Excerpts from Tikkun Leil Shavuot: The Arizal’s Torah Study Guide
From the Introduction:
The holiday of Shavuot is the second of the Torah’s three pilgrimage festivals. This holiday is unique in that it is not given a specified date in the Torah. Rather, God commanded the Jewish people to count the days following Pesach, and the fiftieth day is Shavuot, commemorating the Jewish people’s divine experience at Mt. Sinai. There, the nation miraculously witnessed God’s open revelation, and heard the Ten Commandments. Moses then ascended the mountain for forty days and forty nights to receive the first portions of the Torah, in addition to the Two Tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments. And so, while Shavuot marks the day the Jewish people first directly heard God’s commands, it has become associated with receiving the whole of Torah, and is known as zman mattan Toratenu, “the time of the gifting of our Torah.”
While Pesach has its famous seder – with matzah and maror to delight the taste buds – and Sukkot has its huts, four species, and ushpizin, Shavuot has no salient symbols. While the other two festivals are week-long, Shavuot is a singular day. On this single day, there are no distinct mitzvahs; it is all about the Torah. As such, one major custom for Shavuot has been adopted across the Jewish world: an all-night Torah study session. Around the globe, Jewish communities get together for a night of non-stop learning, showing our unwavering devotion to our holy teachings, and to our God.
The Sages explain that staying up all night to learn Torah is more than just a celebration. It is also a tikkun, a spiritual rectification, for tradition has it that the Jewish nation fell asleep at the foot of Mt. Sinai on the cusp of God’s revelation. To make up for this blunder, we stay up all night. Others see it in a more positive light: the people fell asleep only because they sought greater spirituality. After all, while asleep the body is inactive, and it is the soul that ascends on high (and may even receive glimmers of a prophetic dream). We stay up all night because, just as on Shavuot the Torah was revealed for the first time millennia ago, so too are new depths of Torah revealed for the first time each year on this same date. We eagerly plunge into the Torah to search for novel insights and lessons, heretofore never accessible.
The custom for all night learning on Shavuot appears to have begun in 16th-century Tzfat, the centre of Kabbalistic study. It likely originated with the great mystic Rabbi Itzchak Luria, better known as the Ari HaKadosh (“The Holy Lion”), or the Arizal. While the Arizal himself wrote very little, the vast majority of his teachings were recorded in a series of books by his primary disciple, Rabbi Chaim Vital. One of these volumes, Sha’ar HaKavanot (“Gate of Intentions”, or “Gate of Meditations”) describes the Arizal’s study guide for Shavuot…
From the commentary on parashat Noach:
We read in this parasha: “In the six-hundredth year of Noah’s life, in the second month, on the seventeenth day of the month, on that same day were all the fountains of the great deep broken up, and the windows of heaven were opened” (Genesis 7:11). The Zohar (I, 116b) famously comments on this verse by stating that just as the lower and upper waters broke forth into the world in Noah’s 600th year, so too will the lower and upper waters break forth into the world in preparation for the coming of Mashiach. However, the Zohar tells us that these are not literal waters, but the waters of wisdom, which will rapidly rush into the world starting in the 6th century of the 6th millennium, to set the stage for Mashiach’s arrival.
The 6th century of the 6th millennium is the Hebrew calendar years of 5500-5600, corresponding to 1740-1840 CE. According to historians, this is precisely the time of the Industrial Revolution, which many consider the most significant turning point in history. For thousands of years until the Industrial Revolution, life was more or less the same: agrarian, rural, slow-paced. The Industrial Revolution changed all of that, and set the stage for rapid technological development, socio-economic progress, and massive leaps in human capabilities.
Before the Industrial Revolution, it was hard to conceive of a Redemption which would see Jews from all over the world returning to Israel en masse, in coordination, and with a Mashiach that can bring peace to the entire planet, and speak to all of humanity. With modern means of communication and transportation, not only is this now totally possible, it is quite simple to envision!
Of course, the Zohar speaks of waters below, and waters above. While the waters below are said to refer to physical, scientific knowledge, the waters above are the deep, mystical wisdoms. Just as the world prepares materially for a Redemption, it must also prepare spiritually. Indeed, Jewish mysticism and Kabbalistic wisdom – once hidden and reserved only for the greatest of scholars – began to flourish in the mid-18th and 19th centuries, particularly with the rise of Chassidism, and went on to penetrate the daily lives of all Jews. Texts that were once impossible to find, and difficult to study, can now be accessed at a moment’s notice with a click of a button, together with all of their commentaries and translations! Never in history has there been so much Torah study; so many synagogues and yeshivas; countless books and lectures; podcasts, videos, and classes of every kind, for every kind of audience; not to mention the many charity and kiruv organizations, and a Chabad house on every inhabited continent, in the remotest of areas. Truly, the waters above and below have opened up, and the world is absolutely ready for geulah.
From the commentary on parashat Va’era:
The Zohar (II, 32a) records:
“…for four hundred years, the angel of the children of Ishmael stood before God and pleaded. He said to Him: ‘Whoever is circumcised has a portion in Your name.’ God replied: ‘It is so.’ He said to Him, ‘Behold, Ishmael is circumcised, so why does he not have a portion in You like Isaac?’ God replied: ‘It is not so, since this one was circumcised properly and according to the full requirements, while the other was not. Moreover, these ones cleave to Me as is specified on the eighth day, while the others are distanced from me for many days. He said to Him, ‘Nonetheless, since he is circumcised, should he not have a good reward for this?’
“…And so in the future, the children of Ishmael are destined to rule over the Holy Land for a long time when it is empty from anything, like their circumcision which is empty and imperfect. And they will prevent the children of Israel from returning to their place until the reward for the merit of the children of Ishmael reaches completion.”
Since God promised Abraham the Holy Land in return for the covenant of circumcision, and the Ishmaelites also circumcise themselves, they too deserve a portion in the Holy Land. However, their circumcision is incomplete (lacking all the appropriate halachic steps) and done at the wrong time (not on the eighth day, as God commanded). Thus, the Zohar amazingly prophesizes that the Ishmaelites will rule over the Holy Land for a lengthy period, but throughout this period, the land will be empty and desolate. And at the End of Days, the Ishmaelites will prevent the Jews from returning to their Promised Land.
Incredibly, history has corroborated this prophecy. Muslims ruled over the Holy Land for roughly 1300 years, and throughout this time, the land was fruitless, sparsely populated, and never hosted any great kingdoms or states. It was only with the mass return of the Jews that the deserts blossomed and the land became prosperous and habitable once more. Unfortunately, we are still living out the last phases of this prophecy, where the Ishmaelites are preventing our peaceful settlement of the land.
From the commentary on the Book of Judges:
The period of Judges lasted well over 400 years, from the time that Moses passed away, until Saul was crowned the first king of Israel. The first judge was Joshua, followed by Othniel, Ehud, Shamgar, Deborah, Gidon, Tola, Yair, Yiftach, Ivtzan, Elon, Abdon, and Shimshon (Samson). Eli and Shmuel (Samuel) are usually included as Judges as well, although Eli was the High Priest, and Shmuel was first and foremost a prophet.
By far, the most famous judge is the mighty Shimshon. In at least one place in the Tanakh, Shimshon is called “Badan” (I Samuel 12:11). The Arizal explains that Badan read backwards is Nadav, and that Shimshon was actually Nadav’s reincarnation! While Nadav sinned by refusing to marry, Shimshon’s marriage proved to be his downfall. And because Nadav sinned by becoming drunk from wine and serving inebriated, Shimshon was a nazir from birth and abstained from wine his entire life.
(Sha’ar HaGilgulim, Ch. 36)
From the commentary on the Scroll of Ruth:
According to tradition, it is customary to read the entire Scroll of Ruth on the holiday of Shavuot. The simplest reason for this is that the climax of the Ruth narrative takes place during the time of the wheat harvest, which is Shavuot. (The three Biblical pilgrimage festivals all correspond to a harvest: Pesach was the barley harvest, Shavuot was the wheat harvest, and Sukkot the fruit harvest.)
Another, more significant reason is that the Scroll of Ruth ends with the birth of David. According to tradition, King David, Ruth’s great-grandson, was born and died on the same day: Shavuot. He lived exactly 70 years.
The Zohar (I, 55a) states that David’s 70 years were given to him by Adam, the first man. Adam was meant to live 1000 years, but when he foresaw that David was destined to be stillborn, he gave up 70 of his own years to David. Thus, the Torah records that Adam lived 930 years.
A final reason why the Scroll of Ruth is read on Shavuot is because of what Ruth embodies. Shavuot commemorates how the Israelites received the Torah, and officially became the Jewish nation. Ruth did the same, eagerly accepting the Torah and joining the Jewish people wholeheartedly. It is said that the numerical value of her name (רות) is 606 because she was a righteous gentile who kept the Seven Noahide Laws, so by accepting the Torah, she added an additional 606 commandments, to fulfill the total of 613. She merited to have King David, and the entire Davidic dynasty – all the way down to Mashiach – descend from her.