Tikkun Ḥatzot: Getting Right at Midnight — An Introduction to the Midnight Rite
One of the wonderful things about Kabbalistic devotion is that you can practice it at any time of the day or night. Our tradition has so many prayers, rituals and meditations that you can find something for just about any situation. Do you find that you don’t have enough time in the day for prayer and meditation? Well, don’t worry there are plenty of hours in the night too! During the winter, when the nights are longer and the days shorter, it is the custom on many pious people to take on saying Tikkun Chatzot. As we are now in that season I would like to once again share this study and liturgy. Special thanks to Aharon Varady of The Open Siddur Project for his input, and great skill in editing and formatting.
Curious students who have spent much time digging through treasuries of great prayer books often notice the Tikkun Ḥatzot. It’s almost impossible to miss in most Nusaḥ Ari z”l and Sepharadi siddurim, being placed right in the middle of the morning prayers and followed by a pretty good helping of suggested study material such as mishnayot, Zohar, or other kabbalistic tracts.
The popular practice of a night time prayer vigil is not well understood. In the siddur, most people pass by it because they don’t know what to do with it. Others are confused because of the lack of consistency in its presentation from one siddur to the next. At the end of the day, this ritual would be regarded as a rite reserved for the pious — for the great tzadikim who made regular use of it.
Though there is much variance in the way this ritual became practiced among different Jewish communities, it became more popular over time. Lifestyles changed as Jews moved from the countryside into cities, and the regular sun-up to sun-down routine became less fixed. Based on biblical example the rabbis took up prayer at night. They cited the following verse in Eikha on rising up at the hours of the change of the guards:
ק֣וּמִי׀ רֹ֣נִּי בליל בַלַּ֗יְלָה לְרֹאשׁ֙ אַשְׁמֻר֔וֹת שִׁפְכִ֤י כַמַּ֙יִם֙ לִבֵּ֔ךְ נֹ֖כַח פְּנֵ֣י אֲדֹנָ֑י שְׂאִ֧י אֵלָ֣יו כַּפַּ֗יִךְ עַל־נֶ֙פֶשׁ֙ עֽוֹלָלַ֔יִךְ הָעֲטוּפִ֥ים בְּרָעָ֖ב בְּרֹ֥אשׁ כָּל־חוּצֽוֹת׃
“Arise, cry out in the night,
At the beginning of the watches;
Pour out thy heart like water
Before the face of the Lord”
(Lamentations 2:19) 
Lamentations 2:19 would be the basis of the first section known as Tikkun Raḥel, after the biblical matriarch. Because Raḥel was known as a biblical example of suffering and heartache (see Jeremiah 31:14-16), the Tikkun Raḥel was sanctified as a time for people to let out their inner most sufferings and cry out to G-d.
They also cited the words of Tehillim:
חֲצֽוֹת־לַ֗יְלָה אָ֭קוּם לְהוֹד֣וֹת לָ֑ךְ עַ֝֗ל מִשְׁפְּטֵ֥י צִדְקֶֽךָ׃
“At midnight I will rise up to give thanks to You, for your righteous judgment.”
This would be the basis of formulating the second part, Tikkun Leah, named after the other matriarch of Israel and wife of Jacob. This section would be comprised of prayers and songs of praise for salvation, to raise one out of despair after pouring out their heart. It was understood by the Rabbis that when Israel went into exile the Presence of G-d also descended into exile with us. This was understood as a moment for one’s soul to attempt to cleave to G-d. One would reflect and take comfort in G-d being close to us and our trouble; thanking Him joyfully because He is always faithful to save.
Likewise following their understanding of Psalms 134:1′s reference to “standing in the house of G-d at night” as meaning standing at the bimah learning, they deemed it was appropriate for one to study the Torah at night. Thus was added the custom of studying mishanyot, Zohar, or other mystical works at the end of this prayer vigil.
The rabbis thereby found a justification for nighttime prayer and study. They thus formulated from our tradition a very stirring custom of personal devotion. Because this often meant people interrupting their sleep in order to fulfill this tikkun it was placed after the blessings one says when they awake, where it now is placed in most all Nusaḥ Ari z”l siddurim and comprehensive prayerbooks of the other traditions.
At the very beginning of his Shulḥan Arukh (Code of Jewish Law), Rav Yosef Caro (1488-1575) states the following halakhic code:
א. כארי לעמוד בבוקר לעבודת בוראו, שיהא הוא מעורר השחר.
ב. המשכים להתחנן לפני בוראו – יכוין לשעות שמשתנות המשמרות, שהן: בשליש הלילה, ולסוף שני שלישי הלילה, ולסוף הלילה, שהתפילה שיתפלל באותם השעות על החורבן ועל הגלות רצויה.
ג. ראוי לכל ירא שמים שיהא מיצר ודואג על חורבן בית המקדש.
1. One should strengthen himself like a lion to get up in the morning to serve his creator. He should get up early enough to welcome in the dawn.2. One who wishes to get up early and pray before his creator should try to do so at the times where the angels change shifts. This occurs after one third of the night, after two thirds and after the night is over.
3. The prayer that one prays at those times should be concerning the destruction of the Beit Hamikdash (Holy Temple) and on the exile. 
Rav Karo and his circle of kabbalists in Tzfat made a structured service for the change of shifts around midnight — the Tikkun Ḥatzot (literally, midnight rectification). This practice, as most of the liturgy that was adopted by the mystical schools of Eretz Yisrael, was based on a Sepharadi liturgy. It would be comprised of several prayers, confessions, Psalms, Lamentations and other scriptural passages relating to the churva – the destruction that led to exile. Over time various communities and schools of thought added liturgical dirges (kinot) and meditations to it that were written by kabbalist rabbis.
In the Ashkenazi tradition many kinot were added to the readings and would eventually make up the majority of the Tikkun Ḥatzot in some cases. The Sefaradim, however only added yichudim (literally, unifications) spiritual meditations for arousing the presence of the Shechina – the Presence of G-d — to help bring about a tikkun olam, healing of the world.
The Ari z”l adopted the Sepharadic liturgy when he settled in Eretz Yisrael, bringing these yichudim into his nusaḥ. When the hassidic movement coalesced in the early 18th century, it followed the example of the Ari z”l, and the Tikkun Ḥatzot was absorbed into their siddurim. As the Nusah Ari z”l predated the authorship of the kinot, hassidic siddurim did not contain them. In later years other ḥassidim would adopt kinot and yichud. Rebbe Naḥman of Breslov would also use Ḥatzot as an opportunity for practicing hitbodedut – heartfelt personal prayer and meditation.
When the Baal HaTanya [Rav Shneur Zalman of Lyadi] formulated his siddur, his general approach was to make the text usable for people of all traditions. One of the ways of harmonizing was to not add the various lengthy liturgical songs and poems that were different from place to place. He focused more on the actual prayers and the scriptures; what was necessary for the common man. Likewise he also dropped the Yichud from his siddur in almost all cases, as being non-essential.
In the Siddur Torah Ohr of the Baal HaTanya (the ḤaBaD siddur that predated the now more widely used Siddur Tehillat Hashem) the Tikkun Ḥatzot was placed at the end with many various prayers and rituals that were paired with study material. As previously stated, the Baal HaTanya edited his text based on logical variances he applied broadly to his siddur, his selections follow the same framework here. The only variance aside from that is that he did not include the confessions (Tavo L’fanecha and Ashamnu) as he saw it being of such importance that he included it in the Bedtime Shema said before one goes to bed so that one would not miss out on it if the nights were short and would not be able to wake up for Tikkun Ḥatzot. This ritual would never become commanded, it would always stand as an optional form of devotion; though the Baal HaTanya would encourage people to attempt to sayTikkun Ḥatzot at least once a week, preferably on Thursday night (prior to Erev Shabbat).
Sadly Tikkun Ḥatzot did not make it into later editions of Siddur Tehillat Hashem, which was edited based on the teachings of the Lubvaticher Rebbe, of blessed memory; although he was known to say Tikkun Ḥatzot every night, as this was attested to by the previous Rebbe. 
Below is the official ḤaBaD text and structure presented for the first time in our generation, taking its place with the rest of the Baal HaTanya‘s liturgical work. To make this text broadly usable, and in keeping with the sections of the Nusaḥ Ha-Ari z”l I have previously presented, I decided to write all new instructions in English. I also added the confession in a shaded box, for people who follow this custom.
This one ritual stands out as an example of Jewish innovation, designed to work with the time one had at their disposal. No longer was one mostly constrained to practicing their devotion during the daytime hours — in keeping with the schedule of the farmer that rose when the rooster crowed. If one was to stay up all night, or get up at midnight, or get up with the change of the guards in their city; these were all appropriate times to do something spiritual as well. Likewise it also showed the importance of giving a spiritual place for people to express their deepest needs, with tears.
- The verse continues, “Lift up thy hands toward Him
For the life of thy young children,
That faint for hunger
At the head of every street.’”
From The Holy Scriptures According to the Masoretic Text Lamentations 2:19. Jewish Publication Society:1917.
- From “Shulchan Arach: Halachos of a person’s morning preparations: Chapter 1 – Laws of awakening in the morning..” Translation by Jay Dinovitser. Accessed December 12, 2010.
- [hitbodedut — from the root בדד boded, to isolate oneself, opening one’s heart in sincere verbal discourse with the Holy Blessed One. –Aharon Varady]
- “In our bereaved generation, however, when not all are capable of turning their hearts instantly from one extreme [to the other, from humility to joy], it is advised that teshuvah tata’ah be practiced earlier, at Tikkun Ḥatzot. [This is an especially appropriate time for the spiritual stocktaking that leads to the humility of a “broken and contrite heart],” as noted above. Whoever cannot do this nightly should maintain an absolute minimum of once every week, before the Shabbat.”. “Tanya: Iggeret haTeshuvah §10”, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Lyadi. Accessed December 12, 2010.
- “Despite the Previous Rebbe’s joy at the Rebbe’s arrival, his poor health prevented him from coming to greet the Rebbe personally. Instead, he delegated four of his elder chassidim: R. Yisrael Jacobson, R. Shmuel Levitin, R. Eliyahu Simpson, and R. Shlomo Aharon Kazarnovsky. By way of introduction, he told them: ‘I will reveal to you who he is. He recites Tikkun Chatzos every night. He is proficient in the [Talmud] Bavli by heart, together with [the glosses of] Ran, Rosh, and Rif, the [Talmud] Yerushalmi together with its commentaries, Rambam, and Likkutei Torah with all its references. Go and greet him.’” “Paths of Providence: Greeting The Rebbe” SICHOS IN ENGLISH. Accessed December 12, 2010.
- Tikkun Chatzot: Do we say the Midnight Rite During Spring and Summer? (hardcoremesorah.wordpress.com)
- Starting off the Spiritual New Year Right (hardcoremesorah.wordpress.com)