Monday, January 6, 2020

Completing the Cycle of Talmud

In August 1923, weeks before the High Holidays, Rabbi Meir Shapiro, dean of the Chachmei Lublin Yeshiva in Poland, proposed that the entire Jewish world study a daily folio of Talmud (a folio consists of one page, both sides). According to this study plan, not only would Jews be studying the Talmud, but all Jews would literally be “on the same page.” In Rabbi Shapiro’s words: “A Jew leaves the United States and travels to Brazil or Japan, and he first goes to the Beis Medrash (study hall), where he finds everyone learning the same daf (folio) that he himself learned that day. Could there be greater unity of hearts than this?”

The international study of the Daf Yomi (daily folio) formally began on Rosh Hashana 5684, corresponding to September 11, 1923, a date that would eventually be associated with infamy. Rabbi Shapiro pitched his Daf Yomi idea to Agudath Israel, and its leadership warmly embraced the campaign. On that Rosh Hashana eve, the Gerrer Rebbe, Rabbi Avraham Mordechai Alter, (known as the Imrei Emes) asked that a tractate Berachot (the first tractate in the Talmud) be brought to him, and began studying its first folio. His chassidim, and tens of thousands of fellow Jews, followed suit. Since that night, through this past Shabbat – the day on which the last folio of the Talmud was studied for this cycle, the Daf Yomi program has completed 13 cycles, or the study of 25,243 folios of Talmud!

The entire Talmud contains 63 tractates, consisting of 2,711 folios. It takes close to seven-and-a-half years to complete a cycle of the entire Talmud when studying a folio a day. (Amazingly, and without coordination, Berlin’s Holocaust “Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe” contains exactly 2,711 slabs to seemingly appear as graves.)

Upon completion of a cycle, it has become customary to mark that accomplishment with a celebration known as a siyum. On February 2, 1931, the first siyum took place, at Rabbi Shapiro’s yeshiva in Lublin, Poland. In the United States, each subsequent Siyum HaShas (Shas is an acronym for shisha sedarim, representing the six orders of the Mishnah which form the basis of the Talmud) has gotten larger. In 1997, Agudath Israel of America, the sponsor of the Siyum HaShas, rented out two major indoor sporting venues in the New York area, Madison Square Garden and the (then-titled) Continental Arena. The 2012 Siyum HaShas was held in New Jersey at the outdoor MetLife Stadium, home to the New York area’s two football teams, drawing 90,000 participants. The Siyum HaShas held on New Year’s Day 2020 (a few days prior to the official completion of Shas) also took place at MetLife Stadium, with the overflow crowd attending Brooklyn’s Barclay Center indoor sporting venue.

In Biblical times, on the Sukkot festival, after the Sabbatical year, Jewish men, women, children and “strangers,” were called up to Hakhel, to literally gather the people together, that they “may hear, and that they may learn, and fear the Lord your God, and take care to do all the words of this Torah” (Deuteronomy 31:11-12.) The King of Israel himself read from the Torah and as the entire nation heard the words of the Torah from the king’s own mouth, and were inspired. Nothing in contemporary Jewish life approaches the impact of that ancient event save for the Siyum HaShas, which occurs not every seven years as does Hakhel, but every seven-and-a-half years.

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