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By: Yissachar Dror

The holiday of Shavout is unique in several respects.

First, it is given no calendar date. As opposed to Pesach, for example, which the Torah commands observing on the 15thof Nissan, and Sukkot, which we are to celebrate on the 15thof Tishreh, Shavuot is not given a date. The Torah commands that we observe this holiday after counting “seven full weeks” from the 16thof Nissan, without giving a calendar date.

Another unique feature of Shavuot is that the Torah makes no mention of its commemorating a historical event. It is described as the “feast of the harvest” and “day of the first fruits,” but not as celebrating any special moment in our history. Of course, we know that Shavuot celebrates Matan Torah, our receivingthe Torah at Mount Sinai. However, the Humash itself never mentions Matan Torahin reference to Shavuot. The Talmud (Masechet Shabbat) establishes that the Torah was given on Shavuot based on a close reading of the Humash’s account of Matan Torah, but this is not explicitly stated in the Humash.

“You Have Risen Very High”

Shavuot is also the only time when there is a time-honored custom to remain awake throughout the night.

The source of this custom is the Zohar, which tells that the great sage Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai would learn Torah throughout the night on Shavuot. The Magen Avraham, one of the prominent halachic authorities, famously explains that this practice serves to rectify our ancestors’ lack of enthusiasm on the morning of Matan Torah, when they needed to be awoken to behold Gd’s revelation.

This practice, of course, is widely observed throughout the Jewish world, and some attribute its widespread observance to a fascinating story about a group of rabbis who lived over one thousand years after Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai.

This story is told by the Shelah(Rav Yeshayah Horowitz,
1565-1630),in his introduction to Masechet Shavuot, where he writes: “Although I am in the middle of teaching you halachah, and one is not permitted to interrupt for even a moment, it is worthwhileto pause in order to alert those who fear Gd to the greatness of learning throughout the night on Shavuot.” The Shelahproceeds to relate the story reported by the great Kabbalist Rav Shlomo Alkabetz (1500-1576), of the time when, when he lived in Turkey, Rav Yosef Karo – Maran, author of theShulhan Aruch(1488-1575) –
invited him to learn with him in his home on Shavuot night. After they began studying Mishnayotand completed two chapters, Maran began speaking in an unusually loud,booming voice. It was clear to all that it was not Maran who was speaking, but rather an angel.
The angel announced:

“Fortunate are you and fortunate are your parents, that you have committed yourselves to crown Me on this evening! Your learning has pierced the heavens and reached Gd Himself!
As your words ascended, the angels became silent, and some stood still while others wept; they all stopped to listen to the sound of your learning.

“I am the soul of the Mishnayot, and I have come to admonish you as a mother admonishing her son. If you had 10 people learning tonight you would have risen even higher – but nevertheless, you have risen very high. Do not interrupt your learning for even one second, because Gd’s grace is upon you, and your learning is pleasing before the Almighty!”

The angel proceeded to teach the sages deep Torah secrets, and promised them great reward if they moved to the Land of Israel – which they did. Their eyes shed tears of joy over the knowledge they received from the angel that night. Their lips did not stop learning the rest of the night.

After this story was written, it spread like wildfire throughout the Jewish world.

The Arizal (Rav Yitzhak Luria, 1534-1572) is cited as teaching that those who remain awake throughout the night of Shavuot, without sleeping even a second, will be protected from all harm the
entire year.

Let us, then, properly prepare ourselves for this great occasion, and we will then be worthy and capable of reaching the special heights to which learning Shavuot night can bring us.