Tag Archives: shavuot

World Travel and the Night of Shavuot

The Night of Shavuot

What’s the connection between world travel and the night of Shavuot? (hint: It depends on your location on the globe…).

A bit of background first:

World Travel and the Night of ShavuotOn the first night of Shavuot (this year, Saturday night, May 23, 2015), Jews throughout the world observe the centuries-old custom of conducting an all-night vigil dedicated to Torah learning and preparation for receiving the Torah anew the next morning. One explanation for this tradition is that the Jewish people did not rise early on the day G‑d gave the Torah, and it was necessary for G‑d Himself to awaken them. To compensate for their behavior, Jews have accepted upon themselves the custom of remaining awake all night.

Source: Learning on Shavuot night – Shavuot

World Travel and the Night of Shavuot

When I was a teenager in Yeshiva staying awake and learning all night was something one did every Shavuot. Never mind that most of us slept during the day before the festival to prepare for the all-night learning. In the morning too we went back to sleep for another few hours following Kiddush and (cheese) cake at 8 AM . This meant that in total we probably slept just as much on Shavuot (if not more) as on any other Shabbat…

The idea of global location affecting Torah study occurred to me during the years I studied in Amsterdam (Holland, not New York). I was accustomed to finishing the evening meal around 10 PM and studying till dawn at 4-4:30 AM, making a nice 6-hour block of focused intense Torah study.

Endless Night or A Moment in Time?

In my first year in the Netherlands I discovered something different. Nightfall (when 3 stars were visible) was close to 10:30 PM. Even if we finished in Shul by 11 PM and gobbled down a delicious Milchig meal in 90 minutes, we didn’t open a book till at least 12:30-1:00 AM. That left only ONE HOUR till dawn at 1:30-1:40 AM ! Of course we could continue learning another hour or two till morning prayers, but the feeling was that the night was over in a flash.

I’m curious about how things are in other places so I checked out the potential learning schedules for two extremes; Stockholm, Sweden and Johannesburg, South Africa. I could have checked out Norilsk, Siberia or Ushuaia, Argentina in South America, but they don’t have a significant Jewish population and probably none of their possible Jews would be up all night trying to decipher a page of Gemara…

In Stockholm, nightfall this year is at 10:42 PM and dawn at 12:45 AM, leaving 45 minutes less time to learn then in Amsterdam; barely a “Moment in Time”.

In South Africa on the other hand, where they don’t use Daylight Savings Time,  nightfall in Johannesburg on Shavuot is 5:51 PM and dawn is 5:15 AM, leaving 9-10 hours of study after a slow leisurely meal, which for some might feel like an “Endless Night”.

Study Smart

World Travel and the Night of ShavuotHow does one occupy themselves during the night of Shavuot? Personally I’ve gone through many stages. When I was younger with a regular Chavruta (study partner) we’d review whatever the Yeshiva was into that month or studied for a major test in Gemara. Those nights passed quickly because we spent the hours standing in front of our Shtenders (study lectern) discussing and arguing the major points.

Later on I usually chose a topic which interested me at the moment (often in the world of Halacha) and hopefully that would keep me going till dawn (with a few blackouts as time went by).

This is great for someone with a bit of Yeshiva background, but what does one do during an “Endless Night” if they haven’t any serious Torah-study experience? In most Shuls there are classes throughout the night, though you have to choose wisely to get an interesting and dynamic speaker. Otherwise you’ll doze off and snore despite frequent pit-stops at the coffee and cake…

Chabad has some great ideas for nocturnal study topics in their article –  9 Mind-Expanding Themes to Keep You Up All Night This Shavuot. They have weird and wonderful titles from “Let the People Speak!” to “That’s ‘Rabbi Doctor’ to You!” to “A Little Bit of Everything”.

Very effective if you are backpacking in South Africa or Argentina or Australia.

On the other hand if you find yourself in  Scandinavia  or Juneau, Alaska where the short night ends right after it begins, what can you learn? By the time you find a comfortable spot to study, prepare yourself with a shot of caffeine and sugar and open the book, it’s already time for morning prayers at sunrise.

The key is preparation and study smart. Even a short study period is effective if you choose an interesting topic in advance. For those who want a ready-made study program to learn on their own in English when you’re South of the equator or just want to get a small taste of Shavuot night, try the YU program of Shavuot To-Go. They put out a new PDF booklet every year with a detailed table of contents so you can pick and choose according to your flavor of the month. Just go into their site, choose, click and download. And, make sure to print it out in advance! 🙂

Chag Sameach and have an enjoyable night of Torah study!

Mount Sinai Revisited

In the Yeshiva we were taught that the reality of Mount Sinai was the anti-thesis of Darwinism. To give an example, here is a story told of the late Rabbi Ya’akov Kamenetsky:

Rabbi Ya’akov Kamenetsky (d.1986) was once traveling on a plane with his son and granddaughter. Next to him was the Secretary-General of the Israeli Trade Federation, who was amazed at the dedication of the son and granddaughter to the elderly Rabbi. He confided sadly to Rabbi Kamenetsky that he saw his grandchildren and his children only rarely.

The Rabbi explained to him that the difference in their relationships to their children and grandchildren could be traced to their differing views of Creation: “You… believe in the Darwinian view of life as a result of random, purposeless events… so as far as your descendants are concerned, you’re just one generation closer to the apes than they are.

We, however, do not believe that we are superior to our ancestors. Quite the contrary. For us, the central event in Jewish history was the Revelation at Sinai. The generations immediately after that Revelation lived in awe of their parents as people to whom G-d actually spoke. And their children in turn viewed them with veneration for having known those who heard G-d speak”.

For most people, feeling that their spiritual status is based on their chronological distance from the Mount Sinai Experience, is a bit abstract. One would need to be at a very high spiritual level to really “get it”.

It occurred to me that part of our difficulty in connecting to the Sinai Experience  might be because nobody has ever been to Mount Sinai in person (unless you’ve been to a hospital of that name in Manhattan…).  Millions of people visit the Kotel (Western Wall) every year. They stand in front of it, look up to its majestic height, pray and put a note between the cracks of the Wall. It’s real, sensory and tangible. One goes away from the Wall with a sense of awe, history, spirituality.

But Mount Sinai? How many people can claim that they’ve definitely stood at the foot of the mountain where God gave the Torah to the Jewish People on the festival of Shavuot 3000 ? How many even know where it is located?

In honor of Shavuot I decided to do a bit of research and give you some of the latest findings on the location of  the biblical Mt. Sinai. “Mount Sinai Revisited”.

These are the 3 most popular locations:

mount sinai revisited
Jabal Musa, Egypt

Jabal Musa (Mount Moses – see Mapcarta) next to Mount Catherine, is located in the southern part of the Sinai Peninsula. Both Christians and Muslims give credit to this theory and have built a Greek Orthodox chapel and a small mosque at the summit.  Nothing Jewish there though.

Mount Sinai Revisited
Jebel al-Madhbah, Jordan

Jebel al-Madhbah (Mountain of the Altarsee Mapcarta) is a mountain at Petra, in present-day Jordan. Its summit is covered in rock-excavated ceremonial structures reached by a rock staircase. The mountain is over a thousand meters high, but the rock staircase winds its way from the top down to the valley below; the valley in which Petra resides is known as the Wadi Musa, meaning valley of Moses. At the entrance to the Siq is the Ain Musa, meaning spring of Moses. No Jewish symbols at the spot.

Mount Sinai Revisited.
Jabal al-Lawz, Saudi Arabia

Jabal al-Lawz (Mountain of Almonds – see Mapcarta) is a mountain located in northwest Saudi Arabia, near the Jordan border, above the Gulf of Aqaba at 2580 meters above sea level. Nothing Jewish there either.

You are welcome to visit the mountains at your leisure, though I would first check out the US Travel Alert to avoid getting into trouble…

Over the years there have been many theories about the location of the mountain where the Torah was given. Despite all the research, there has never been a place which has been accepted by Rabbinical authorities.

I guess this is for the same reason that the grave-site of Moses  is unknown to us; to avoid it becoming a place of worship and Moses becoming a deity. Similarly, Mt. Sinai remains a mystery so that it won’t become a place of idol worship.

“You shall utterly destroy from all the places where the nations, that you shall possess, worshiped their gods, upon the lofty mountains and upon the hills, and under every lush tree” (Deuteronomy – Chapter 12)

In the end we’ll need to connect with Mt. Sinai Experience in a much subtler way and without a physical place for making a pilgrimage.

Here’s a cute clip from the Aish Hatorah website for a drop of inspiration on how to make the connection:

Chag Sameach !

Torah Study on the Go – for Shavuos

Torah Reading on the goNext Tuesday night and Wednesday (3-4 June 2014) we celebrate the festival of Shavuos, also known as Chag Matan Torateinu – the day the Torah was transmitted to us on Mount Sinai. On the eve of Shavuos the tradition is to study Torah all night till morning prayers.

From the time of Moshe Rabeinu till today there have been major changes in how we learn Torah. Till the redaction of the Mishnah (see link for Jewish History Timeline) nearly everything except for the 24 books of the Tanakh, was transmitted orally from father to son and from teacher to pupil. Gradually with the compilation of the Talmud and commentaries, the Shulchan Aruch and Responsa literature, Torah texts were transcribed, published and disseminated throughout the world.

Advances in electronic media in the 20th century, in the music industry, databases and the Internet brought with them unprecedented opportunities for Torah study. We have Torah texts and lectures on CD’s and DOK’s (disk-on-key), online databases and countless Torah websites. I don’t think that the modern Rabbi has more knowledge in his head than his ancient predecessors, but he (along with any other Jew) has advanced retrieval, storage and search capabilities to get access to more Torah then can be learned in many lifetimes. One can read texts, listen and watch 1000’s of hours of audio & video classes and receive daily SMS’s on Torah topic.

In my humble opinion, there is nearly no valid excuse for not studying Torah in some format or other. Whether you’re an advanced Rabbinical scholar or a newbie, there’s a way to study. At home, at work, on the bus, on a transatlantic cruise or on a plane. With an Android app, a CD a DOK or a piece of software, you can get in a few minutes or hours of Torah study every weekday. So far the only time one can’t do electronic Torah study in on Shabbos or the Festivals….so that’s when you need to print out a text or buy a real book…

In the spirit of Shavuos here are some methods for Torah Study on the Go wherever you are. There are many others but this is a modest selection of resources I’ve either used myself or checked out.

YU Torah Online Tens of thousands of English mp3 lectures from Yeshiva University Rabbi’s on anything Jewish you might want to study for online listening or free downloading. AWESOME. For Shavuos alone they have hundreds of selections including a 48 page PDF for printing out and studying on the night of Shavuos called Shavuot-to-Go. They have from beginners level to the most advanced.

Torah Downloads also has thousands of excellent lectures for free.

torah study on the go
Bar Ilan Responsa Database

Bar Ilan Responsa The most well known database of Hebrew Jewish classical texts with advanced search capabilities. What I like about the latest version is that it comes as a tiny disk-on-key for installation to your laptop. It’s not cheap but for more advanced scholars it is an invaluable resource.

Hebrewbooks.org Contains over 50,000 free Hebrew Jewish texts in PDF format for study or printing out.

Chabad has a big selection of audio and video classes. Naturally there are many with a Lubavitcher leaning, but countless others are general Torah. One of my favorite lecturers is Rabbi Mendel Kaplan from Thornhill, Ontario with over 300 classes.

TES Jewish Software Online store for Jewish software.

Aish.com Huge choice of written material in English, Hebrew, Spanish, French and Russian. They also an audio selection called AishAudio, though many of the lecture aren’t free.

Torah.org also has a nice collection of classes.

KolHalashon has a big selection online + they also have live classes.

All this is for laptops and tablets, mp3 and video players. I have less experience with apps for smartphones, though a quick look at Google Play for Android or iTunes for iPhone will get you what you need. Just put the word “Torah” or “Shiur” into the search window and you’re ready to go.

So whether you are waiting in the airport lounge in Kenya, sitting on a bus in Paris or driving your rental car in Honolulu, Torah Study on the Go is possible.

Chag Sameach and enjoy learning Torah !!