Tikkun Leil Shavuot

Shavuot (that is, the Feast of Weeks or Pentecost) is the Jewish holiday that celebrates God’s giving of the Torah to the people of Israel on Mount Sinai. It occurs on the sixth day of the Hebrew month of Sivan.

Christ Church Library has a beautiful copy of an eighteenth century Torah scroll that was probably made for use in a Central European synagogue. The scroll contains the entire Torah and comes with two wooden rollers and embroidered velvet mantle. The size of the scroll is truly impressive, as well as the work that the scribe has invested in writing it but also the decorations of the woodwork and embroidery are telling of the importance of the object.

The custom of Torah study on the eve of Shavuot, i.e. Tikkun Leil Shavuot probably goes back to early kabbalistic sources. While some scholars say that it comes from the Zohar, there are yet others who associate it with sixteenth century kabbalistic circles. Solomon ben Moses ha-Levi Alkabeẓ (ca. 1505-1576) was among these early enthusiasts of this practice. He was a rabbi, a kabbalist and a poet whose circle included such eminent scholars as Moses Alshekh, Joseph Karo, and Moses Cordovero; while Samuel Uceda and Abraham Galante were among his students. Moses Alkabeẓ’s ‘Shoresh Yishai’ that was printed in 1560/1561 in Constantinople is the first edition of his commentary on the biblical book of Ruth. On the festival of Shavuot the biblical book of Ruth is read in Jewish communities.

Thirty years later, Alkabeẓ’s student Samuel Uceda (1540-?) completed his commentary on the book of Ruth. The first edition of it, ‘Igeret Shemuʼel’ appeared in 1597 in Kuruçeşme, a village outside Constantinople. This project was funded by a noble woman, Doña Reyna Nasi who came from a prominent Marrano family in Portugal and only when they settled in Constantinople, were they able to practise their Jewish faith. (In the book of Ruth the central figure is Ruth, a gentile woman who converts to Judaism; this might have resonated with Doña Reyna Nasi and her own past).

Around the same time another important homiletical commentary on the Torah was printed in Belvedere, near Constantinople, ca.1593-1594. Editio princeps of ‘Torat Mosheh’ was written by the sixteenth century rabbi and scholar Moses Alshekh (1508-1593) who had studied under Joseph Karo, belonging to the same circle of kabbalists with Alkabeẓ and who later became a rabbinic authority in Safed.

These and many other Hebrew books published in the Ottoman Empire were acquired by Christ Church in late eighteenth or nineteenth century. For far too long have they remained the lesser known part of the collection, but by no means, less significant—especially for pondering over the long night of Shavuot.

Dr Rahel Fronda
Hebrew Antiquarian Cataloguer
Christ Church Library

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