Sleepless on Shavuot

By Moshe Sokolow
Thursday, May 24, 2012

Two practices long associated with Shavuot, the "time of the revelation of the Law" (z'man matan Torateinu), are the enrolling of children in religious school and the marathon all-night study vigil (tikkun leyl Shavuot).  The former, a venerable practice that first appears full-blown in the 12th century in the literature of the German Pietists, has been the subject of serious scholarly analysis in works such as Ivan Marcus's Rituals of Childhood.  The latter, the all-night study, is of considerably more recent vintage.

Our earliest notice of tikkun leyl Shavuot, in the 16th century, comes from Moses ben-Judah ibn Machir of Safed, who attributed it to the Zohar's stipulation that it behooves anyone who dwells in the "royal palace"—i.e., anyone who is righteous—to engage in Torah study throughout the night of Shavuot.  Isaiah Halevy Horowitz (Prague 1560–1630), known as the "Shelah" after the acronym of his magnum opus Shnei Luhot Habrit or The Two Tablets of the Covenant (an apt title for this particular holiday), who offered the earliest curriculum for the nocturnal vigil, likewise associated it with royalty: He attributed it to a member of the seminal kabbalist Isaac Luria's "court," Shlomo Halevy Alkabetz (author of the Friday night hymn L'khah Dodi), and his brother-in-law, Joseph Karo.

Thus, the origins of the Shavuot tikkun—and its antecedent, the daily midnight tikkun hatzot—lie within the arcane mystical tradition.  But the practice may owe its feasibility and popularity to a more mundane feature of early modern Jewish life: coffee.

The earliest use of coffee is reported in the 15th century among the Sufis of Yemen, Muslim mystics, who depended on it to keep them awake during their night-time devotions.  By the mid-16th century coffee drinking had spread throughout the Middle East, and coffeehouses arose to facilitate its consumption for secular as well as religious purposes.  By the 18th century, coffee, along with tea and sugar, had become an exotic fixture—first among the upper classes, then with the middle and lower classes of Central Europe.  It also became a serious source of income for those who distributed it or oversaw its preparation.

In his article "Coffee, Coffeehouses, and the Nocturnal Rituals of Early Modern Jewry" (AJS Review, 1989), Elliott Horowitz had a thoroughly original insight: "Where coffee spread, it extended the range of possibilities for making use of the night hours, whether for purposes pious or profane."  Now Robert Liberles' book Jews Welcome Coffee adds considerably to our understanding of the effects of the importation, sale, and preparation of coffee on German Jewry during the 18th century.

In Jewish communities, characteristically, making and drinking coffee involved halakhic issues.  Drinking coffee initially raised questions such as bishul akum or bishulei nokhrim, "Gentile cooking."  Sixteenth-century poskim (religious adjudicators) ruled coffee kosher because it was made in utensils used exclusively for its preparation, but the poskim were uncomfortable with its public consumption in coffeehouses, which appear to have been places of generally ill repute. Liberles notes that Ashkenazi rabbis, in dealing with coffee, tended to defer to the opinions of their Sephardi colleagues in the Ottoman Empire, whose experience with the Oriental beverage was greater than their own.

But after passing the bar of ritual law, so to speak, coffee drinking faced another obstacle.  Its addictive nature created the singular problem of what Liberles calls "Shabbos coffee": the attempt to make hot coffee available on the Sabbath despite the complicated Sabbath culinary laws.  Here, Liberles shows, authorities like Jacob Emden (Altona 1697–1776) and Ezekiel Landau (Prague 1713–1793) displayed a decided inclination towards leniency, reasoning that coffee's contribution to the enhanced enjoyment of the Sabbath offset the largely technical concern over whether its brewing involved "secondhand cooking" (bishul ahar bishul)—a dilemma that has long since been ameliorated by the introduction of instant coffee.

Illustrating the halakhic community's awareness of the effects of caffeine and its connection to the midnight vigil, Horowitz cites a 1673 responsum by Moses Zacuto of Italy, who was asked a mundane question about the prohibition against eating or drinking before morning prayers. After distinguishing between beverages such as wine and beer, which were prohibited, and water and medicines, which were permissible, Zacuto placed coffee in the medicinal category because of its stimulant properties: "We may cite as proof the custom throughout the land of Israel and the kingdom of Turkey, where they are accustomed to drink coffee [qawi] after every midnight, for it resembles a medicine that drives away sleep, as is well-known."

Tikkun hatzot and coffee both spread westward from Safed and Palestine across North Africa and into southern Europe during the 16th and 17th centuries, acquiring considerable popularity among Jews.  The question is whether the two developments were interrelated or just coincidental.  Horowitz admits that characterizing coffee as the sole or even primary stimulus (pardon the pun) for the institution of the midnight tikkun would be "reductionist." Nevertheless, he asserts, "The introduction of coffee brought with it, beyond the mere availability of a new stimulant, the emergence of a new perception of the night in which the hours of darkness could be shaped and manipulated by human initiative rather than condemn man to passive repose."

But drinking coffee became even more than that; it acquired an independent standing as a mark of closure for both business dealings and social affairs, akin to the status enjoyed today by a champagne toast.  Liberles, reflecting on this development, speculates, "It is possible that the role of coffee went beyond its caffeine content.  I would suggest that by incorporating coffee into the very protocol of the ritual, it was transformed into a sacred version of the secular coffee gathering."  In short, says Liberles, "coffee continually proves itself quite a versatile performer, and in that sense it is ideal to fill multiple functions, from the secular to the more sacredly enhanced."

Moshe Sokolow is professor of Jewish education at the Azrieli Graduate School of Yeshiva University.


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