A popular custom on Shavuot is to stay up all night studying Torah.

How did this arise?

The practice is not mentioned in the Mishna nor in the Talmud.

It is not mentioned in Maimonides writings (12th century) nor in the Shulchan Aruch, the 16th century Code of Jewish Law.

It is first referred to in the mystical work, the Zohar (on Vayikra 23) which says that a select group of individuals used to stay awake all night on Shavuot, so that the ‘bride’ (the Jewish people) would be adorned to meet the ‘King’ (G-d.) The Zohar emerged in Spain in the 13th century, although it draws on much older traditions.

What started off as a practice of an small group of mystics gained new impetus in 16th century Sefat. Two Kabbalists, Rabbi Shlomo Alkabets (the future author of Lecha Dodi) and Rabbi Yosef Caro (the future author of the Shulchan Aruch) came to Sefat from Turkey. Whilst living in Turkey, they had experienced a mystical vision urging them to study Torah throughout the night of Shavuot. They introduced the custom to the Sefat community and from there it spread across the Jewish world. Rabbi Caro did not include the practice in his Shulchan Aruch as he did not want to impose such a demanding custom on everybody. Nevertheless, it soon became widely adopted.

A fascinating parallel development was the introduction of coffee. Prof Elliot Horowitz points out that coffee spread westward from the Middle East to Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries. It may well have helped the popularization of Shavuot nighttime learning and other rituals like Tikun Chatzot – rising at midnight to mourn the destruction of the Temple. With a coffee to hand, many more people were able to take on the all-night challenge.

This Shavuot at St John’s Wood, we have a full range of both night and day study options. Starting at 10.30 pm Thursday evening, we have ten members of the community offering perspectives on the Ten Commandments. From midnight to 3.00 am, there is in-depth learning with the rabbinical team. The Women’s Tea Time Tikkun takes place on Shabbat afternoon, and other shiurim will take place both before and after Mincha on Shabbat. Full details of all of these activities are in our Shavuot programme.

On Shavuot, we beautify our synagogues and homes with flowers. We beautify ourselves with Torah study. Do come and join us!

Chag Sameiach and Shabbat Shalom.