Visiting the alef garden on Shavuot


LOS ANGELES (JTA) — Like to stay up late and party all night?

Do I have a Jewish holiday for you.

Shavuot, literally “weeks,” is the festival marking the end of the seven-week period of the counting of the omer that began the second night of Passover. The two-day festival, which begins this year at sundown May 18, is celebrated as the giving of the Torah.

An increasingly popular custom is the tikkun leil Shavuot, “repairing the eve” of Shavuot, an all-night study session on the holiday’s first night. According to a midrash, at Mount Sinai the night before receiving the Torah, the Jews slept and needed to be awakened with a shofar. So now we must make repairs by showing we are awake and ready.

Think of it as a lack-of-slumber party. Many sessions begin late in the evening and run all night, straight on till morning. It’s a Torah all-nighter that leaves you refreshed and reconnected.

Traditionally, a group tries to cover as much Jewish textural ground as possible studying the Torah and the Talmud.

Untraditionally, I have organized several group study evenings based on the idea that on Shavuot, in the time of the Temple, Jews would travel to Jerusalem to offer their first fruits. Participants present things created or accomplished that year: work finished, classes completed, Jewish books that were read and enjoyed.

Many of us already pull all-nighters for all sorts of things — mostly work, sometimes play. So what about pulling an all-nighter on Shavuot, with your first fruit being taking an hour or two to study Hebrew?

You know, Hebrew, Ivrit, that foreign language elective for which you received an “incomplete.”

On Shavuot, does receiving the Ten Commandments need to be like seeing a foreign movie? Wouldn’t you like to lose the subtitles?

As teenagers, many of us gave Hebrew a good try; we have the confirmations and bar/bat mitzvahs to prove it.

What happened?

According to my friend Cheri Ellowitz, education director at The Temple-Tifereth Israel in Beachwood, Ohio, and author of “Mitkadem” (URJ Press), a self-paced program for learning Hebrew, the issue of students retaining Hebrew is a matter of lack of context.

“If they don’t do Jewish things out of their classrooms and they don’t go to services and use the skills we’re teaching them,” she wrote to me recently, “then there’s no relevance to the material.”

As an adult, are you still digging for a context? Searching for that relevance?

If it’s any consolation, there have been generations of Jews, especially since Roman times, who spoke no Hebrew; they used Aramaic. During that period, Hebrew remained a language of holy texts and correspondence, but it was not the language of the street.

Hebrew’s revival as a spoken language didn’t happen until the beginning of the 20th century, thanks to the determined work of teacher and journalist Eliezer Ben Yehuda, who is known as the father of modern Hebrew.

So are you ready for a Hebrew revival on your street? Do you finally have a context? Like wanting to attend synagogue, but finding those “trenzleeturayshuns” are not really helping. Or on a trip to Israel you’re dying to know what it says on the protest signs.

Some days I feel Hebrew is in the air. I get a buzz when I see Hebrew letters on a sign, shirt or even bumper sticker.

Kabbalists for centuries have claimed that Hebrew letters have their own energy. Somewhere between the second and third centuries, an unknown author wrote the Sefer Yetzirah, called either the book of formation or creation. A short but powerful text, it’s about the formation of the universe — how God used the energy of the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet to create it.

The text reveals how each letter has its own spiritual power that God combines and focuses to create planets and stars, the cosmos, even time.

“Twenty-two letters he carved them out, he hewed them and formed them with life of all creation,” the Sefer Yetzirah says.

As we accelerate atoms to unimagined speeds, crashing them together, it’s humbling to discover that centuries earlier this text already imagined the power created by simply combining alefs, beits and gimmels.

What if there’s some energy to be gained by pushing a few letters together on the first night of Shavuot?

The idea that a creative force inhabits each letter is a concept we recall from the story of Rabbi Loew and the Golem of Prague. In one version of the folk tale, the lifeless human form of clay is brought to life by writing the word “emet,” truth — spelled aleph, mem, tav — on the Golem’s forehead.

As I approach Shavuot, after weeks and weeks of omer counting, there are days when I feel just like an emet-less version of the Golem: listless, unformed, just lying around. How then to stay up all night on Shavuot and study?

You could try sticking a few Hebrew letters on your forehead. Or for even better results, hold them about 10 inches in front of your eyes.

(Edmon J. Rodman is a JTA columnist who writes on Jewish life from Los Angeles.)


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