26 JAN 02


The Influence of Coffee on Kabbalistic
All-Night and Midnight Vigils

One of the innovations of Lurianic Kabbalah
was the creation of a variety of

rituals which took place late at night.
Joseph Karo is credited with the

creation of the all-night study session
on the eve of Shavuot, called Tikkun

Leil Shavuot.

    The Ari himself emphasized
the importance of prayer and meditation late at night

(called Tikkun Chatzot or Tikkun Rachel)
and early in the morning (called Tikkun

Leah). These times connected the individual
with the daily creations of light

and darkness. It also was an ideal time
(according to the Zohar) to mourn the

banishment of the Shechinah from Jerusalem.
It also connected the individual

with King David, who was said to have
created the Psalms at midnight. The

powerful image that the gates of Heaven
are most available for prayer late at

night was thus concretized in Tzfat in
the late 16th century. Ironically, it

didn’t catch on in Jerusalem at the same
time even though Jerusalem mystics were

certainly aware of the Zohar’s emphasis
on midnight and all-night vigils.

Jerusalem’s mystics focused on pre-dawn
rituals instead.

    Elliott Horowitz provides
us with a fascinating thesis about the creation and

development of late-night and all-night
rituals as opposed to early morning

rituals in 17th-18th century Jewish mystical
circles. He notes that coffee

arrived in Tzfat in 1528, and the first
coffee house appeared in Tzfat in 1580.

None came to Jerusalem. The use of coffee
as a stimulant might have encouraged

the mystics of Tzfat to focus more on
all-night and late-night rituals because

they couldn’t sleep anyway. Karo’s Tikkun
Leil Shavuot appeared two or three

years after the introduction of coffee
to Tzfat. Horowitz quotes the following

description of Tzfat in 1587: (Abraham
haLevi Beruchim) would rise at midnight

and walk through all the streets, raising
his voice and shouting bitterly,

“Arise in honor of the Lord…for the
Shechinah is in exile and our Temple has

been burnt.”

    And he would call each
scholar by his name, not departing until he saw that he

had left his bed. Within an hour the city
was full of the sounds of study:

Mishnah and Zohar and midrashim of the
rabbis and Psalms and Prophets, as well

as hymns, dirges, and supplicatory prayers.”

    By 1673, Tikkun Chatzot
had become the known ritual for the vast majority of

Palestinian Jewry, and Italian Jewry knew
that most Palestinian Jews drank

coffee before prayers. Coffee had not
yet arrived in Italy.

    In the late 1570’s,
Italian mystics created their own pre-dawn rituals. They

called themselves Shomrim LaBoker, the
Guardians of the Morning. These rituals

were apparently initiated by kabbalists
who were familiar with the midnight and

all-night devotions of the Jews of Tzfat.
They acknowledged that midnight was

the best time for prayer “when God amused
Himself with the righteous in the

Garden of Eden,” but they were not willing
to maintain the midnight tradition.

Instead, they slept through the night
and woke before dawn for their early

prayers. At least seven editions of predawn
liturgies were published indicating

their popularity.

    Coffee arrived in Venice
in 1615. The first coffee house (making coffee

available to the masses) opened in 1640.
In 1655, a liturgy for Tikkun Chatzot

was published in Italy and a Chatzot group
was formed. In that same year (for

the first time), Italian Jews accepted
Joseph Karo’s ritual of Tikkun Leil

Shavuot. However, coffee was not as popular
in Venice as it was in Tzfat. By

1683, there was still only one coffee
house in Venice, and there were few Jews

drinking the exotic drink.

    By 1759, coffee-drinking
had soared in Italy. There were more than 200 coffee

houses in Venice, including two in the
ghetto. Jews in Mantua were making a

fortune in the coffee industry. A scandal
resulted in a ruling that “women could

not enter coffee houses whether by day
or night.”

    The popularity of Tikkun
Chatzot also rose impressively. By 1755, most pre-dawn

prayer groups in Verona had become midnight
and all-night prayer groups. The

same thing happened in Mantua. The same
thing happened in Modena and Venice.

    Coffee arrived in Worms
Germany in 1728. By 1763 mystic circles were regularly

celebrating midnight and all-night vigils
for the first time.

    In short, although
the Zohar and kabbalistic works had always emphasized the

special significance of midnight, ongoing
prayers and all-night vigils did not

become an important part of Kabbalistic
life until the introduction of coffee

into each Kabbalistic community. Today,
midnight and all-night prayers remain an

important part of Kabbalistic ritual,
and many Jews continue to stay up all

night on Shavuot and meet for supplication
prayers at midnight on Selichot. Our

level of caffeine stimulation makes our
participation in such all-night rituals

much easier.