Shavuot: Long night’s journey into dawn

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Shavuot commemorates receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai, but it’s a mixed bag of observances (this year June 11-13): dairy desserts, reading the biblical Book of Ruth and, my favorite part, the Jewish all-nighter known as Tikkun Leil Shavuot.

This mystical observance, a vigil of study that leads to the symbolic arrival of Torah, developed among the kabbalists of Tsfat in the 16th century. The one I attended this year, the California Street Shul Crawl, is an all-night journey across three synagogues, the JCCSF — and a dessert café.

9:15 p.m., Congregation Sherith Israel

The crawl began at 8:30 but I arrived late, missing out on most of the session led by Cantors Arik Luck and Marsha Attie (both from Congregation Emanu-El). There were 35 people present, which felt disappointing in the large, intricately decorated space of Sherith’s two-level, high-domed sanctuary.

Free-form dancing to a song by Balkan Beat Box was in progress when I arrived. Soon, to my relief, we moved on to Havdallah. Luck taught a calming version of “Ozi Vezimrat Yah” I often enjoyed during the summer camp Havdallahs of my youth.

We were reminded that Havdallah, the ceremony that normally marks the line between the end of Shabbat and the rest of the week, is a little different when the end of Shabbat leads directly into a festival like Shavuot. Instead of saying “hamavdil bein kodesh lechol” (separating holy from mundane), we say “hamavdil bein kodesh lekodesh” (separating holy from holy).

10 p.m., JCCSF

We reconvened in a coffeehouse-ish space just below street level at JCCSF, sitting in a couple rows of chairs and around small round tables. Our numbers grew to 45. Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan of Lehrhaus Judaica led this portion of the evening. He taught us one explanation of the Shavuot dairy fixation. Drawing upon his experience with dairy cows on a kibbutz and at a summer camp, Wolf-Prusan explained that fresh cow’s milk is warm, very sweet and given unconditionally — just like Torah.

Wolf-Prusan, whose alter ego is evidently a cheese fanatic called the Limburger Rebbe, then welcomed us to spend the rest of our time at the JCC sampling a delectable cheese board.

The courtyard at Congregation Emanu-El was designed to represent the outer courtyards of the ancient Temple. photo/david a.m. wilensky

11:30 p.m., Congregation Emanu-El

The midnight hour approached, and we were back down to 35. As the night progressed, I came to appreciate the small numbers, which allowed us to get to know each other.

In keeping with this synagogue’s proud obsession with its 1926 building, Rabbis Jason Rodich and Carla Fenves led us in an exploration of the facility — a sensational, innovative riff on Shavuot’s origin as a pilgrimage festival, when the Israelites would travel from all over to attend celebrations at the Temple in Jerusalem. As we learned, the architecture of Emanu-El was intended to symbolically reflect the arrangement of spaces at the ancient Temple.

In honor of the occasion, the synagogue’s main gate on Lake Street was opened, something that never happens. Neither Rodich nor Fenves had ever seen it open. I was honored to be there for the occasion. This gateway and the steps leading up to it represent the main approach to the Temple.

We moved through the gates into the walled courtyard in front of the sanctuary where a once-functional fountain sits dry. Architect Arthur J. Brown, also known for his work on City Hall, wrote of this courtyard in 1926: “The court, aside from its purely utilitarian merits, is an element which evokes souvenirs and has a romantic perfume … Solomon’s Temple was preceded, we are told, by a series of courts in one of which was a fountain serving in the ritual.”

The structure around the ark in the Emanu-El sanctuary is evocative of the Holy of Holies, the innermost structure of the ancient Temple.

From there we proceeded into the main sanctuary, which I’ve found to be an overwhelmingly large space in the past. But the mood that night, with most of the lights off and no sunlight coming in, evoked an appropriate sense of awe. From the back of the sanctuary, it looked to be a long walk down to the front where tall green columns cast curved, striking shadows along the half-dome they support. The sloped gold roof of the ark shone in the dark. The decorated metal ark weighs over 3,000 pounds, Fenves told us. Complete with handles so it could be (theoretically) lifted and carried, it is made to resemble the original ark — you know, the one from Indiana Jones.

The raised platform of the ark is set inside four green pillars that hold up a pointed stone roof structure above it; in the context of our symbolic pilgrimage into the Temple, it was the Holy of Holies, the innermost sanctum of the Temple. I’ve never been daunted by the approach to a synagogue ark before, but when we ascended the steps leading up to this one, I felt as if our presence in the space was a transgression. The darkened atmosphere only added to the drama.

12:45 a.m., Toy Boat Dessert Café

This pit stop has to be the best Tikkun Leil Shavuot idea I’ve ever heard. And after the weight of our previous stop it was a welcome change of pace. Owner Jesse Fink, a member of Congregation Beth Sholom, graciously opened this Clement Street fixture to us, offering anything we wanted (I went for a root beer float) as we settled in for a lively discussion led by Rabbi Aubrey Glazer of Beth Sholom and Rabbi Shlomo Zarchi of Congregation Chevra Thilim. Our numbers remained steady at 35.

Zarchi and Glazer have an obvious rapport that comes from their weekly study session together. This was equal parts study session and comedy routine, as they constantly interrupted one another with gentle ribbing and humorous asides.

Discussing dairy, Zarchi provided a midrashic reason why the Jewish people received Torah: The angels argued with God, saying the Torah should stay in heaven because the Jews would only abuse it and break its rules. But God reminded them they’d already broken its rules when they ate a meal of meat and milk with Abraham in Genesis. “Wait, wait, wait,” Glazer interjected with a puzzled look. “Are you telling me that we only received Torah because the angels traifed up the kitchen?”

2 a.m., Congregation Beth Sholom

Glazer led the 17 hardy remaining souls to his shul; here we would remain until dawn — until revelation.

Between midnight and dawn is a liminal period, a time well-suited to studying mystical texts, Glazer told us. These are not meant to be understood, only tasted, he said. Good thing; I was hardly lucid enough to understand much of anything. An hour in, I was yawning uncontrollably. My memory of this portion of the evening is sketchy, dreamlike. We covered heady topics.

One learned Beth Sholom congregant led us in a discussion of the nature of light and dark by way of an obscure proto-kabbalistic text called the Bahir (clarifying light). So esoteric was this text — so sleep-deprived was my mind — that I can scarcely relay to you now the tiny slices of it that seemed, for fleeting moments, within my reach.

Around 5:30 a.m., after a discussion of when night ends and dawn begins, the drowsy remaining dozen stepped outside and looked up at the dimly lit dawn sky. Then we moved into the chapel for the morning service — and I promptly fell asleep.

Jew in the Pew is a regular feature. Send tips about religious, ritual and spiritual goings-on to [email protected].

David A.M. Wilensky
(Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)
J. The Jewish News of Northern California Staff Headshots.
David A.M. Wilensky

David A.M. Wilensky is director of news product at J. He previously served as assistant editor and digital editor. He can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @davidamwilensky