Avoiding Sleep on Shavuot: An Act of Denying Wisdom

By | Jun 10, 2024
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Woman draped in white night garments sleeps in a bed

This Tuesday night, many Jews around the world will celebrate, according to the Jewish calendar, the 3,337th anniversary of receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai, a celebration otherwise known as Shavuot. Many Jews observing the holiday will stay up all night studying Torah, the hallmark custom of the festival.

The Origins of Shavuot All-Nighters

According to Exodus Rabbah, on the day the Jews became the “chosen people” and received the Torah, the ancient Israelites slept in. They were late to the most important day in Jewish history, and Moses had to wake them. 

The Zohar, the most famous work of Kabbalist literature, states that those who stay up studying Torah on Shavuot are “pious.” In the 1600s,  Abraham Abele Gombiner, an influential halachic leader and author of the Magen Avraham, a prominent commentary on the Code of Jewish Law (Shulchan Aruch), explained that Jews avoid sleep to rectify the mistake made by those oversleeping ancestors. But why did they oversleep?

According to Gombiner, the Israelites accidentally overslept because they thought sleeping deeply was the best way to prepare for their momentous day of becoming the “chosen people.” They wanted their souls to reach an elevated place and a state of “divine intimacy,” as Rabbi Dovid Vigler of Chabad of Palm Beach Gardens, describes it. The problem is, reaching this state by sleep is too easy. “In a state of sleep, you might be endowed with greater awareness and you might be able to reach greater heights, in terms of spirituality and divine intimacy. But that’s not the purpose of the Jew,” explains Vigler. 

“To be a Jew means to struggle with things you don’t understand, and to do them anyway.” Sleep is no different.

Answering life’s questions in a state of unconsciousness is exactly what we avoid on Shavuot, a holiday that celebrates bringing the Torah down to Earth. Kabbalists argue that we are meant to use the Torah to struggle with concepts we don’t understand, rather than find answers in a state where our souls are innately elevated.

The Soul’s Role in Sleep

Before going to sleep, observant Jews recite Adon Olam, which states, “In your hands I deposit my soul whilst I sleep, and therefore I have no fear.” In the Talmud, depositing the soul means that it partially leaves our bodies while we sleep, and departs completely when we die. This is why the Talmud refers to sleep as one sixtieth of death. 

Kabbalists believe that when we die and our souls completely depart from our bodies, we are most connected with the divine. Our soul’s departure during sleep is called “siluk hakochot,” or “departure of faculties.” The idea is that without having to coexist with the waking demands of the body, our souls can be rejuvenated. This means that while we live, the greatest wisdom we can achieve is in a state of slumber.

What the ancient Israelites in the Wilderness didn’t understand, according to the Lubavitcher Rebbe, is that receiving the Torah was supposed to allow Jews to wrestle with life’s big questions in a grounded—awake—state. Instead, they attempted to reach the world of the divine by releasing their souls. “When we become the chosen people on the anniversary of Shavuot, it’s then that we have to remember that our default setting is actually awake. [The goal is] a relationship with God in a state of consciousness, and not unconsciousness,” says Vigler.

Sleep’s Importance in Judaism

However, this doesn’t suggest that sleep isn’t valued in Judaism—in fact, the tradition considers sleep a blessing. Maimonides, often deemed the greatest Jewish philosopher and also a physician, once said a person should get eight hours of sleep a night, the same figure modern doctors recommend for adults. “Our soul is like a cell phone: you can’t use it if you don’t charge it overnight,” Vigler explains. “Your soul needs to be charged in order to function.” 

Dana Zarhin, a lecturer at the University of Haifa who published a 2022 study in the Journal of Sleep Research titled “How religion affects sleep health: exploring the perspectives of religious Muslims and Jews in Israel,” notes that religion and sleep often influence each other. “The participants kept saying, especially Jewish women, that prayers and the belief in God are very calming and help them sleep,” Zarhin says. 

However, balancing sleep with daily responsibilities is something many Jews struggle with today. “Many of the [religious] participants tried to wake up early for the morning prayers. And that often meant that they had to cut their sleep short,” Zarhin says, referring to her study’s subjects. “They kept saying that they know they should go to sleep earlier, but they can’t because of the social roles they have to fill.” 

Others view sleep as an obstacle and would rather spend their time more productivity. Zarhin explains, “Some men [in the study] said they wished they could get rid of sleep because they’d rather do something else.”

We cannot be conscious twenty-four-seven, and according to Jewish liturgy, we’re not encouraged to. So where do Jews draw the line between abusing sleep and valuing it? Perhaps the answer is not so simple, but something we’re also meant to wrestle with. In the words of Vigler, “To be a Jew means to struggle with things you don’t understand, and to do them anyway.” Sleep is no different. 

Whether you’re a sleep enthusiast, or someone who wants to wish it away, sleep is one of the essential elements of our lives that Judaism suggests we shouldn’t view passively. This is especially true on Shavuot—the one time of the year when sleep is discouraged and vigilant Jews cling to their coffee mugs to keep their eyelids from closing.

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