On Shavuot, marital relations are forbidden both by day and by night, as Rebbe Shimon bar Yochai states in the Zohar: (I:9a) we must stay up the whole night of Shavuot learning Torah. This is because on the night of Shavuot we are preparing ornaments for the Matron.

The Torah was given in the early morning, and the nation of Israel was still sleeping. G‑d had to wake us up to give us the Torah, and this is seen as a sign of disrespect for the divine gift of the Torah. In order to rectify this error, it is customary to stay awake the entire night of Shavuot learning Torah in anticipation of the annually repeated revelation that occurs in the early morning. The giving of the Torah is the marriage between G‑d and the Jewish people….

A more mystical reason for this custom is the one mentioned here; we must prepare the "ornaments" for the matron, or bride. The giving of the Torah is the marriage between G‑d (the groom) and the Jewish people (the bride); the flow of the Torah's divine insight and wisdom from G‑d to us is analogous to the flow of vital seed from the groom to the bride on the wedding night.

It is stated in the Zohar (3:79a and 1:48b) that G‑d prepared Eve for her wedding with Adam by adorning her with 24 ornaments; illustrating this, the numerical value of the word "and He brought her [in Hebrew, 'vayevi'eha'] to Adam" (Gen. 2:22) is 24. The primordial snake contaminated her with 24 types of venom; this is illustrated by the word "and I shall place enmity between you and her" (Gen. 3:15) in G‑d's curse of the snake being spelled with the same letters as the word for "and He brought her", its numerical value also being 24. When we received the Torah at Mt. Sinai, we were purified from the defilement of the snake (often understood as the fallen consciousness of self-orientation), and the 24 ornaments were restored to us, the new Eve. (The same word discussed above appears as the initials of key phrases in the passages describing how these 24 ornaments were restored. (See Megaleh Amukot 206.)) The 24 ornaments are listed in Isaiah (3:18-24).

These 24 ornaments are manifest as the 24 books of the Bible (the 5 books of Moses, the 8 books of the Prophets, and the 11 books of the Writings).1 (Midrash Tanchuma and Rashi, loc. cit.) It is therefore customary to spend the night of Shavuot reading selections of these books (chiefly, the beginning and end of each parasha of the Torah and book of the Prophets and Writings) plus selections from the Oral Law as well. This is called the tikun, "rectification" or "restoration" of the 24 ornaments of the bride. The whole night there is no supernal coupling, for Nukva…must immerse herself the following morning….

The "matron" is the female principle, the Shechinah, which is the collective soul of the Jewish people. The "bride" we are adorning by learning Torah on Shavuot night is thus essentially our individual selves as well as the collective community of Israel.

Since we are busy with the workings of the supernal coupling on Shavuot night, marital relations, seen as worldly coupling, are forbidden to us.

But [on Shavuot], Zeir Anpin is not rectified by us, but rather by Imma, as it is written, "…with the crown his mother [Imma] crowned him with on the day of his wedding." (Songs, 3:11)

Therefore, marital relations are forbidden [on Shavuot] just as they are on Yom Kippur. This is the mystical meaning of the verse, "[she is my sister, my father's daughter,] but she is not the daughter of my mother, and she became my wife." (Gen. 20:12, see Rashi) The whole night there is no supernal coupling, for Nukva of Zeir Anpin must immerse herself the following morning, as is explained in the Zohar there. [See Zohar III:98b]

The verse quoted was Abraham's answer to Abimelech as to why he referred to his wife, Sarah, as his sister. Sarah was Abraham's niece, i.e., his father's granddaughter, but through a different mother. Since granddaughters often call their grandfathers "father", Sarah could loosely be called Abraham's sister.

This alludes to the relationship between Zeir Anpin and Nukva. They are both "offspring" of Abba and Imma, and are therefore brother and sister, in addition to groom and bride. The mikva in which Nukva immerses is the fiftieth gate of Understanding…

It is explained in the Zohar (3:100b) that Zeir Anpin and Nukva may couple only when Zeir Anpin and Nukva are receiving consciousness ("light") from Abba. For only the extremely intense light of Abba, i.e., the pure light of the original insight, can expel the forces of evil that always seek to intervene and siphon off the flow from Zeir Anpin to Nukva. Therefore, marital relations are chiefly encouraged on Shabbat night, when Abba is shining into Zeir Anpin and Nukva. At such times, they are considered more the offspring of Abba than of Imma ("…not the daughter of my mother, and [therefore] she became my wife").

On Festival nights, however, when Zeir Anpin is receiving consciousness chiefly from Imma, marital relations are not as encouraged. Specifically, on Shavuot they are forbidden, for on Shavuot, Zeir Anpin is receiving chiefly from Imma as the Torah, G‑d's "intellect", is being given over to Israel.

The Zohar explains that the mikva in which Nukva immerses is the fiftieth gate of Understanding (bina, Imma), the level of divine consciousness granted to us on Shavuot by virtue of the 49 levels we achieved on our own by counting the 49 days of the Omer. Imma escorts Zeir Anpin and Nukva to the bridal chamber…

The second tablets were given on Yom Kippur, so there is an affinity between Yom Kippur and Shavuot. Shavuot is the culmination of the "new year" that began with Pesach, the renewal of the spring, while Yom Kippur is the completion of the new year of Rosh Hashanah. (Sukkot and Shmini Atzeret are seen as the revelation of the consciousness that was already elicited from on high during the ten days from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur.) Both Yom Kippur and Shavuot are therefore days of the giving of the Torah.

But on the day of Shavuot, Zeir Anpin and Nukva couple solely through the influence of Imma.

Imma escorts Zeir Anpin and Nukva to the bridal chamber, so to speak. The powerful flow of intellect into our consciousness that occurs when the Torah is given on Shavuot serves as sufficient inspiration for the union of the emotions and their means of expression. The excitement over new insights and understanding inspires us both to get emotionally involved with the Torah and to disseminate its message to the world.

This explains the textual differences [in the section about festival offerings in parashat Pinchas] with regard to Shavuot.

The Torah refers to the [additional] sacrifices of Shabbat, the first day of the month, and the festival of matzot [Pesach] as being "beyond [literally "above"] the daily Elevation-offering," implying that [these sacrifices reach] "the highest of the highest [levels of spirituality]," as mentioned in the Zohar. (III:79b)

The daily offering is already called an "elevation" offering, so something "above" an "elevation" offering is called "above the above."

But with regard to Shavuot, [the Torah] refers [to the additional offerings as being] simply "beside the daily Elevation-offering".

It would seem that, contrary to this, it would be appropriate to refer to the day the Torah was given as being "above the daily [offering]", since this day is surely "the highest of the highest", more so than the first day of the month and the festival of matzot.

But since the coupling [of Zeir Anpin and Nukva] occurs because of Imma and not Abba, it is not written, "above the daily offering".

On Shavuot, Zeir Anpin and Nukva do not ascend to the level of Abba, only to the level of Imma. They are thus "above" their normal level (and therefore the musaf offerings are "elevation [olah]-offerings") but not "above the above" ("al olat").

And because we prepare the Matron by night, it is written, "you shall do" [in the active sense], for we effect the rectification.

The supernal union of Shavuot is especially dependent on our active participation…

For this same reason, in the case of all the other festivals, the word "unblemished" is written before [mention of the daily offering], as it is written, "and seven one-year-old sheep, unblemished[above/beside the daily offering]." But in the case of Shavuot, the word "unblemished" is not written until the end: "…beside the daily sacrifice and its meal offering you shall do them - they will be unblemished for you - with their libations." (Num. 28:31) This is because they are not unblemished and completed until after we rectify the Matron, and she immerses in the morning. Only after this are they perfected and fully rectified. It is therefore written first "you shall do" and only after that "unblemished."

Compared to all the other festivals, the supernal union of Shavuot is especially dependent on our active participation. This is accomplished by "preparing the bride's adornments," when we stay awake the entire night.

Translated and adapted by Moshe-Yaakov Wisnefsky from Shaar HaPesukim; subsequently published in "Apples From the Orchard." available at Kabbala Online Shop]

Reprinted with permission from Chabad of California. Copyright 2004 by Chabad of California, Inc. All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this work or portions thereof, in any form, without permission, in writing, from Chabad of California, Inc.