Why Stay Up All Night Studying Torah?

Tonight, Jews across the world will pull an all-nighter. Some will sit in synagogue all night long; others will “shul-crawl,†going from one synagogue to another; others will sit in their homes, nibbling on cheese-cake and trying not to fall asleep on their couches; others  will camp out on Mt. Tamalpais, re-living the ancient Israelites’ experience of receiving the Torah; while others still are undecided about how and where – but are excited to greet the dawn.

Why is it customary to celebrate the holiday of Shavuot by staying up all night, engaging in, of all things, the learning of Torah? After all, aside from all of the current data on the benefits of sleep, don’t we remember Hector’s wise statement, in Book VII of Homer’s Iliad, that “it is a good thing to give way to the night-time?â€

Here are three reasons for you to mull over tonight, between 2 and 3am – hopefully with a good pint of ice-cream at your side.

I.  Studying Torah at night is a Jewish value. It is not unique to Shavuot. Maimonides, in his Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Talmud Torah Chapter 3:13, writes:

“Even though it is a mitzvah to learn both during the day and at night, one gains the majority of wisdom at night; therefore, anyone who wants to merit the Crown of Torah should be careful each night, and should not lose even one to sleep, food and drink, conversation, and the like – rather, one should engage in the study of Torah and words of wisdom.”

There is something special about studying Torah at night. Yehuda Arye Leib Alter, in his work Sefat Emet, writes that the Jewish people are like fish, who, though they are always surrounded by water, constantly need water to be nourished. “The water is nothing but Torah,†the Talmud in Baba Kama 82a says, and, through its nightly study, we attempt quench that which cannot be quenched. On Shavuot night, then, the night on which we commemorate receiving the Torah, we stay up all night, modeling that which we will do on many nights to come.

Posted on May 28, 2009

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