At the First International Congress of Agudath Israel, held in Vienna in 1923, the Eastern European Rabbi Meir Shapiro proposed that Jews around the world study a double-sided page (daf) of the Babylonian Talmud together each day. Rabbi Shapiro saw this global engagement with a daily Talmud folio (daf yomi) as advancing both Jewish knowledge and Jewish unity.
If a person devotes about an hour a day to studying the Babylonian Talmud’s 2,711 double-sided pages, he or she can complete its volumes in about seven and a half years. Jan. 4 marked the 13th Global Siyum HaShas of Daf Yomi – the completion of the Babylonian Talmud by studying a folio a day – since 1923.
Though I did not feel compelled to take on this daunting task of daily study, I admire those committed to the seven-and-half-year cycle, and eagerly sought to participate in the celebrations of their accomplishments taking place in New Jersey and Providence.
The Providence Hebrew Day School and Congregation Mishkon Tfiloh’s Rabbi Yechezkel Yudkowsky arranged for a bus from Providence to MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey, where the main North American Siyum HaShas gathering took place on New Year’s Day. About a dozen of those on the bus, myself included, received tickets to attend the event from the Olami Foundation, an affiliate of Rhode Island’s Project Shoresh, which is run by Rabbis Naftali Karp and Noach Karp.
MetLife Stadium was packed with about 88,000 people. The theme of the event was “One Nation. One Siyum.”
Though the overwhelming majority of attendees were Haredi Jews from North America, our Project Shoresh group was seated in the Olami section, which included diverse groups of Jews who had traveled from as far away as Germany and South Africa for the celebration.
The stadium program began with a communal Mincha service and the recitation of Psalms, and was followed by speeches by Yeshiva heads and Hasidic rebbes, and video presentations celebrating individuals around the world, including Israeli soldiers, who had completed the cycle.
Part of the program was dedicated to Masmidei HaSiyum, a project designed to include children in the worldwide Siyum HaShas celebrations by offering prizes and other incentives for young people learning Talmud, Mishna or Torah in their homes. There were many children on our Providence bus, and thousands in the stadium.
After this, there was singing and dancing led by several vocalists and choirs.
The communal completion of the last page of the Talmud was almost immediately followed by publicly beginning its first page, thus commencing the seven-and-a-half-year cycle once more. No doubt quite a few people in the crowd were inspired by the gathering to join those already determined to embark on the new cycle.
A significant portion of the rest of the event was devoted to honoring the 6 million Jewish victims of the Holocaust. Rabbi Avi Shafran, director of public affairs and spokesman for Agudath Israel of America and a columnist for the newspaper Hamodia, explained that the gathering was “dedicated to the concept of Torah’s primacy in every Jew’s life” and was also “a memorial to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust.”
In the narrative of Agudath Israel’s Siyum HaShas, the fact that Judaism flourishes today signifies the defeat of the Jewish nation’s enemies. “The celebration of Torah as life, in a poignant way, represents the perseverance of the Jewish people and its ultimate victory over the Nazis and over all those over the course of history who have wished to destroy the Jewish faith and people,” Rabbi Shafran said.
Many of the speakers stressed that Jewish unity was evident at the gathering. As Rabbi Noach Karp quipped after the event, “It took a few days to thaw from the weather, but our souls and hearts are still warm from the sense of unity and Jewish pride in the stadium.”
The Siyum HaShas festivities continued in Providence, where Rabbi Shafran, who worked at Providence’s New England Academy of Torah until 1994, was invited to be a guest scholar during Shabbat on Jan. 3-4 as part of the celebrations put on by the local Daf Yomi Chaburah. On Friday evening, he spoke at the home of Rabbi Avrohom and Lynn Jakubowicz, and he spoke the following morning at Sha’arei Tefilla, in Providence. Also that morning, a Kiddush was held at Congregation Beth Sholom, in Providence, in honor of Michael Pelcovits, who was a participant in the 13th Daf Yomi Siyum HaShas.
On Saturday evening, the Jewish community was invited to a melave malke (post-Shabbat meal) sponsored by Ben Zion Taube, of Pawtucket, to celebrate the local Daf Yomi Chaburah’s completion of the Babylonian Talmud at the Kollel Center for Jewish Studies, in Providence. There was singing, dancing and dining, as well as a third talk by Rabbi Shafran.
The occasion marked the third time that Taube has concluded the Daf Yomi cycle. He is now working on completing the less-studied Jerusalem Talmud with Norman Rosenfeld, of Providence.
“We learn weekdays at 5:30 a.m.,” Taube said. “Sundays we take it easy and start at 6:45.”