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…