Momentous.

Inspirational.

Historic.

Awe-inspiring.

All of these words can be applied to describe the 13th Siyum HaShas held on January 1 at MetLife Stadium, and viewed via livestream by Jews around the globe.

But these are just words, and words alone cannot adequately express what we felt, sitting in an open-air stadium on a frigid January day, frozen in place not by the biting wind, but by the dazzling spectacle that we were so privileged to behold.

Daf Yomi, the study program whereby Jews around the world study one page of Talmud each and every day, was the brainchild of Rabbi Meir Shapiro (1887-1933), esteemed Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Chachmei Lublin in Poland. He conceived of this program as a way to unite world Jewry through Torah, such that no matter where a Jew travels throughout the world, he can immediately find like-minded people studying the very same page of the Gemara that he is studying that day. The idea of Daf Yomi is to harness the universality of the Torah in order to bring together Gd-fearing Jews the world over. (Indeed, the original proponent of the idea, Rabbi Moshe Menachem Spivak, envisioned people dating their correspondences with that day’s daf in place of a calendar date!)

Agudath Israel officially launched the Daf Yomi program on Rosh Hashanah, 5684 (September 11, 1923), and it has continued without interruption ever since – for nearly a full century.

 

You’ve Got to the Turn That Page!

 

Sitting in MetLife Stadium on that January day, all one had to do was look around at the tens of thousands in attendance in order to feel the power of a tzibbur (community).

The rabbis teach us that when Jews gather together, each individual’s influence is amplified by the connection with the others. Just ten Jews praying together is enough to bring the Shechinah – the Divine Presence – into the shul, and the effect only grows with the size of the crowd. Merely joining together with such large numbers of Jews, all with one point of focus, can have a life-altering effect. This power – which was one of the intended goals of the Daf Yomi’s founders – was powerfully expressed by Rabbi Mordechai Sultan, a longtime educator in the community, in a recent interview.

Rabbi Sultan has been learning “the Daf” for 15 years. I asked him how he got started, and what it is that keeps him going.

He explained that he began just before the 11th Siyum Hashas, a couple of years after he started teaching. The vast amounts of time and attention he was investing in  preparing his classes came at the expense of his regular learning time, and he sought a source of motivation to continue his personal growth in Torah. He found it in the Daf Yomi.

“You have family semahot, you have other events and obligations, but the Daf Yomi can’t be ignored,” Rabbi Sultan reflects. “There are no excuses, no considerations. At the end of the day, you’ve got to find a way to turn the page. I’ve learned the Daf at weddings, on trips, even at Yankee Stadium. You gotta turn the page.”

And what about the family? Do they understand when Daddy can’t be there because he’s learning the Daf?

“They’ve been making it happen!” Rabbi Sultan exclaims. “Without their support, it wouldn’t happen.”

This is the koah hatzibbur – the power of a community that Rabbi Shapiro set in motion. And never was this power more dramatically on display than at the 13th Siyum HaShas last month.

 

Elevating the Jewish Nation

The first major address was delivered by Rabbi Malkiel Kotler, Rosh Yeshiva of Beth Medrash Gavoha (BMG) in Lakewood. Citing the Gemara’s statement that Abbayeh would make a celebration for the entire yeshiva whenever a student finished a masechet, Rabbi Kotler explained that when one learns Torah, it becomes part of his essence, and this has the effect of elevating the entire Jewish Nation. Even those who did not finish the Shas, said the Rosh Yeshiva, bonded together with those who did in celebrating their accomplishment.

Rabbi Yaakov Perlow, Novominsker Rebbe and the head of Agudath Israel, spoke of Torah’s timelessness, and how it is the very soul of Am Yisrael. The only reason that we are still here while the major empires of ancient times have crumbled, the Rebbe explained, is the Torah. He added that the root of the word “Torah” means “guidance,” as the Torah provides guidance for us in every aspect of our lives.

Rabbi Perlow then made an impassioned plea to the ruling powers in the Land of Israel, emphasizing that they also deserve to take part in Torah learning, and they also have the right to the title of The Chosen People. As stewards of the city of Hashem, he said, they have the responsibility to ensure the continuance of Torah education, both for others and for themselves. The Rebbe implored our brothers to return to the bet midrash and take part in our shared heritage.

 

Every Single Day

Rabbi Yissachar Frand, Rosh Yeshiva in Ner Yisrael of Baltimore, electrified the crowd with his account of how even the Nazis ym”sh realized that the Talmud is the soul of the Jewish People. He also related the story of how an entire farming community in Israel returned to Hashem as a result of spending some time studying Gemara during a shemittah year. He then exhorted the crowd to “not let the perfect be the enemy of the good!” Though the task of completing Shas may seem daunting, he said, the trick is to view every day as its individual accomplishment. In that way, one step at a time, the mountain of Shas can be climbed.

This sentiment was echoed by Rav Aharon Schiff, Chief Rabbi of Antwerp. He told that one day, when Rabbi Meir Shapiro was a young boy, he found his mother crying because the melamed (private tutor) had quit to take a different job.

“Why are you crying?” little Meir asked. “We’ll find another melamed tomorrow and I’ll continue my studies.”

His mother replied that she wasn’t worried about the next day; she was crying for that day’s Torah learning, which was lost irretrievably. Rabbi Shapiro internalized this lesson and went on to found the learning of the Daf Yomi, predicated on the concept of never missing a day. Each day is precious and must be utilized to its maximum potential.

“You are the Team”

After the 12th Siyum Hashas in 2012, a group of men from Shaare Zion approached Rabbi Raymond Haber and asked him to deliver a Daf Yomi class in the shul. From that small, core handful of individuals, the group has now grown to over 50 participants, many of whom have completed the entire cycle.

Beyond the phenomenal numerical growth, though, Rabbi Haber sees within his students the profound effects of a long-term commitment to learning Torah. He says that when you need to pull out the Gemara and sweat over the Daf on a plane to China, or review the class recording on your way to work, the commitment solidifies. As he put it in speaking to one of the members at the Siyum: “Usually, when you come to this stadium, you are rooting and cheering for your team. Today, you are the team. It’s your victory.”

The unparalleled joy of triumph was palpably felt by one and all during the dancing after the completion of the Shas at MetLife.

“We were dancing like crazy,” Rabbi Haber said. “All these guys that put in the work, you could really see the simcha [joy].”

Mr. Bert Hidary is one of the community’s Daf Yomi pioneers, and a founding member of the BSZ study group. The class is presented by Rabbi Prag one day a week, and by the members themselves on the other days. The group just began its third cycle of the Daf Yomi together, and several new members joined after the Siyum. The close bonds that develop between the group’s members are evident from the way Mr. Hidary talks about the group. He describes the experience of  staying up late at night to work on the Daf, about text messages sent back and forth during the day resolving problems that arose during the class, and about going beyond the basic understanding of the text.

“What we have to remember,” he says, “is that we’re just scratching the surface. We can’t be satisfied with just reading the Gemara.”

He then describes the joy of celebrating together at the Siyum, excitedly telling me about dancing at MetLife, and about the siyum held in Shaare Zion’s social hall on Motzaeh Shabbat. Over 500 people attended the event, which was held jointly by all the different Daf Yomi classes in Shaare Zion, beautifully celebrating the Jewish Nation’s unbreakable bond with the Torah.

Whatever It Takes

No celebration of Daf Yomi is complete without the stories of individual heroism that emerge, and we were not disappointed.

Rabbi Shlomo Farhi, rabbi of the Safra Synagogue in Manhattan, related to the gathering the story of a man who, stricken with ALS, nevertheless persisted in learning the Daf each day. Though the doctors had given him but a few months to live, Mendy Rosenberg committed himself at the last Siyum to finish Shas. Though he no longer has control over his body, he acquired specialized computer equipment that allows him to communicate using the fluttering of his eyelids. This is how he has persevered, and how he has completed the entire Shas. Whatever it takes.

This point was emphasized by Rabbi Reuven Feinstein during his address to the crowd. After reading a letter that HaRav Chaim Kanievsky addressed to the Siyum’s attendees, Rabbi Feinstein encouraged us to do whatever it takes, to never say, “I tried enough.” He referenced the well-known story told in the Gemara about the student who needed to hear every point 400 times before he understood it, and urged us to take that lesson for ourselves, as well.

An Eruption of Joy

HaRav Shmuel Kamenetsky, Rosh Yeshiva of the Philadelphia Yeshiva, was introduced to conduct the actual siyum, reading the final lines of the Talmud. The Rosh Yeshiva noted that the true joy of a siyum lies not in the completion of the material, but in the commitment we display by immediately beginning our learning anew. He illustrated this point by observing the practice to dance with the Torah on Simhat Torah not immediately upon finishing the reading, but after beginning the next cycle.

Rav Kamenetsky then proceeded to recite the traditional “Hadran” text from a volume of Gemara that was printed in the DP camps after the Holocaust, symbolizing how our nation has never let go of Torah learning, even in its darkest periods.

After the siyum, the dancing began. The crowd of nearly 100,000, which had sat respectfully throughout the long ceremony despite the freezing temperatures, suddenly erupted from their seats. Rows of men paraded up and down the rows. People were dancing in place in the stands. Huge circles formed at field level. The massive stadium pulsated with a single joyous heartbeat, every individual participant overcome by jubilant, ecstatic joy. It was overpowering. It was unforgettable. It was the story of a nation and its love for the Torah.

Connecting With Yaakov Avinu

Rav Aharon Feldman, Rosh Yeshiva of Ner Yisrael in Baltimore, immediately began the 14th cycle with the opening lines of Masechet Berachot. He noted how appropriate it is to start with the halachot of blessings and prayers, which teach us that everything is in the hands of Hashem, and we are in control of nothing – not even our own lives. For everything we must pray to and thank Hashem.

The final speaker of the night was HaRav Uren Reich, Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshiva Ohr Zecharia in Lakewood. The Rosh Yeshiva spoke about Yosef Hatzadik, and the message he sent to his father, Yaakov Avinu, with his brothers. The Midrash states that when Yosef was leaving his father’s house for the last time, Yaakov accompanied him partway. Yosef told his father that he did not require accompaniment, as he was not Yaakov’s guest, but Yaakov explained that the reason for accompanying guests is for the departing traveler know that someone cares for him enough to see him off. This awareness gives him the strength and encouragement he needs to confront the dangers that lurk during travel. Many years later, when Yosef’s brothers reported to Yaakov that Yosef was alive, Yaakov asked incredulously, “Is my son Yosef still alive?!” Rabbi Reich explains that Yaakov could not believe that Yosef could still be a worthy spiritual heir to Yaakov Avinu after living for 22 years in Egypt. Yosef therefore sent his father a reminder of their last conversation, to demonstrate that throughout his time in Egypt, he kept Yaakov’s image in his mind, and maintained their spiritual connection. We, too, the Rosh Yeshiva taught, must keep our minds and hearts connected to Yaakov Avinu, to our illustrious ancestry, in order to maintain our spiritual vitality through our dark and difficult exile.

After kaddish and arbit, the crowd finally began to disperse, and we all made our way home. Though the Siyum itself was over, the participants all left with a firm, resolute determination to renew their commitment to learning, and to meet again, please Gd, in seven and a half years, in the rebuilt city of Yerushalayim.