Shavuos is the happiest yom tov of the year. Most people might think it is Purim or Simchas Torah, but Shavuos? And the answer is, “Yes, Shavuos.”
The Gemara in Pesachim 68b tells us: Rabbi Elazar says, “All admit that on Atzeres, we require ‘lachem,’ it should be for you as a holiday. What is the reason? Because it is the day that the Torah was given.”
The meforshim explain that this Gemara means we should be happier on this yom tov than on others. Indeed, Rav Yechiel Yehoshua Rabinowitz, the Biala Rav, in his Seder HaYom, writes explicitly that we should be happier at this yom tov than any other time during the year. The Yesod V’Shoresh HaAvodah develops this idea, explaining that it is because we received the remarkable treasure of the Torah.
The Shelah HaKadosh (Maseches Shavuos Ner Mitzvah 18) adds another level of insight. He writes that it is the day we merited the “Crown of Torah.” He cites the Gemara in Pesachim where Rav Yosef states that were it not for this day, he would be just another “Joe” in the marketplace.
It is not just the fact that we received the Torah that makes us happy. It is the fact that we merited its crown.
To understand this thought, the Rambam tells us (Hilchos Talmud Torah 3:13), “Even though it is a mitzvah to learn Torah day and night, a person only learns the majority of his Torah at night. Therefore, someone who wishes to merit the crown of Torah should be careful to study it each night, not missing even one of them in sleeping, eating, drinking, conversation, etc. He should only engage in talmud Torah and divrei chochmah. This is called the rinah of Torah.”
The av beis din of Ponovezh explained (cited in Zichron Shmuel p. 574) that there are two aspects of studying Torah. There is the aspect of studying it in fulfillment of the mitzvah of limud haTorah. There is also an aspect of learning it as “HaShirah HaZos.”
SONG OF ONE’S LIFE
In other words, Torah is the song of one’s life. In it, the person delights and takes pleasure. The person does not delay in sticking to it on any account. In any difficult situation, the person engages in it. Even when a person is tired, the Torah study goes on.
This is the fundamental idea of the Crown of Torah. We can now better understand the Shelah’s explanation of Shavuos.
The custom of Klal Yisrael learning all night is also better understood now. It is not just to make up for the fact that we slept back then. No, the essence of the problem in that we slept was that we were not yet at the state where it was “the song of our life.” In this way we are correcting this flaw.
We should take greater pleasure and joy in this yom tov because it symbolizes the song of our lives. This is why Shavuos should be the happiest of all yomim tovim.
The practice of learning all night is mentioned in the Zohar (Parashas Emor 98a). There it even describes the reward that awaits one who studies Torah all night. The all-night learner receives no less than 70 Divine blessings from above and is crowned with a special celestial crown of the upper heavens. Then he is inscribed in a special Sefer HaZikaron, a book of memory.
The Arizal writes in Sha’ar HaKavanos that whoever stays up all night learning is assured that he will certainly live out the year. The Chofetz Chaim records this statement l’halachah (Mishnah Berurah 494:1).
There is another interesting point. Rav Dessler, zt’l, writes in Michtav M’Eliyahu that time is not a straight continuum. Rather, the nature of time is like a carousel that turns in circles. He writes that each yom tov is actually the very same yom tov that Klal Yisrael experienced thousands of years ago in the year 2448. Each day on this carousel has its own special aspect.
With this thought of Rav Dessler in mind, let us examine the words found in the Siddur Etz Chaim (page 46a). There it states that fulfilling this practice of learning all night makes it as if we ourselves received the Torah when we hear the Krias HaTorah of Shavuos.
WHAT TO LEARN?
What should one learn on Shavuos? There is a special Tikkun Leil Shavuos that much of Klal Yisrael studies each Shavuos night. It encompasses Torah, Nevi’im, Kesuvim, Midrashim, and certain mystical parts of Torah. The Tikkun was established by the Arizal HaKadosh. And here is exactly where the controversy begins.
The Shelah HaKadosh (Tractate Shavuos 47) writes that this order of what to learn has become a minhag in Klal Yisrael and this is what we should all certainly learn. The Shvus Yaakov, however (Chok Yaakov 494), writes that this Tikkun was only enacted for the masses of people, and those who are capable of doing so should learn their own study regimen.
What is the common custom? Chassidim generally learn the Tikkun, but, generally speaking, Litvaks learn their own study regimen. Although, both the Steipler Gaon, zt’l, and l’havdil bein chaim l’chaim, Rav Chaim Kanievsky actually did the Tikkun Leil Shavuos (see Teshuvos Rav Chaim #216). The sefer Tefillah K’Hilchasah rules that an avel, a mourner, recites the Tikkun Leil Shavuos.
Sephardim also generally learn the Tikkun, particularly because the Chida writes (Lev David 31) that one should do so. Indeed, he writes that a group of people who changed the study regimen to studying the Rambam did the wrong thing. He compares what they did to building a bamah, an unauthorized sacrificial platform.
The minhag in virtually all of the Litvish yeshivos, however, is to study what the yeshiva studies during the regular zeman. What about the Chida’s point against the group of people that studied the Rambam? We should note that this group created a new regimen for Shavuos; they did not continue their regular yearly regimen. Our yeshivos, however, are continuing their regular regimens.
It is interesting to note that the Vilna Gaon himself learned the Arizal’s special Shavuos regimen. It is also interesting to note that in the time of Rav Aharon Kotler, zt’l, in Lakewood there were many bachurim who learned Torah on both nights of Shavuos.
So what should one be studying on this night? The Gemara tells us (Avodah Zara 19a) that a person learns only that which his heart desires. The yeshivos should therefore continue their practice, and the places that study the Tikkun should continue their practice, too.
Rabbi Hoffman can be reached at Yairhoffman2@gmail.com.