Shavuot Night in Salonika - A True Story
Excerpt of a letter from the great Kabbalist,
Rabbi Shlomo HaLevi Alkabetz
Translated and adapted by Mrs. C.B.B. Leiter;
edited by Yerachmiel Tilles and Lazer Danzinger
The pious one (Rabbi Yosef
Caro) and I agreed to make a mighty effort on Shavuot night
to keep sleep from our eyes, and not to stop learning for even one
second. Thank G-d we were successful. Indeed, when you hear what transpired,
it will enliven your souls.
For the night of Shavuot,
this is the order of study I prepared. Verses from Scripture:
All this we chanted aloud in a spirit of great fear and awe, with
melody and trepidation. But what will be told next won't be believed.
After all the verses, we recited aloud all the mishnayot of
Zeraim (the first of the Six Orders) and then we started again,
learning it in the way of true learning, and we completed two tractates.
At that moment, the Creator graced us and we heard a great voice coming
from Rabbi Caro. Many of the words were unintelligible, the syllables
chopped short. The people nearby in the Beit Midrash heard but could
not understand. The voice was very pleasing but at the same time was
growing continually stronger and we fell on our faces from the great
awe; no one dared to lift his eyes and face to see.
The voice spoke, "Listen
my beloved, those who most glorify the Creator, my loved ones, peace
to you. Happy are you and happy those that bore you. Happy are you
in this world and happy you will be in the World to Come, because
you took it upon yourselves to crown Me on this night. It has been
many years since my crown has fallen, and there has been no one to
comfort Me. I had been cast to the dust embracing the filth, but now
you have restored the crown.
my dear ones; forge ahead my beloved; be happy and joyous, and know
that you are among the exalted. You merited to be in the King's palace.
The voice of your Torah and breath of your mouths arose before G-d
and pierced through the surroundings and many firmaments, until the
messenger-angels on high were quieted, and the fire-angels hushed
and all G-d's lofty army listened to your voices.
"I am the Mishna
that admonishes mankind. I have come to speak to you. If only there
were ten of you, you would have ascended higher. Even so, you have
elevated yourselves, and those who bore you. You are fortunate, my
dear ones, for because of you, sleep passed from the eyes of those
who bore you . I have been summoned this night through those gathered
in this great and prestigious city. You are not like those lying on
their beds, sleeping a sleep that is 1/60th of death, besmirching
their beds. You cleaved to the One and have pleased Him. Therefore,
my children, strengthen yourselves and strive forth in my love, my
Torah, and my fear.
"If you could imagine
even one thousandth myriad of my pain, no joy could enter your hearts,
no laughter could escape your mouths, considering that on your account
I have been cast to the dust. Therefore, strengthen and fortify yourselves
my children, my dear ones who glorify Me. Do not halt your efforts,
for the thread of kindness is drawn to you, and your Torah is sweet
before Him. Therefore, stand my sons, my dear ones, on your feet and
elevate me. With a loud voice, as on Yom Kippur, declare, 'Baruch
Shem Kevod Malchuto L'Olam Va'Ed.'"
We stood up andrecited
aloud, as bidden. The voice then resumed, "Happy are you, my
children. Return to your learning and do not stop one minute. Go up
to the Land of Israel, because not all times are equal, and there
is no preventing salvation, whether by much or by a little. Do not
value your belongings, for you will partake of the best of the supernal
levels. And if you desire and will obey, the choicest of that land
you will consume. Therefore, hurry and move there for I am the cause
that sustains you, and will continue to sustain you. Peace to you
in your houses, and peace in all there is to you. Eternal G-d gives
strength to His people and blesses them with peace'."
All these things were spoken
to us, and our ears did hear. Additional matters of wisdom were shared,
and great were the promises that brought us all to tears from so much
joy. We also heard of the Shechina's suffering, due to our
sins, and the Voice was as a sick person imploring us. Then we strengthened
ourselves until daybreak, reciting verses unceasingly with joy and
When morning came, we went to immersein the mikveh, as we did the
two previous days, and there we met the three others that had been
absent the night before. We reprimanded them and told them the favor
G-d had wrought us. Their hearts melted and they turned their faces
and wept, as did we. At the same time, we maintained a harsh fa?ade,
since it was because of them that we had not merited greater revelations.
The lack of a minyan had imposed a severe limitation, as we
were told. They answered that they would afford us this opportunity
on the second night (of Shavuot): we would join and be ten. We consented
even though we had slept not a wink the first night. During the day,
we also had not rested because after the mincha prayer Rabbi
Caro had delivered a sermon. Still, we girded our loins, performing
the same rites as the night before, and did do with much joy because
now we were ten.
On this occasion, however,
the voice did not wait until we started to recite the Mishna.
Nor did it wait until midnight (as it had the night before, when it
began exactly at midnight), but it made itself heard immediately.
As we were reading the verses of Shma, the voice of our cherished
one knocked and began, "Listen my dear ones, those most glorifying
G-d. Arise! And raise those who are lying in dust, through the mystical
secret "of the dust from Above."
Many matters of wisdom
He taught, and afterwards said, "Happy are you, my dear ones
that raise me. How high you have been elevated now that you are ten,
as is proper in all matters of holiness. Happy are you in the future
world. Fear not the reproach of man or his goading because you elevate
all of Israel. Know that you are among the exalted, that glory rinses
your hands and that the thread of kindness is drawn to you. If permission
were granted, your eyes would behold the fire surrounding this house.
Therefore, strengthen yourselves and do not break the bond with Above.
Say aloud, 'Shma Yisrael...Baruch Shem Kevod...'"
After another half an hour,
we returned to studying the secrets of Torah. Exactly at midnight
the Voice returned a second time, teaching for over an hour and a
half. It praised the learning and said,
"See and hear this voice speaking? Ask your elders and know that
for hundreds of years you are the only ones to merit such an experience.
Therefore, from now on, be alert to help each other, and to strengthen
the weak. Hold yourselves as leaders, for you are the princes of the
king's palace, and you have merited to enter the hallway. Now strive
to enter the inner chamber, but do not forsake the entry, for he who
leaves the gate-his blood is on his head.
"Wake up my sons and
understand what I am explaining to you. Wake up, my dear ones, and
strive to be sons of valor... Behold the day is coming when men will
abandon the Exile and their silver and worldly pleasures, and gods
of gold, and desires of wealth, and travel to the Holy Land. It is
possible, except that you are sinking in the mire of worldly vanities...
Behold! You have merited what others, for many generations, have not."
These matters continued
at great length. All who were present, resolved to turn to G-d with
all their might.
* * *
Rabbi Alkabetz also wrote that the following Shabbat the Voice again
came to Rabbi Caro, whereupon he again gathered the ten together to
warn them and to urge them to enter the "inner place". They
agreed to set aside every desire, to refrain from meat and wine, and
to mourn the exile of the Divine Presence, and the causes of Exile.
Rabbi Alkabetz left immediately for Israel, and soon afterwards both
Rabbi Caro and he established residence in Safed.
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Editor's note: The Shelah copied this story from the
writing of Rabbi Shlomo Alkabetz and concluded, "It is apparent
in his writing that there was much more that he was not allowed to
reveal. We must learn from this story the importance of behaving with
extra spiritual refinement on this night."
Editor's note on second paragraph:
Rabbi Yosef Caro
*A long list of verses (without chapter numbers) in Torah, Prophets
and Writings, including all the verses depicting the Mt. Sinai experience,
and the beginnings and ends of all the main divisions in Scripture.
All these together comprise the root of "Tikun Layil Shavuot"
- the published collection of verses and teachings which many Jews
recite throughout the (first) night of Shavuot, a custom based on
the Salonica experience recounted above.
(1488-1575) was the chief rabbi of Zefat from
1546. Author of several major works, including Shulchan Aruch
("The Prepared Table"--Code of Jewish Law), a compendium of
the laws of the Torah governing a Jew's entire life: personal, social,
family, business, and religious. Notwithstanding subsequent revisions,
it remains the foremost authoritative work on Jewish law and practice
and is universally accepted by Jews the world over.
Rabbi Shlomo Alkabetz
(1508-1593), is best known as the author of the famous liturgical
poem "Lecha Dodi" (Come My Beloved"), sung by
Jews worldwide to welcome the Shabbat. He was the Kabbala teacher
of Rabbi Caro and of his brother-in-law, Rabbi Moshe Cordevero, as
well as the author of many works.