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:
On 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.
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”.
How 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!