Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Thessaloniki, 1533 and the Bridesmaids: The Origins of Tikkun Leil Shavuot

Rabbi Mishael Zion | Bronfman Fellowships | Text and the City | Shavuot 2013
When the companions gathered together on that night in order to prepare [letaken] the adornments of the Bride, so that she may be ready to appear before the King with her jewels and adornments as is proper, Rabbi Shimon would say:
“Happy is the share of the Companions when the King asks his Bride: “Who has prepared your beautiful adornments? Who has made your crown so radiant, and done all your preparation?” For there is no one in the entire world who knows how to arrange the adornments of the Bride like the Companions. Happy is their share in this world, happy is their share in the world to come!”

(Zohar III: 97b-98b)
Thessaloniki, best site for a 16th century Tikkun 

We celebrate Torah twice in the Jewish year. On Simchat Torah we dance with a closed scroll, ignoring the content and instead celebrating the  fact that God gave us this amazing present called Torah. But the Torah is about partnership – at least in the Rabbinic version of the story – so it is only fitting that there is a night when we focus on the fact that this divine text was delivered into human hands. Enter Shavuot, Chag Matan Torah, the holiday of the Giving of the Torah, where we unroll the scroll and study its contents. On this night, we don’t just hold the Torah, we celebrate being partners in creating it.
The Zohar takes this idea one step further, introducing the idea of the nocturnal Tikkun (Maimonides, for example, didn’t celebrate Shavuot in this way at all). On a Tikkun Leil Shavuot, one begins with reading highlights of the Written Torah, but it is the Torah sebe’al Peh, the Torah-of-the Human-Mouth, which the Zohar mandates to be studied on Shavuot In this frame, Shavuot celebrates the Human side of the God-Torah-Humanity partnership. The ultimate receiving of the Torah is turning the words of Torah into Jewels and adornments:

Rabbi Shimon would sit and study Torah all night, on the night when the bride was to be united with her husband. For we have learned that the bridesmaids are needed in the bride's palace on that night, as she prepares for her meeting on the morrow with her husband under the bridal canopy. They need to be with her all that night and rejoice with her, preparing the jewels with which she is adorned, studying Torah – from the Humash to the Prophets, and from the Prophets to the Writings. Then they should study Torah of the Mouth, the midrashic and mystical interpretations of the verses, for these are her adornments and her finery.
And she enters with her maidens and stands above their heads, and she is adorned by them, and rejoices with them throughout the night. And on the morrow she does not enter the bridal canopy without them, and they are the ones called “the sons of the bridal canopy.”
When she enters the bridal canopy the Holy One, blessed be He, inquires after those birdesmaids, and blesses them, and crowns them with the bridal crowns.
Blessed is their portion. (Zohar I:8a) 
Like Cinderella’s fairies, the students of Torah spend their time weaving and adorning the Bride all night, delicately piecing together hiddushei Torah in an attempt to prepare for the great union of the morning. The Zohar’s metaphor is a totally different way of thinking about learning Torah, imbued with a desire for the aesthetic, the delicate personal touch of a jewler, the erotic love of friendship. Judaism is a jewelry workshop, not a museum…
One of the most striking aspects of the Zohar’s culture, as described in our short excerpt, is that spirituality happens within a circle of companions, a havurah, preferably of 10 participants. This idea inspired many other havurot, most notably in Tsfat in the 16th century. One such havurah held a Tikkun Leil Shavuot exactly 480 years ago, which – luckily for us – was recorded and copied in numerous books in subsequent years, becoming a landmark for Jewish intellectual history. I share a translation of this account as a gift for Shavuot.
The year is 1533, and one Rabbi Yosef Karo, soon to be of Shulkhan Arukh fame, is living in Thessaloniki. Born in Spain before the expulsion, he is of the generation of Jews who were welcomed by the Ottoman Empire. Karo is known as a Halakhist, but he had a strange hobby: the voice of the Mishna would occasionally appear as an angel from his mouth. On Shavuot night of 1533 he meets up with his friend and fellow mystic, R. Shlomo Alkabetz (soon to be of Lecha Dodi fame). They decide to learn together with some companions, but fail to convince a full minyan to join them. They begin to learn, stringing words
Cover of "Maggid Meisharim", R. Yosef Karo's
book of Mishna revelations
of Torah together, until suddenly, when they begin reciting Oral Torah, the “spirit of the Mishna” speaks up from Karo’s throat. My favorite part of the story comes the next morning, when they meet up with the friends who snubbed them on the first night, and they all cry together for the missed opportunity. Beware my friends, and do not miss Tikkun Leil Shavuot this year. Who knows what might transpire…

Excerpt of a letter from the Kabbalist, Rabbi Shlomo HaLevi Alkabetz
Full text of the letter (English) (Hebrew)The pious one (Rabbi Yosef Karo) and I agreed to make a mighty effort on Shavuot night to keep sleep from our eyes, and not to stop learning for even one second. Thank God we were successful. Indeed, when you hear what transpired, it will enliven your souls.For the night of Shavuot, this is the order of study I prepared. Verses from Torah, and we strung those to verses of Prophets, and Writings, and from the Writings we began with the Oral Torah, the
The Karo Synagogue in Tsfat
All this we chanted aloud in a spirit of great fear and awe, with melody and trepidation.But what will be told next won't be believed.After all the verses, we recited aloud all the mishnayot of Zeraim (the first of the Six Orders) and then we started again, learning it in the way of true learning, and we completed two tractates. At that moment, the Creator graced us and we heard a great voice coming from the mouth of Rabbi Karo. Many of the words were unintelligible, the syllables chopped short. The people nearby heard but could not understand. The voice was very pleasing but at the same time was growing continually stronger and we fell on our faces from the great awe; no one dared to lift his eyes and face to see.
The voice spoke, "Listen my beloved, those who most glorify the Creator, my loved ones, peace to you. Happy are you and happy those that bore you. Happy are you in this world and happy you will be in the World to Come, because you took it upon yourselves to crown Me on this night. It has been many years since my crown has fallen, and there has been no one to comfort Me. I had been cast to the dust embracing the filth, but now you have restored the crown. Strengthen yourselves my dear ones; forge ahead my beloved; be happy and joyous, and know that you are among the exalted. You merited to be in the King's palace. The voice of your Torah and breath of your mouths arose before God and pierced through the surroundings and many firmaments, until the messenger-angels on high were quieted, and the fire-angels hushed and all God's lofty army listened to your voices.I am the Mishna that admonishes mankind. I have come to speak to you. If only there were ten of you, you would have ascended higher. Even so, you have elevated yourselves, and those who bore you. You are fortunate, my dear ones, for because of you, sleep passed from the eyes of those who bore you . I have been summoned this night through those gathered in this great and prestigious city. You are not like those lying on their beds, sleeping a sleep that is 1/60th of death, besmirching their beds. You cleaved to the One and have pleased Him. Therefore, my children, strengthen yourselves and strive forth in my love, my Torah, and my fear.
“If you could imagine even one thousandth myriad of my pain, no joy could enter your hearts, no laughter could escape your mouths, considering that on your account I have been cast to the dust. Therefore, strengthen and fortify yourselves my children, my dear ones who glorify Me. Do not halt your efforts, for the thread of kindness is drawn to you, and your Torah is sweet before Him. Therefore, stand my sons, my dear ones, on your feet and elevate me. With a loud voice, as on Yom Kippur, declare, 'Baruch Shem Kevod Malchuto L'Olam Va'Ed.'"
We stood up and recited aloud, as bidden.
The voice then resumed, "Happy are you, my children. Return to your learning and do not stop one minute. Go up to the Land of Israel, because not all times are equal, and there is no preventing salvation, whether by much or by a little. Do not value your belongings, for you will partake of the best of the supernal levels. And if you desire and will obey, the choicest of that land you will consume. Therefore, hurry and move there for I am the cause that sustains you, and will continue to sustain you. Peace to you in your houses, and peace in all there is to you. Eternal God gives strength to His people and blesses them with peace'.”All these things were spoken to us, and our ears did hear. Additional matters of wisdom were shared, and great were the promises that brought us all to tears from so much joy. We also heard of the Shechina’s suffering, due to our sins, and the Voice was as a sick person imploring us. Then we strengthened ourselves until daybreak, reciting verses unceasingly with joy and trembling.
When morning came, we went to immerse, as we did the two previous days, and there we met the three others that had been absent the night before. We reprimanded them and told them the favour God had wrought us. Their hearts melted and they turned their faces and wept, as did we. At the same time, we maintained a harsh facade, since it was because of them that we had not merited greater revelations. The lack of a minyan had imposed a severe limitation, as we were told. They answered that they would afford us this opportunity on the second night (of Shavuot): we would join and be ten. We consented even though we had slept not a wink the first night. During the day, we also had not rested because after the mincha prayer Rabbi Caro had delivered a sermon. Still, we because now we were ten.
On this occasion, however, the voice did not wait until we started to recite the Mishna. Nor did it wait until midnight (as it had the night before, when it began exactly at midnight), but it made itself heard immediately. As we were reading the verses of Shma, the voice of our cherished one knocked and began, "Listen my dear ones…” Full text of the letter (English) (Hebrew)

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