When was the last time you had a sleepless night? For those of us who are blessed with young families, the question might be the reverse – when was the last time you slept through the night?
I grew up in a family in which the most cardinal sin was to wake your siblings. Bedtime was the only part of my childhood that was absolutely non-negotiable.
Indeed, studies have long shown how important sleep is for a person’s physical and emotional well-being.
Those with interrupted sleep are more likely to suffer from a range of chronic health conditions such as diabetes, heart problems and mental health issues.
Sleep deprivation also has a negative effect on your immune system – cuts and injuries heal faster with a good night’s sleep.
With all the above in mind, that is why the widespread custom of staying up all night to learn Torah on Shavuot (known as tikkun leil) has always been quite puzzling to me.
Shavuot is a festival to celebrate the giving of the Torah. But why should that have to involve sleep deprivation?
Wouldn’t it be more respectful to the Torah if we all had an early night and then arranged a series of study partners and high quality lectures throughout the next day?
In that way, we could give Torah study our full focus and attention. Why do communities encourage Torah study until past 3am, when most people struggle to concentrate?
This custom is fairly recent – only a few centuries old, in fact – perhaps because before artificial light was widely available, people didn’t have an uninterrupted night’s sleep.
But now that our culture’s normative sleep pattern is seven to eight hours straight, what a statement it is to stay up for an entire night!
Staying up through the night on Shavuot declares to ourselves and those around us that Torah learning is so important that it is worth denying sleep.
Conceptually (not halachically), Shavuot is to sleep what Yom Kippur is to food.
Regardless of the quality of your Torah learning, the fact that you would willingly give up such an important part of your comfortable normal routine shows how valuable the Torah and Judaism are to you.
In a world that prioritises creature comforts, our tikkun leil demonstrates a thrilling commitment to look beyond them, even if it is only for one night.
• Chana Hughes is rebbetzin at Radlett United Synagogue