritage: The Jewish Year and Its Days of Significance (Jerusalem: Feldheim, 1978), Shavuot, vol. 3, p. 76. 

  13. Nitei Gavriel, Shavuot 14, n. 9. 

  14. Ibid., 16:6. 

  15. Avot 5:14, 15. 

About Ari Enkin

Rabbi Ari N. Enkin, a resident of Ramat Beit Shemesh, is a researcher and writer of contemporary halachic issues. He is the author of the “Dalet Amot of Halacha” series (8 volumes), Rabbinic Director of United with Israel and a RA”M at a number of yeshivot. www.rabbienkin.com

7 comments

  1. R’ Ari Enkin: The Magen Avraham quotes the Zohar, so I guess that’s the original source. Knowing that we’re using the Zohar’s idiom also changes what it meant by “tikun” when we talk about staying up all night as a tikun for oversleeping the morning of Matan Torah. In addition to our not doing most of the practices of Chassidim haRishonim, tikunim found in the Zohar are also not broadly accepted. For example, far more people stay up Shavuos night than would say Tikun Chatzos even on a night they’re up already at midnight anyway.

    You cite the Arukh haShulchan when it comes to needing to eat the se’udah before chatzos. But his discussion of Tikun Leil Shavuos is consistent with the Brisker Rav’s impressions in saying “וגם עתה הרבה עושין כן”, as though his target audience might not have known there was such a minhag. (494:3)

    The custom spread out from Tzefas. And originally it wasn’t learning all night, it was learning a specific set of texts. Which in practice among the Sepharadi and Chassidic masses would devolve into “davening them up” rather than actual study. (I found a list of texts here: http://judaism.stackexchange.com/a/7305/1570 ) Given the sheer amount of material, we’re not talking about learning be’iyun by a long shot; collapsing it into just reciting the texts is inevitable.

    Me, I copped out years ago. I wake up for the kevasikin minyan and then learn until lunchtime. I get to make the berakhos for everyone, and I learn longer and while better rested. And while it’s not the original minhag, waking up early to learn is a tikun of sorts for oversleeping.

  2. As an intensive care physician who routinely stays awake all night at work, I also know that the sleep disruption can have effects for longer than just the following day. For those Torah scholars (and perhaps other night-owl scholars) who are used to being up late into the night, it might be easier.
    For the rest of us, I thank R’ Enkin for highlighting the vastly more important halakhot that should not come at the expense of this minhag. I was taught much the same by my Rashei Yeshiva.
    Three other points:
    1. If the anniversary of Matan Torah could inspire us to increase our limmud Torah, I would think that beginning a regular seder, establishing a lasting habit of learning would be more successful, rather than the one-off all-nighter.
    2. For those blessed with young children, being available to learn with them during the daytime and set an example should also be praised. Being unavailable to help one’s spouse take care of said children might also be detrimental to shalom bayit.

    Chag Sameach!

  3. I’m in favor of people learning. I find the arguments against completely unconvincing. You might shmooze at night? You might not start your meal before chatzos? Come on. I can’t imagine any posek ruling against the practice because of those reasons. Yeshiva bachurim regularly stay up later or all night learning and then don’t daven well in the morning. If it generates excitement about Torah and Yiddishkeit, is anyone complaining? If something increases Torah learning, we should be lenient about it, not strict. I think Rav Soloveitchik said something similar about learning Torah on Tisha B’Av that falls out on Shabbos.

    • R’ Gil, I fully agree. That’s why I ended my post with a suggested alternative — waking up to daven kevasikin. It’s a bigger window of time, you learn when your mind isn’t overtired, and you get to help the minyan by being the designated berakhah maker.

      What you miss out on is the experience of learning all night, which admittedly has emotional value and more experiential “umph” to keep you going after Shavous. And that’s nothing to belittle. But it’s a totally different plane than the more pragmatic and halachic one y’all are discussing.

      Caveat: It’s only more learning if lunch is delayed to accommodate those who didn’t go to bed until after Shacharis.

      • I appreciate the thought you put into your suggestion but I do not think we can easily tinker with these kinds of practices. Additionally, in my experience, most people have difficulty waking up for a regularly timed minyan and will simply fail to wake up for an unusually early minyan.

        Personally, I take a short nap after dinner which helps me get through the night. And I sleep in a chair so I know I won’t be able to sleep through the night.

  4. I’m a stayer upper (also because I’ve gotten the local late night shift trying to keep others up at 4 am for decades) but I always tell people who ask (and our numbers have been decreasing over the years) that r’ari’s points are good BUT “This above all: to thine own self be true,
    And it must follow, as the night the day,
    Thou canst not then be false to any man.
    Farewell, my blessing season this in thee!”

    Hkb”h will be the final judge

  5. R’ Gil, you are right that anything which increases enthusiasm for Torah study is good and probably outweighs eg the obligation to eat a meal before chatzot hayom.

    However, you are looking at the question only from the point of view of the individual. For a single person or an older person, there is no problem. But in most young families, both parents cannot stay up all night learning on yom tov.

    Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that it’s the man who stays up and not the woman. The man is out all night leaving the woman to look after the children (this was exacerbated this year because erev yom tov was shabbat, so the man had a long shluf on Shabbat afternoon to prepare for his staying up). Then he sleeps all morning while the woman looks after the children. Even if the couple somehow find a way to share the learning through the night in shifts, they become like ships passing in the night, which is no recipe for a family yom tov.

    In other words, if encouraging enthusiasm for learning is at the expense of the ability of others to learn and/or enjoy their yom tov, then perhaps it is not the right balance.

    Perhaps then the obligation which outweighs the kabbalistic custom of tikkun leil is the mitzvah of simchat yom tov, which applies not only to oneself but to one’s whole family.

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