Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Kabbalah Co-opts Shavuos

It struck me how, in at least three ways, kabbalah has taken over Shavuot, in terms of Sefirat HaOmer, Lag BaOmer, and Tikkun Leil Shavuot.

1. The idea of sefirat haOmer is perhaps to establish Shavuot in relation to Pesach and the korban haOmer. We understand the counting to be a commandment and so count days and weeks. And that is really what the gemara discusses. It appears bereft of deeper meaning, at least as is obvious to the casual observer.

Then, kabbalah stepped in and made sefirat haomer all about the Sefirot. As we are seeing in other parshablog posts, and will see in the future, Shadal argues that belief in the Sefirot is not the traditional belief of Chazal; and perhaps it is an idolatrous, polytheistic concept.

And so, each of seven Sefirot pairs with the same seven. One day of the omer is dedicated to Chessed sheBechessed, another gevurah sheBiChessed, and so on. One can work on refining these qualities in oneself. Yet I do not think this was the original intent of sefirat haOmer.

2. Lag BaOmer -- in the period between Pesach and Shavuos, thousands of Rabbi Akiva's talmidim died. From Yevamot 62b:
It was said that R. Akiba had twelve thousand pairs of disciples, from Gabbatha to Antipatris; and all of them died at the same time because they did not treat each other with respect. The world remained desolate until R. Akiba came to our Masters in the South and taught the Torah to them. These were R. Meir, R. Judah, R. Jose, R. Simeon and R. Eleazar b. Shammua; and it was they who revived the Torah at that time. A Tanna taught: All of them died between Passover and Pentecost. R. Hama b. Abba or, it might be said, R. Hiyya b. Abin said: All of them died a cruel death. What was it? — R. Nahman replied: Croup.
We might assume, as is a tradition (brought down e.g. by Meiri), that Lag BaOmer is all about the fact that the students stopped dying. Or from a midrash has until peros atzeres, which turns out to be lag baOmer. But instead it becomes a festival celebrating the possible yahrtzeit of the purported author of the Zohar, Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai.

3. Tikkun Leil Shavuot. The idea of staying up all night learning, or going through Tikkun Leil Shavuous, is brought down in the Zohar:

זוהר פרשת אמור צח.
ועל דא חסידי קדמאי לא הוו ניימי בהאי ליליא והוו לעאן באורייתא ואמרי ניתי לאחסנא ירותא קדישא לן ולבנן
בתרין עלמין...ר"ש הכי אמר בשעתא דמתכנשי חברייא בהאי ליליא לגביה, ניתי לתקנא תכשיטי כלה, בגין דתשתכח
למחר בתכשיטהא ותקונהא לגבי מלכא כדקא יאות
In terms of tikkun leil hoshana rabbah, at least, Shadal thought one should not engage in it.

The alternative is of course to be awake for Shacharis, and to celebrate the holiday in its normal fashion, just as one celebrates Succos and Pesach.


Rabbi Joshua Maroof said...

I have always found the following disparity amazing:

On Pesah, it is clearly a mitsvah min hamuvhar to stay up all night involved in Sippur Yetsiat Mitsrayim. I do not know a single person who observes this "humra" deliberately, despite the fact that it is a halakhically endorsed stringency.

On the other hand, staying up all night on Shavuot has no halakhic basis, yet almost everyone believes it to be either a requirement or a "minhag yisrael", and, as a result, it is quite popularly observed in most communities despite its lack of any halakhic mandate.

joshwaxman said...

fascinating point.

in fact, I do know of one person in KGH who deliberately stays up all night, with his sons, on the seder night. (It isn't me.)

Anonymous said...

I tried to stay up all night on the 15th of Nisan, but after 4 cups of wine/grape juice, lots of carbs and fat, and no coffee to keep me awake (we need the taste of matza all night - don't shoot me on this), I feel asleep.....

Maybe next year I'll add caffeine pills to my wine cups.


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