Shavuos Early Shacharis

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by R. Gil Student

I. Learning Torah All Night

It is common practice today for men to stay up all night learning Torah the first night of Shavuos. It is not clear to me when this custom originated but it began spreading broadly in the 16th century and became standard practice in the 17th century. Rav Avraham Gombiner (17th cen., Poland; Magen Avraham 494:intro) says that most learned people observe this custom. Similarly, Rav Yeshayahu Horowitz (17th cen., Germany & Israel; Shenei Luchos Ha-Beris, beginning of Masekhes Shavuos) writes that all young and old men in Israel and the region observe this practice.

Many learn specific material. Rav Horowitz says that even in his time, there were printed Tikkun booklets that people would learn all night. To this day, many continue this practice. However, in the yeshiva world, it is more common to follow the practice mentioned by Rav Ya’akov Reischer (early 18th cen., Germany; Chok Ya’akov 494:1) in the name of his grandfather-in-law, Rav Aharon Shimon (Maharash) of Prague, that it is best to learn any Torah independently while the booklets are intended for those who cannot do so for the full night. Instead, they study the booklets together in groups. Regardless, after a full night of learning Torah, we pray as early as possible.

II. When to Pray

The Gemara (Berakhos 26a) says that the proper time to pray in the morning is at sunrise (hanetz ha-chamah). However, the Gemara later (30a) says that when Avuha di-Shmuel and Levi would leave on a trip, they would pray before sunrise. Tosafos (ad loc., s.v. Avuha) explain that they prayed after dawn. Dawn (alos ha-shachar) is when light first appears in the sky. Sunrise is later, when the sun appears in the horizon. Sometimes there can be a long gap between dawn and sunrise. Even though it is best to pray at sunrise, when there is a need you may pray earlier but not before dawn (Shulchan Arukh, Orach Chaim 89:1). A further complication is the earliest time to say Shema, which is when there is enough light for you to recognize someone a few feet away (mi she-yakir). That comes between dawn and sunrise. Since we have to say Shema before we reach the Amidah prayer, technically we cannot pray at dawn.

Do we have to wait for sunrise in order to pray in Shavuos morning? According to MyZmanim.com, in Brooklyn on June 5, 2022, alos is at 3:39am, mi she-yakir is at 4:24am and hanetz is at 5:25. The difference between praying after mi she-yakir and praying at hanetz is approximately an hour! Rav Yosef Te’omim (18th cen., Germany; Peri MegadimOrach ChaimEshel Avraham 494:intro) writes that even though it is proper to wait for sunrise, on Shavuos morning we can pray earlier. His justification for this leniency is that waiting later to pray constitutes a burden on the community (torach tzibbur).

III. Burden on the Community

The idea of refraining from placing too much of a burden on the community allows certain leniencies. For example, the Gemara (Yoma 70a) says that the Kohen Gadol on Yom Kippur would read from a Torah scroll a passage from Parashas Emor and then say by heart a passage from Parashas Pinchas. Waiting to roll the Torah scroll from one passage to the other would be too much of a burden on the community. This concept was utilized by halakhic authorities throughout the ages to maintain a proper balance within the synagogue. Rav Shlomo Ben Aderes (Rashba, 13th cen., Spain; Responsa 1:115) says that if the only kohen in the synagogue is still praying when the community reaches Torah reading, the community should call a non-kohen to the Torah rather than wait for the kohen to finish his prayer because of honor for the Torah scroll that is waiting and because of the burden imposed on the community by waiting.

Similarly, Rav Te’omim says that waiting for sunrise on Shavuos constitutes too much of a burden on the community and therefore we may pray earlier. This ruling is quoted approvingly by Rav Ya’akov Lorberbaum (19th cen., Poland; Derekh Ha-Chaim 28:1) and Rav Yisrael Meir Kagan (Mishnah Berurah 89:1).

We find this concept applied elsewhere on Shavuos. There is a custom to read a megillah on each of the three festivals — Shir Ha-Shirim on Pesach, Koheles on Sukkos and Rus on Shavuos (Rema, Shulchan Arukh, Orach Chaim 490:9). On Pesach and Sukkos, the megillos are read on Shabbos Chol Ha-Mo’ed. There is no Shabbos Chol Ha-Mo’ed on Shavuos so the megillah has to be read on Yom Tov. Rav Te’omim (Peri Megadim, Eshel Avraham 490:8) says that we read Rus on the second day of Shavuos. He offers two reasons for this practice: 1) because now that the Jewish calendar is pre-calculated, the second day of Shavuos always falls on 7 Sivan, the day the Torah was given at Mt. Sinai, 2) on the first day of Shavuos, people have been learning all night and reading Rus adds a burden to the community.

In practice, my experience has been that despite this leniency we wait the extra time to pray at sunrise. After learning Torah all night, we are inspired to fulfill mitzvos in the ideal way.

(reposted from May ’21)

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Editor of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student currently is serving his third term on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and also serves as the Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He serves on the Editorial Board of Jewish Action magazineand the Board of OU Press. He has published four English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

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