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


Mor Altshuler

The custom of studying Torah throughout the night on Shavuot, known as tikkun leil Shavuot, is not an ancient one: The first tikkun took place in Thessalonica in 1533. The participants were the famous authority on halakha (Jewish religious law), Joseph Caro, his close friend Shlomo Halevi Alkabetz, author of the liturgical poem "Come, My Beloved" (Lekha Dodi), and their colleagues. The event was recorded by Alkabetz, who wrote a detailed epistle (Iggeret), explaining why the group decided to convene and spend the whole night learning Torah.

The epistle of Alkabetz is a secret document: The names of the sender and recipients, and the date and place of writing, are all rubbed out, and Caro - the leader of the tikkun - is referred to as "the Pious" and not mentioned by name. Alkabetz confessed that he was not permitted to write what happened that night, and hence some portions are written in code. What this epistle offers us is thus a rare, albeit somewhat cloudy glimpse of a Shavuot tikkun held by a group of kabbalists in the first half of the 16th century, which became a model for the kabbalists of Safed, including Rabbi Isaac Luria (the Ari) and his disciples.

Joseph Caro (his surname means "precious" in Spanish) is known throughout the Jewish world as the author of "Shulkhan Arukh", which has been the accepted code of religious law since the 16th century. Caro was born in 1488, probably in Toledo, Spain. His family fled from there to Portugal, and in 1498, it migrated eastward to countries that belonged to the Ottoman Empire. In 1522, the young Caro wrote his first halakhic work, "Beit Yosef." He was living at the time in Adrianopol (today Adriana in Turkey), and this is where his standing as an authority on Jewish law was forged. In Thessalonica, where he moved in 1530 with his wife and four children, he became a kabbalist, or mystic.

Caro the kabbalist left behind an esoteric diary in which he tells of an angel, a messenger of Heaven's divine academy, who spoke from his mouth. This angel would usually appear on Friday nights, when Caro was sitting alone and studying. Caro writes that he was in the habit of "chewing" Mishnaic texts, that is, reading them very quickly. It was then that a heavenly voice would emanate from his throat. In Hebrew, mishnah is written with the same letters as neshama (soul) - hence the special connection between the heavenly voice and the soul. In the eyes of a mystic, angels have no physical body and thus represent the ideal. The angel that appeared to Caro was androgynous - both male and female - sometimes adopting a male persona, of "the Preacher" (Maggid), "the Voice" or "the Speech," and sometimes adopting a female persona, as "the Mishnah, "the Mother" or "the Shekhinah." The Mishnah and the Shekhina symbolize the unattainable celestial lover.

This androgynous identity is evidence of the duality of Joseph Caro's spiritual world, which achieved wholeness via the harmony of his "masculine" legalistic pursuits and his "feminine" mystic pursuits - a kind of ideal union of male and female, calling to mind Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. According to kabbalistic tradition, the angels created on the second day of Creation were also androgynous. They emanated from Caro's breath when he studied Torah, and made a ring of invisible fire around him.

Caro, it should be pointed out, was not the first to portray the Torah as a woman and the object of a symbolic love affair. Consider the ritual in the synagogue on Simhat Torah, when the "hatan Torah" (literally, "bridegroom of the Torah") dances with the Torah scroll like a groom escorting his bride to the bridal canopy. The Zohar, the 13th-century kabbalistic text, uses verses from the "Song of Songs" to describe how the Torah seduces its students.

Like Moses and Aaron

Analogies between the Torah and the Shekhinah (the divine presence) are not new either. According to the Sages, the Shekhinah resides in the Garden of Eden and was revealed when the Torah was handed down to Moses on Mt.Sinai, surrounded by angels. In kabbalistic thinking, the Shekhinah is linked to celestial entities, whose presence in the world is realized through Torah, the Assembly of Israel and Jerusalem, and symbolizes the covenant of marriage into which God and Israel entered at Mt.Sinai.

At this stage, readers may begin to wonder about Joseph Caro's sanity. But before we jump to conclusions, all evidence shows that he was a rational person and a sober legal authority, not at all prone to delusions. He 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). To put this in a European cultural context, consider Dante, the 13th-century author of "The Divine Comedy," who wrote about his journey from hell to paradise, guided by the Roman poet Virgil and the woman he loved, Beatrice. If Dante could embark on a symbolic trip in the company of a poet who had been dead for centuries, and turn his beloved into a symbol of spiritual salvation - Joseph Caro could also flit through the upper spheres accompanied by the Oral Law and a mysterious angel, sent from heaven to be his guide. When Caro's mystic diary is read through modern eyes, it becomes clear that if he were alive today, he would be hailed as a great writer.

Caro's scholarship and charisma endeared him to the scholars of Thessalonica, which was then a kabbalist paradise and a flourishing city, where Jews exiled from Spain and Portugal found a safe haven. One of the kabbalists who befriended Caro was Shlomo Halevi Alkabetz. Caro and Alkabetz envisioned themselves as Moses the prophet and Aaron the priest, and their kabbalist flock as the Israelites leaving Egypt. That Shavuot evening in 1533 presented an opportunity to recreate the revelation on Mt.Sinai, when the heavens opened and the entire people heard the voice of God. It was an opportunity to "repair" the Tablets of the Law, which had been smashed to bits following the sin of the golden calf. Because of this, the redemption of Israel and the coming of the Messiah were being hindered.

Alkabetz begins the epistle that records the events of that night with the decision to stay awake: "Know that we agreed, the Pious and I, his humble servant, with  the companions, 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 in order to be fit to accompany the "bride" - the Torah - and properly adorn her.

On the eve of Shavuot, the group studied selections from the Five Books of Moses, the Prophets, the Mishnah (Jewish oral law), as well as kabbalistic texts. 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 the texts formed a triangle - creation, revelation and redemption - symbolizing Jewish chronology from exile to redemption.

Alkabetz writes that the group interspersed its Torah study with singing so wondrous that the angels fell silent and an invisible wall of fire encircled its members. 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-Shekhinah, emanating from the mouth of Joseph Caro, and it was the first time such a visitation had occurred in public.

The Shekhinah addressed the kabbalists: "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. The kabbalists were deeply moved:

"We all broke into tears when we heard the anguish of the Shekhinah because of our sins, her voice like that of an invalid in her entreaties," writes Alkabetz. Strengthened, the Shekhinah offered words of encouragement: "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."

Suddenly, her voice changed. She turned to the kabbalists 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. 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."

How did the kabbalists respond to this? Alkabetz writes: "We took courage so that our mouths did not cease from study in joy and dread until daybreak." And so the first night ended.

'Chosen few'

Early the next morning, after a sleepless night, the kabbalists went to immerse and purify themselves in the mikveh. At this point, Alkabetz reveals an important fact that he had concealed up to now: Of the 10 kabbalists who were invited to take part in the Shavuot tikkun, only seven showed up. Because there was no minyan (prayer quorum of 10 men), the tikkun was deemed a failure. That morning, the three lazy kabbalists turned up at the mikveh. When they heard of the goings-on of the previous night, they wept with sorrow and regret.

Luckily, there was a way to make amends. Jews in the Diaspora celebrate two days of Shavuot, so on the second night all 10 were there. As they studied, the Shekhinah's voice was heard again, addressing them as the "chosen few." Once again, she railed at them: "Awake, O drunken ones, for the day comes when a man must cast away his gods of silver, worldly desires, and his gods of gold. Go up to the land of Israel for you are able to do it ..."

The Shekhinah insisted that those present must 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. This choice of words was not accidental. Hundreds of years later, 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 Caro, who took an oath to settle in the Holy Land and, as a religious man, was duty-bound to keep his word.

At this point, the Shekhinah goes back to praising the group, offering words of encouragement and promises of support as before: "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 kabbalists. They will go to Eretz Israel to deliver her from exile, and she, redeemed, will deliver them from their exile. 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."

In this way, the ideal of mutual responsibility is set in motion, beginning with a common goal to which all are committed. The kabbalistic concept of tikkun - that is, repairing the world - thus begins with relations between man and fellow man. It begins with commitment; with the strong supporting the weak as they strive together attain a shared goal. Redemption will be collective or not at all. When the strong and the weak support one another, salvation will begin. That is the principle behind tikkun leil Shavuot: Individuals come together and form a cohesive group. Tikkun, in the sense of repair, begins with personal relationships and radiates outward.

Brilliant strategy

Such a wonderful story deserves a happy ending. But difficult days lay in wait. A few months after the Shavuot tikkun held the following year, in 1534, a plague broke out. Within weeks, Joseph Caro lost his wife, two sons and a daughter. The celestial angel disappeared and stopped speaking from his mouth. Caro realized that God was punishing him. At the end of the year of mourning, he remarried and moved with his new wife to Nikopol, a small town in Bulgaria on the banks of the Danube. But Caro 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.

Caro 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 for the last time. When he arrived, a miracle occurred: Caro began to recover. The voice from heaven reappeared, revealing secrets to him and promising him that his wife would bear him new children. On one Sabbath in February 1536, the angel appeared before Caro in Alkabetz's presence, and demanded that the two of them keep their oath. When the Sabbath was over, Alkabetz wrote his famous epistle, recording the events of the tikkun leil Shavuot that had taken place almost three years earlier.

"Iggeret Alkabetz" is a work of art that no poet would be ashamed of: It is written beautifully, even if the message remains enigmatic and obscure. Alkabetz admits that he was not allowed to reveal everything, and some parts are written in code. There is no question that some components of the secret have been lost and the mystery will never be fully unraveled. But the real puzzle is why the epistle was written so long after the first tikkun, and whom it was meant for. Reading between the lines, it is hard to escape the feeling that Alkabetz was writing it not for those who did not know about it, but for those who did. In other words, "Iggeret Alkabetz" addressed the group of kabbalists from Thessalonica, who were pretending that all was forgotten. Alkabetz is telling them of the angel's reappearance, and was insisting they keep their promise.

In order to convince them, Alkabetz uses a brilliant strategy: He impersonates the Shekhinah and her lament about being forgotten, and reminds them of the oath. He cajoles them and threatens them, while wiping his and Caro'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." Alkabetz 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, after sailing some 10 days from the port of Constantinople, Caro, Alkabetz and their families reached the shores of Eretz 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 wave of immigration set the stage for the "golden age" of kabbala in Safed.

One could end the story by saying that the Shavuot eve tikkun became an important addition to the mystical-messianic rituals of the kabbalists in Safed. Although the original intention to "repair" the Torah and bring about redemption has been lost to some extent, the tikkun has become an indivisible part of the Shavuot holiday and its theme of solidifying relationships.

One could also end with the liturgical poem "Lekhah Dodi" ("Come My Beloved"), composed by Shlomo Halevi Alkabetz, which is recited around the Jewish world on Friday night, to usher in the Sabbath: "Come, my Beloved, to meet the Bride, let us welcome the Sabbath." It's a love song to the Sabbath, with a love song to Jerusalem embedded inside. The poem begins as a lament, urging Jerusalem to stop grieving and prepare for the arrival of the Messiah, who will enter through its gates: "Arise and shake off the dust / Dress yourself in clothes of splendor, my people / With the help of the son of Jesse of Bethlehem / come near to my soul, redeem it!" At the high point of the poem, the poet is convinced that deliverance is already here: "Awake, for your light has come / Arise, my light, Wake, wake, sing out with song / The glory of God upon you is displayed / Your God will rejoice in you / as the bridegroom rejoices in his bride."

The End

For further discussion refer to 

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

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

Rabbi Joseph Karo and Sixteenth-Century Messianic Maimonideanism

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

Hebrew publications about Kabbalah & Messianism