Tikkun Leil Shavuot of R. Joseph Karo and the Epistle of Solomon ha-Levi Elkabetz

A Lecture delivered at the 40th annual Conference of the Association for Jewish Studies, WashingtonD.C.,

22 of December, 2008 


The status of Shavout as the most sacred moment in history, in which the Torah was given on Mount Sinai, is largely described in the Midrashim. Some Midrashim create an erotic atmosphere when depict the event as a wedding ceremony between Moses, the bridegroom, and the Torah, or between God and Knesent Israel - the Assembly of Israel.

However, the custom of symbolizing the covenant of marriage at Mt.Sinai by studying Torah throughout the night of Shavuot, known as tikkun leil Shavuot, is first mentioned in the Midlevel book of Splendor, the Zohar:

In Parashat Emor (sefer VaIkra) the Zohar mentions Hasidim Rishonim – the First Pious - that did not sleep in the night of Shavout and they busy themselves in the learning of the Torah.  The second paragraph that mentions Tikkun Leil Shavout is in the introduction (page 8a), in which the performer of the ritual is Rabbi Shimeon bar Yochai, the hero of the Zohar: " Rabbi Shimeon would sit and study Torah all night when the bride was about to be united with her husband. As we have learned that the companions of the household in the bride's palace are needed on that night when the Bride is prepared for her meeting on the next day with her husband under the bride's canopy." (The wisdom of the zohar, Tishby, volume 3, p. 1318)  In that night, the queen prepares to be united with her husband, the king, and both dwell on the head of Rabbi Shimeon and his "friends" or "Companions" –חברים – the bride mates that decorate the jewelry of the bride. 

Tikkun has, therefore, 2 meanings in the Zohar:  Tikkun is a repair – correction – of the Torah, by learning it with a pure heart and the best of intention. Accordingly, Tikkun is the decoration of the celestial bride with 24 jewels, which are parallel to the 24 books of the bible that Rabbi Shimeon and his companions learned. Their curriculum is detailed as well: rabbi Shimeon and his friends "study Torah, progressing from the Five Books of Moses (חומש) to the Prophets, and from the Prophets to the Writings, and then to the Midrashim of the verses and the secrets of the wisdom, for these are her adornments (תכשיטים) and her finery."

It should be noted, however, that the Tikkun described in the Zohar is a literary source that does not have an evident historical reference. The first historic Tikkun with well recognized figures took place in Thessalonica in 1533. It was a dramatizing, acting out of the Zoharic description, and the actors were the famous authority on halakha, Joseph Karo, the author of שולחן ערוך. His friend Shlomo Halevi Alkabetz, author of the liturgical poem "Come, My Beloved" (Lekha Dodi), and their colleagues.   

Shlomo Alkabetz  wrote a detailed epistle (Iggeret), describing the events.  He begins with the decision to stay awake: "Know that we agreed, the Pious and I, his humble servant, with the companions, חברים to abstain from sleep on the eve of Shavuot." Starting three days before the holiday, they immersed themselves in the Mikveh (ritual bath) and purified themselves, just like the children of Israel before Mount Sinai.  

By the way: "friends" is the attribute of Sephardic scholars in the Yeshivot of Spain and later on – in the Yeshivot of Salonika.  "The friends" is also the attribute of the members of the Zoharic circle. Thus, when Elkabetz refers to the participants of the Tikkun as "friends" and "the complete friends" is not an arbitrary group of scholars but scholars that were chosen in advance to participate, perhaps the members of a small group in the Yeshiva that learned Kabbalah with Karo and Elkabetz. Later on, three of them were rebuked for failing to come in the first night of Shavout, and thus the Minyan was not completed anf the Tikkun failed. Again, it is clear that they were not an arbitrary group but were chosen to participate and were committed to do so.  

Thus, on the eve of Shavuot, they gathered and started to learn. They followed the Zoharic curriculum and studied selections from the Bible (written Torah), the Mishnah (oral Torah), and esoteric texts על דרך האמת probably the Zohar. The selected texts were about the creation of the world, the revelation on Mt.Sinai and the account of how Ezra and Nehemia returned to Jerusalem to rebuild the Temple. The contents of these texts formed a triangle - creation, revelation and redemption - symbolizing Jewish chronology from exile to redemption.

Materializing the Midrashic description of the giving of the Torah, Elkabetz writes that the group studied Torah with singing so wondrous that the angels fell silent and an invisible wall of fire encircled them. Then, at midnight, "we heard a voice speaking out of the mouth of the Pious. It was a loud voice with letters clearly enunciated. It was an exceedingly pleasant voice, becoming increasingly strong. We all fell upon our faces and none of us had any spirit left in him." It was the voice of the Torah, the celestial bride, that Elkabetz called "the Shekhinah", emanating from the mouth of Joseph Karo, and it was the first time such a visitation had occurred in public.

Some facts about Joseph Karo should be now taken into account: By 1533, he was already known as a scholar of Hallacha, a member of one of Salonika's rabbinic courts, and in the midst of writing Beit Yoseph, his first juristic composition. By that time - he was forty five years old, he already had prophetic-like revelations of a celestial messenger, an androgynous archangel from the Celestial academy (ישיבה של מעלה) that spoke through his throat and mouth. Karo believed that he had been given the gift of prophecy, and saw a correlation between these revelations and the way God spoke to Moses: "With him do I speak mouth to mouth" (Numbers 12:8).

Moreover, Shlomo Elkabtz was a Levi, and together they formed a couple – a prophet and a priest, like Moses and Aaron. Their kabbalist group החברים  represented the Israelites leaving Egypt. In other words: Tikkun Leil Shavuot in 1533 was the recreation of the public revelation on Mt.Sinai, when the heavens opened and the entire people heard the voice of God.
We have all the components of Matan Torah:

A prophet, Joseph Karo, standing for Moses

A priest, Elkabetz, standing for Aaron

The people of Israel – represented by the companions, the group

A divine revelation in public – the voice of the Shechina that came from Karo's mouth.

A Covenant – the oath of the "friends" that echoes the covenant between God and the Children of Israel on Mount Sinai.  

The reconstruction of the revelation on Mt.Sinai, was aimed to "Open the Skies", to open the gates of heaven as had happened in the original scene. Indeed, they were successful, as the Shekhinah appeared and blessed them: "Friends, choicest of the choice, peace be with you, beloved companions. Happy are you in this world and happy in the next, for you resolved to adorn me on this night." The Shekhinah's voice trembled as she described how she was cast on the ground, with no one to comfort her. God had forsaken her, and her sons slept and dreamed of idols of gold and silver, preferring to remain in exile and to forget her. And as expected, the friends were deeply moved: "We all broke into tears when we heard the anguish of the Shekhinah because of our sins," writes Elkabetz.

The Shekhinah offered words of comfort and encouragement as well: "Cease not from studying, for a thread of mercy is stretched out over you and your Torah study is pleasant to the Holy One, blessed be he. Stand upon your feet and raise me up."

Then, unexpectedly, her voice changed, she turned to the group and ordered: "Go up to the Land of Israel, for not all times are opportune ... let not your eyes have pity on your worldly goods, for you eat the goodness of the higher land."

The Shekhinah addressed them as the "chosen few" and insisted that they swear to go to the Land of Israel. "Whoever leaves your company and turns away, his blood be upon his head!" she warns, implying that anyone who violated the oath would die:  "Go up to the Land of Israel ... for I sustain you here and I will sustain you there. To you will be peace, to your household peace, and to all that is yours peace."

In this way, a mutual dependence is set up between the Shekhinah and the friends. They will "go up" to the land of Israel to deliver her from exile, and she, redeemed, will deliver them from their exile. The analogy is also linguistic: the verb "to raise the Shechina"

להעלות את השכינה

In Hebrew comes from the same root as  לעלות לארץ ישראל

"To go up to the land of Israel."

Moreover, anti-Zionist ultra-Orthodox would claim that the Jews had taken an oath "not to climb the wall" - that is, to remain in the Diaspora until the Messiah came. But they misjudged Jewish tradition, as proved by the case of Rabbi Joseph Karo, who took an oath to settle in the Holy Land and, as a religious man, was duty-bound to keep his word.

And no less important is the fact that this joint oath obligated the group members to support one another: "Let each help his neighbor and say unto his brother be strong. Let the weak say I am mighty."  This choice of words was not accidental: the phrase "be strong, my friends" התחזקו ידידי

And "be strong and courageous" – חזק ואמץ  is taken from God's promise to Joshua after the death of Moses: "Arise, go over this Jordan, you and all this people, into the land which I do give to them, to the children of Israel... I will not fail you, nor forsake you. Be strong and of good courage. For you shell cause this people to inherit the land which I swore unto their fathers to give them."  (Joshua chapter 1)

In other words: The original intention of Karo and Elkabetz in Tikkun Leil Shavuot was to reconstruct the revelation on Mount Sinai - Exodus chapter 19. But the Shechina, the celestial mentor, directed the group to Joshua Chapter 1, the conquest of the land of Israel. 

It's the integration of the expected and the unexpected that create the drama of this Tikkun and lead us to its full meaning: the combination of the symbolic correction of the Torah and the historical redemption of the people of Israel that go up to the land of Israel "To redeem and be redeemed" – to redeem the Shechina from exile and be redeemed from exile. This formula would flourish centuries later, with the Zionist pioneers that came "to build and be built" – לבנות ולהיבנות - in their homeland.


A few months after the Tikkun Leil Shavuot , in 1534, a plague broke out in Salonika. Within weeks, Joseph Karo lost his wife, two sons and a daughter. The celestial angel disappeared and stopped speaking from his mouth. Karo realized that God was punishing him for being delayed, for not going up to the land of Israel as he had promised.

At the end of the year of mourning, Karo remarried and moved with his new wife to Nikopol, a small town in Bulgaria on the banks of the Danube. But he could not pull himself together. He was convinced that his first wife and children had died because he had not kept the oath. At the age of 46, he had been transformed from a man who had everything to a man who had nothing.

Karo took sick. His condition worsened, and by Rosh Hashanah of 1536, he was at death's door. Shlomo Halevi Alkabetz rushed from Thessalonica to see him. When he arrived, a miracle occurred: Karo began to recover. The voice from heaven reappeared, promising him that his new wife would bear him new children. On one Sabbath in February 1536, the angel was heard from Karo's mouth in the presence of Elkabetz, and demanded that the two of them keep their oath. When the Sabbath was over, Elkabetz wrote his famous epistle, recording the events of the tikkun leil Shavuot that had taken place almost three years earlier.

The Epistle of Elkabetz is a secretive document: The names of the sender and recipients, and the date and place of writing, are all rubbed out, and Karo - the leader of the tikkun - is referred to as "the Pious" and not mentioned by name. Elkabetz confessed that he was not permitted to write all the details, and hence those details are written in code. But even though the context remains enigmatic and obscure, Elkabetz reveals some of the codes: he mentions "Segulata", cluster or אשכול in Hebrew. That is the name of one of טעמי המקרא

that is marked with three points in the shape of a cluster, ?   and is usually used to denote a short break. In the tradition of Kabbalah "Segol" is the white space between the black letters, and it seems that Elkabetz suggests again that a third word is hidden in the white spaces between two words. But which words?

Another hint is hidden in his next sentence:     

'כי שם היה דבר נעלם ולא הורשתי עצמי לכתוב אותו',

Which points out to another code called Nehelam –hidden, that is in Gimatria, the numeric value of the letters that are not pronounced in the word.  In Joseph Karo's mystical diary some more codes are being used. For example, A"t Ba"sh or anagram, an ancient code, already used by the prophet Jeremiah. The method is simple, based on the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet arranged in 11 couples, “alpha and omega”: the first letter alef (א) replaces the last letter tav (ת) and vice versa; the second letter bet ((ב replaces the next-to-last letter shin (ש) and vice versa, and so on. Other cods are based on exchanging past tense with future tense, exchanging singular and plural, using nicknames: Salonuka is called the Metropolis – עיר ואם בישראל

And also "the big city" העיר הגדולה and "Karta Rabata" – the big city in Aramaic.

Well, there is no doubt that certain components of the secret have been lost and the mystery will never be fully unraveled. Yet the real puzzle dwells in the conclusion that the letter was written almost 3 years after the tikkun, and was directed to the group of kabbalists from Thessalonica, the companions who were present at the Tikkun. Those 10 members that took the oath to "go up to the Land of Israel" and now ignore their own commitment, pretending that nothing had actually happened . Elkabetz was in fact telling them of the angel's reappearance, and was insisting they keep their promise.
In order to convince them, Elkabetz uses a brilliant strategy: He impersonates the Shekhinah and her lament about being forgotten, and thus reminds them of their oath. He cajoles them and between the lines he threatens them, while wiping his and Karo's hands of all responsibility for what could happen to them: "She repeated that our companions should keep their promise. Now that they have entered the corridor, they must try to enter the palace and whoever tries to escape, his blood be on his head, and others are innocent." Elkabetz pleads with his friends not to endanger their lives, and to pack their bags immediately, asking God to bring them together in the Holy Land.
In 1536, in the Hebrew month of Elul, almost 3 years after the night of Shavout, Karo, Alkabetz and their families sailed some 10 days from the port of Constantinople and reached the shores of the land of Israel. They settled in Safed. Which members of the group went with them and which remained in the Diaspora is not known, but it is clear that this small group of committed immigrants set the stage for the "golden age" of kabbala in Safed.

The End

For further discussion refer to 

'Let Each Help his Neighbor', on the Origins of "Tikkun Leil Shavuot" in Safed Kabbalah

Tikkun Leil Shavuot in Early Hasidism (Hebrew)

Revealing the Secret of His Wives – R. Joseph Karo Concept of Reincarnation and Mystical Conception 

Prophecy and Maggidism In the Life and Writings of R. Joseph Karo

Rabbi Joseph Karo and Sixteenth-Century Messianic Maimonideanism

Hebrew publications about Kabbalah & Messianism