Kabbalah emphasizes the importance of waking at midnight to serve G-d until dawn.
Of the most profound and life-transforming of Kabbalistic customs is the tradition to be awake from midnight to dawn, engaged in prayer, meditation, and Torah study. Clearly a practice at least as far back as the days of King David, the Sages, particularly those immersed in Jewish mysticism, have emphasized the importance of rising in the predawn hours of the night. Whether to rectify one’s own unique soul, or for sake of the rectification of the Creation at large, it is taught that this custom greatly amplifies one’s access to the "inner light" of divine consciousness, as well as the ability to effect a sweetening of harsh spiritual forces and mystical healing on a cosmic level.
As recommended by the sages of the Kabbalah, typically one awakes, says the appropriate introductory Morning Blessings (opinions vary on exactly which ones), immerses in a mikveh, or ritual bath (this daily practice usually applies just to men), sits on the ground near the doorway, places ashes on his forehead and sackcloth around his waist, and then recites the Tikkun Chatzot liturgy, a series of verses designed to bind our souls to the state of the Divine Presence, detailed below – all with their appropriate meditations, as taught in Kabbalistic texts. The rest of the night until the rising of the dawn is filled with meditation, personal prayer, song, Kabbalah study (particularly the Zohar and the Writings of the Ari), and the learning of Mishnah. One must not forget that none of this is obligatory, but a personal heartfelt path of serving G-d beyond the imperatives of Jewish law
One aspect of rising at midnight is that of consciously connecting – emotionally as well as mentally– with the Divine Presence, or "Shechina", in her state of exile. By strengthening this affinity, via meditation and genuine prayer, we direct our consciousness to the present imperfect state of the world and towards the idea of a perfected reality to which we, individually and collectively, aspire. MYSTICAL BACKGROUND What is focused upon is the direction toward which we are moving….
Briefly, the mystical background to this custom can be understood by understanding that, generally, certain times manifest particular spiritual states, whether on yearly, monthly, weekly, daily, or, in this case, hourly cycles. In that "light" is a general term for divine mercy and holiness, and "dark" is a general term for spiritual alienation and harsh judgmental forces, one might think that daylight hours, exclusively, are the most favorable, mystically speaking. In some ways that is true, but in the deepest teachings of Jewish mysticism what is focused upon is the direction toward which we are moving. Taking this into consideration, we can see that, actually, the "sweet" or "light-filled" hours actually begin exactly at midnight and commence at high noon. That moment of transformation from when the harshest of spiritual forces of the daily clock dominate to the beginning of the shining of the light of the coming day takes place exactly at the midpoint of the night. Simply put, being awake and actively engaged in divine service from this time through the dawn allows us to tap into the incredible potential manifest by this spiritual phenomenon.
The Patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are known to have instituted the three established weekday prayers of Shacharit (morning), Mincha (afternoon), and Maariv (evening), respectively; it is King David, known as "the fourth leg" of G-d’s throne, who is seen as being the first to establish the tradition of serving G-d from midnight to dawn, as he himself writes in Psalms: "I will arise at midnight to give thanks to you…" (Psalms 119:62) In fact, the Talmud states that every night at midnight a northern wind would blow through King David’s bedroom window and strike the strings of his harp, hanging above him; the instrument would sound, waking him up, and he would spend the rest of the night singing to G-d and learning Torah. (Berachot 3b)
David, corresponding to the final hei of the Tetragrammaton, completes it….
In more Kabbalistic terms, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob correspond to the lofty Divine Emanations (or sefirot) of chesed, gevura, and tiferet, respectively; David is associated with malchut, the manifestation below of all supernal spiritual flow from Above. In the same sense, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob relate to the letters yud, (the first) hei, and vav of the Tetragrammaton, the Divine Name Havayah, while David, corresponding to the final hei of the Tetragrammaton, completes it. For this reason the 16th Century Kabbalists, including the holy Arizal, who held that from their time on it is possible to bring about the Final Redemption, emphasized the importance of this Kabbalistic custom, which is taught to have the power to usher in the Messianic Era; it is said that in Safed, during that period of great anticipation of the Final Redemption (as well as tremendous revelations of Kabbalah), there were many entire congregations which assembled to pray and learn together at midnight with this intention.
In the 16th Century, the Safed Kabbalists codified a particular order of prayer for those who get up at this time, called "Tikkun Chatzot", or the "Midnight Rectification". Mostly consisting of Psalms and verses from the Torah relating to the destruction of the Holy Temple and our longing for the Redemption, it is divided into two major sections relating to the Matriarchs Rachel and Leah; this is fitting in that, as mentioned above, the Midnight Prayer corresponds to the final hei of the Tetragrammaton – the manifestation of the Divine Presence, or Feminine Principle (Nukva) below. In the language of the Kabbalah, once the "vessel" of the Feminine Principal, below, is "constructed" (or "repaired"), the divine Infinite Light from Above finds a means through which to be expressed and the world is complete.
Once printed in most Jewish prayer books, today it is mostly found in those of Sephardic communities and in a few Chasidic (Sefard) versions. Specifically, Tikkun Rachel begins Vidui, or the Confession Prayer, and then continues with Psalms 137 and 79, chapter 5 of the Book of Lamentations, and a number of verses from Isaiah, Jeremiah and Lamentations; many versions then include five poems written by 16th Century sages, including Rabbi Moshe Alshich of Safed. Next, Tikkun Leah includes Psalms 24, 42, 43, 20, 67, and 111; then, after some verses from Isaiah, is Psalms 51 and 126. Certain parts (sometimes the entire Tikkun Rachel) are omitted on certain holydays, including the New Moon and the entire Sabbatical Year in Israel. Due to the spiritual nature of Shabbat and some holidays, none of these passages are recited, in favor of study and meditation on the holiness of the day.
Kabbalistic texts abound with praises for those engage in divine service after midnight. In fact, the Zohar includes dozens of statements emphasizing its significance. The following is one of many examples:
Come and see, when a person rises at midnight to engage in Torah, the Holy Blessed One, focuses on him, as we have learned - for it is written: "You, who dwells in the gardens, friends [i.e. angels] listen attentively to your voice; let Me hear!" (Songs 8:13) And all the myriads [of angels] in the heavenly heights and all the [angelic] masters of praise who sing unto their Master all become silent because of the praise [brought about by] those engaged in Torah [at this time]. And they [the angelic forces] proclaim and say, ‘Behold! Bless G-d, all the servants of G-d!...’ (Psalms 134:1) You are the ones who bless G-d! It is you who are the praise of the Holy King! It is you who crown the King!... ‘…Those who stand in the house of G-d in the nights’ (ibid.) – these are the ones who are called the G-d's servants. It is they who are worthy of blessing the king, and their [act of] blessing is a blessing!" (Zohar II:13a)
And lest one think that this practice is limited to the sages of Jewish mysticism, the Talmud itself states, "Upon all those who engage in Torah in the nights, the Holy Blessed One draws down a ray of grace upon them the following day." (Hagigah 12b) In fact, the Shulchan Aruch, the standard Code of Jewish Law for all Jews, actually begins with this important foundation in Jewish spiritual practice.
So whether a person makes Tikkun Chatzot a part of their daily practice, or only occasionally (at least weekly, according to Shulchan Aruch HaRav1), the effect, according to Jewish mysticism, is immense. In fact, in the words of the Komarno Rebbe, to rise at midnight to study, sing and pray to G-d is "a taste of the World to Come" – something whose spiritual value is actually felt and experienced. May we merit to connect to this light of the Divine Presence!