The Shavuos night seder is very special — almost as special as the Seder that we have on the night of Pesach. We all know the famous story of the rabbis who stayed up for the Shavuos seder and learned all through the night until their talmidim came and said it was time for Kriyas Shema shel Shacharis.
It’s not much of a story. One of the talmidim said birchos ha’shachar for everyone.
But like with Pesach, you need to prepare ahead of time. You need to decide what you’re going to learn all night. You don’t want to get to shul and make a last-minute decision based on what sefarim are left that no one’s using. (“Um, I guess I’ll learn Chumash Devarim!”)
And you don’t want to spend the whole night having this discussion with your chavrusa:
“What do you want to learn?”
“I don’t know; what do you want to learn?”
If you wanted that kind of talk, you would have brought your wife.
Yes, there is never a lack of things to learn. But it’s not like you have a kevius. If you have a seder every night from midnight to five, then you should probably just learn what you always learn. Most of us, however, don’t have that seder. We usually learn to make up for whatever we didn’t learn yesterday or might not learn tomorrow because we’re sleeping both days so we can stay up for this one night.
In fact, some people purposely fall behind on learning before Shavuos so they can make it up on Shavuos night.
“Shavuos is coming. Time to slack off on the learning.”
It’s kind of like how we don’t eat matzah for a few weeks before Pesach.
And sure, you can start something new, but do you really want to start something that you can’t continue until probably the following Shavuos, at which point you’ll have no idea where you’re up to? I actually have a pretty deep book that I read toward the end of the night every year, and as soon as I learn it, it flies out of my head and the next year I can’t remember where I’m up to, so I start it again. I’ve been starting this book for about ten years now. It was an excellent investment.
So maybe that’s an idea.
But ideally, you want to learn something that you can start and finish in about four to five hours of dwindling mental faculties. Something that starts off heavy but ends light. Many masechtos seem to do that — they start off heavy, and near the end they’re all about the stories. But they’re a little too long for one night.
And it’s not even a long night. It’s one thing if it were Chanukah time, and the night went from like 5 p.m. to 7 a.m. But let’s put it this way: the night is so short that if you eat a fleishig seudah, you won’t be able to drink coffee with milk until about the time you put on your tallis. And while it’s technically OK to have coffee before Shacharis, coffee’s not a great thing to drink in a tallis.
Maybe stick to milk.
And I say this from experience. On the first day of Pesach, I was unable to keep my eyes open for davening, so I went into the coffee room, bent over to get the milk out of the tiny fridge, and, with my tallis, accidentally knocked over the coffee cup onto my tallis. So after Pesach, I brought it to the cleaners and I learned the lesson the Ribbono shel Olam was clearly telling me, which was, “Don’t drink coffee in a tallis.”
I don’t know for sure if that’s what He was telling me, but that’s the lesson I’m taking, because it cost $42 to clean it. Which was very expensive for a cup of coffee. The most costly thing I generally clean is my kittel, which costs $13 to clean once a year, which doesn’t sound like a big deal until you realize I only wear it twice a year, and one of those times I’m fasting. On the other hand, $13 is not expensive for wine. But on the other hand, it is expensive for the type of wines that I drink.
There’s always Tikkun Leil Shavuos. Tikkun Leil Shavuos is a nice sampler, like if you don’t know what the Torah is all about and you want to sample the different sefarim to decide what you want to learn more of. It’s like one of those platters they bring out at a restaurant that has a little bit of everything. And you get to find out new things, like Maseches Challah is not about the different shapes you can make with dough.
Hilchos Shavuos is also a nice thing to learn, but there aren’t that many halachos of Shavuos. It’s like one siman in the Shulchan Aruch, and it’s listed under Hilchos Pesach. Like the printer didn’t want to bother making a new heading for one page. And most of it is about what you need to add to davening.
“Hey, he agrees with my Machzor! Good, I was worried I’d have to get a new Machzor.”
There’s also a short mention of cheesecake.
You also might want to spend some time looking up a dvar Torah for the seudah, because you’re planning on sleeping straight through until Kiddush, and then your wife is going to want you to say something Shavuos-related. Though really you can say any dvar Torah you’ve heard the entire year, and when she says that it’s not Shavuos-related, you can point out that the entire Torah is Shavuos-related. That can be your dvar Torah! So now you’re back to square one.
If you’re really stuck, most shuls have shiurim going all night. (For example, every shul is required to have at least one shiur called “Making the Omer Count.”) Just peruse a list and find one that you like, because the shiurim are on all kinds of topics. My friend was asked one year to give the last shiur of the night, right before Shacharis.
“What should I speak about?” he asked.
They said, “It doesn’t really matter.”
My Shavuos-night learning dynamic actually changed in the past couple of years since my kids started staying up. Now I have a choice between learning with them and getting up periodically to peel them away from the cake table.
There was actually a point where I was considering not staying up anymore, but before I could act on it, my kids got to the age that they wanted to stay up, but not to the age where my wife lets them walk around town at 3 a.m.
“Why are you walking around town at three o’clock in the morning?”
“The other shul has ice cream.”
I was back and forth about letting them stay up. We both know they’re not going to learn all the way to Shacharis. They can’t learn for five hours straight on a good day, and this day is the middle of the night. And once it’s three in the morning and they’ve had enough, I’m not forcing them to do anything. And by then it’s that time of night where it’s no longer worth it to go to bed because we’ll oversleep and miss the later Shacharis, so we might as well stick it out.
Though I can use the opportunity to teach my kids about coffee. (“You put the milk in, then you put the coffee in, and you make sure you’re not wearing a tallis.”)
Yes, the purpose of staying up is to learn, but the second purpose of staying up is to come to Shacharis on time and stand around going, “What are they saying? Are they saying Korbanos?” because when Hashem gave us the Torah, Bnei Yisrael overslept, and, sure, maybe there were some people who didn’t, but I know myself and I know that I probably would have. If they gave out awards for oversleeping, I would oversleep and miss the medal ceremony. So there is some purpose here, even if they’re not learning.
And the late minyan is a little bit awkward anyway. You’re looking around, all embarrassed, hoping no one notices that you’re there, even though they’re all looking around, too. (“Oh, good. He didn’t stay up either.”) And you’re thinking that the room feels way too empty for a yom tov Shacharis.
Did everyone forget that it’s yom tov? Do we have a kohen? Should we wake one up? Is that disrespectful? Should we ask the rav? He’s sleeping too. Can we wake him up?
Maybe these are the kinds of things we would have learned about all night if we’d stayed up.
But having kids stay up with you is a great idea, because for at least part of the night, it gives you something to learn. So that’s my advice: force your kid to stay up. Even if he’s not old enough. Get all overeager, like those first-time parents who bring their one-year-old to shul, and bring him to all-night learning as well.
“What are you crying about? That’s definitely an overtired cry. It’s not like you ever sleep through the night anyway. At least let mommy get a good night’s sleep so she can make it to the awkward late minyan.”
Maybe introduce him to coffee.
Mordechai Schmutter is a weekly humor columnist for Hamodia and is the author of six books published by Israel Book Shop. He also does freelance writing for hire. You can send any questions, comments, or ideas to MSchmutter@gmail.com.