Dear Rabbi Fried,
Could you please explain the holiday of Shavuot, and why people stay up all night?
Shavuot begins this coming Sunday night and is celebrated for one full day in Israel, two full days in the Diaspora. It is the day we celebrate the receiving of the Torah at Mount Sinai 3,318 years ago. The Kabbalistic commentaries make Shavuot the final day of Passover; as we have a mitzvah to count 49 days from the second day of Pesach until Shavuot, the count connects the two holidays like an extended “Chol Hamoed” period of intermediate days. Hence the name Shavuot, which literally means “Weeks,” named after the seven weeks of counting and spiritual preparation from leaving Egypt to receiving the Divine instructions for living, called the Torah.
The reason for this connection is to underscore the ultimate purpose we were miraculously set free from Egypt. The freedom wasn’t an end in itself, rather the means to a higher goal, to become the Chosen People, a Light unto the Nations to carry out the Al-mighty’s will for the purpose of creation, and to serve as an example to the rest of humanity. The celebration of that achievement is the source of great Jewish pride and rejoicing every year on Shavuot.
This holiday does not have any mitzvah objects to focus upon, no matzah, sukkah or shofar. All there is, is the Torah itself, the “People of the Book” with “the Book.” We enjoy festive meals and sing songs of praise of the Torah, and many have the custom to study and attend special Torah lectures throughout the first night.
Part of the reason for this custom of study through the night is celebration of the great gift of the Torah by not wanting to cease studying it. It is said in our writings that the Torah wasn’t given just once, but the Al-mighty, in a certain sense, continues year after year to shine to us the spiritual energy of Sinai, to “give” us the Torah again and again, on Shavuot. To show our cognizance of that and celebrate it, we do so by study through the night.
The other reason is that the morning of the first Shavuot, when we were meant to be awake at the crack of dawn to greet the Shechinah, Divine Presence, to receive the Torah, the Jews slept late! This was the result of the ongoing
battle between the powers of kedushah, or
holiness, against the powers of evil in the world. To the extent there’s holiness, there are powers of evil trying to counter the holiness; the greater the holiness, the greater the evil countering it.
With all that holiness at Sinai, the powers of evil were hard at work doing everything in their power to stop what was about to happen and succeeded in keeping the Jews asleep. Out of the Jews’ great embarrassment of showing up late to that important appointment with G-d, they decided to stay up all night from now on for Shavuot, so that when G-d “re-gives” the Torah that morning, we’re all awake and ready to receive it, and have made ourselves worthy vessels to receive that spiritual energy by studying through the night.
With best wishes for a wonderful and meaningful Shavuot.