Celebrating Torah and Unity at the Siyum Hashas

Rabbi Yehuda Beyda

The music was lively, the dancing feverish. Hand-in-hand, men who knew each other well, swayed in sync with those who did not know each other at all, jumping, clapping and spinning around in circles. Wave after wave of ecstatic dancers filled every empty space in the massive venue, pulsating with the joy of Torah.

It was the culmination of seven and a half years of toil, a celebration of the stupendous accomplishment shared by so many, the reveling in the unparalleled pleasure of learningGemara (the oral Torah). Over the course of 2,711 consecutive days, through joyous times and tragic events. transcending the boundaries of time and space, the goal was attained. Every morning, every evening, daily, without fail, men committed to the Daf Yomi sit down to the work of unraveling the intricacies of the Talmud, mustering all their concentration and brainpower to uncover the Divine meaning contained therein. This is not merely an exercise of analytical skills, or even a study in Jewish Law; this is bonding with the Creator of the Universe.

The Stadium That Became a Sanctuary

And after years of anticipation and preparation, on August 1, 2012, it all came together. Over 90,000 Jews gathered at Met Life Stadium in New Jersey’s Meadowlands, to proclaim our undying love and deep-seated commitment to Gd. The Siyum of the 12thcycle of the daf yomi was celebrated by all walks of Jewish life. Hassidim, Ashkenazim and Sepharadim of all stripes and colors and from every origin and background, all came to participate in the celebration of the Jewish Nation. The evening began with a heartfelt Minha prayer, after which Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, Executive Vice President of Agudath Israel of America, launched the program with his opening remarks, then turning the podium over to the event’s chairman, Mr. Elly Kleinman. Mr. Kleinman shared an inspiring story of self-sacrificefor the sake of Torah, and emphasized the central importance of Torah study in Jewish life. His address was followed by a video tribute to Mr. Jerome Schottenstein, a.h.,in whose memory the evening was dedicated.

The evening’s master of ceremonies, Mr. Shlomo Yehuda Rechnitz, then took the stage to introduce Rabbi Shmuel Kamenetzky, shlita, Rosh YeshivatPhiladelphia. Rabbi Kamenetzky spoke of the sense of community that is integral to the experience of Torah learning. The Rosh Yeshiva noted that the Torah was not given to the Patriarchs, or to Yaakov’s twelve sons; the gift of Torah was brought into the world only once the nation stood as one at the foot of Mount Sinai. As such, we must bear in mind that when we learn, we do so not only for ourselves, but for all of the nation of Israel. Rabbi Kaminetzky also urged everyone to expand the scope of their learning, a call which was echoed throughout the night. He said that his illustrious father, Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetzky, z.s.l., would demand of those who completed the Daf Yomi cycle to commit to a higher level of learning for the next cycle, and to constantly strive to improve the quality and standards of their study.

Torah in All Languages, in All Lands

After a musical interlude, the Head ofAgudath Israel, the Novominsker Rebbe, shlita, got up to speak. Starting in Yiddish and continuing in English, the Rebbe noted that the Talmud and its commentaries were compiled in many languages and in many different locales. The Mishnah was written in Israel in Hebrew; the Gemara in Babylonia in Aramaic; the Rif spent the twilight years of his life in Spain ; Rashi lived in France and spoke French; and the Rambam resided in Egypt and wrote in Arabic. Today, thanks in no small part to the Schottenstein translation of the Gemara, tens of thousands of people in the United States and other countries study Talmud in the English language , continuing the spread of Torah throughout the world.

The crowd was then shown a video presentation about the Daf Yomi through the ages, tracing the winding path of the project from Poland, through Auschwitz and the DP camps, across the oceans and around the world.

Legions of the King

The next speaker was Rabbi David Olewski, Rosh Yeshiva of the Gerrer Yeshiva in Brooklyn, who began by reading a note with a special blessing from the Gerrer Rebbe to the assemblage . Rabbi Olewski then described, with powerful emotion, the “love affair” between the Jewish people and the Torah, the powerful passion that we have for the Torah which overcomes any obstacles that block our pursuit of learning. Not vacation, not business, not even family – nothing will keep us away from our study of Torah.

A special and moving tribute was then paid to the “Masmidei Hasiyum,” the children who learned Torah in memory of the 1.5 million children who were killed in the Holocaust. Over the last seven and a half years, 16,623 children learned more than 1.6 million mishnayot, and over six million lines of Gemara – a remarkable achievement and a most fitting way to preserve the memory of the victims of the Holocaust.

Rabbi Gedalyah Weinberger, Chairman of Agudath Yisrael’s Daf Yomi Commission, then introduced the actual siyum, which was recited by Rabbi Aryeh Malkiel Kotler, shlita,Rosh Yeshiva of Lakewood. The Rosh Yeshiva prefaced the siyum by extolling the virtue of learning Torah. “Those that learn Daf Yomi are the legions of The King,” he proclaimed, adding that Torah draws us into the close sphere of Hashem. He then recited the traditional “hadran” text, which was followed by the recitation ofKaddish by Mr. Jay Schottenstein, who sponsored the event. Lively music was played and the attendees erupted in spirited dancing, while the screens showed videos of different siyum celebrations live around the world.

No Spending Limits

The next speaker was Rabbi Yissachar Frand of Baltimore’s Yeshivat Ner Yisrael, who emphasized the level of dedication needed for Torah. Citing the story of the great sage Hillel, who would spend half his gross income on the price of admission to a Torah class, Rabbi Frand said, “For life itself there are no spending limits.” Torah is the lifeblood of our people, the rabbi declared, and for that there can never be any compromising. In a similar vein, the next speaker, Rabbi Yitzchak Scheiner of Yeshivat Kamenetz in Israel, averred that “if it is as easy to close the Gemara as it is to open it, we must question our love of Torah.” After reading aloud a message from Rav Aharon Leib Steinman, shlita, Rabbi Scheiner recounted personal memories of Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, z.s.l., who had passed away less than a week before the siyum. He then proposed that everyone pledge – beli neder (without a formal acceptance of a vow) – to learn one page of Gemera together with the Jewish Nation, every day, in atonement for the sin of straying from the singular worship of Gd, which, as our Rabbis tell us, was the cause of the destruction of the First Temple. As for correcting the sin that caused the fall of the Second Temple – sin’at hinam (baseless hatred) – he proposed that everyone undertake each day, to study portions of the books Hafetz Hayyim and Shemirat Halashon, which deal with the laws of gossip and slander.

After a video tribute to the devoted maggidei shiur, those who deliver the daily Daf Yomi classes, Rabbi Yaakov Hillel, shlita, was called upon to begin the new cycle. He spoke about the importance of unity and its impact on Torah learning, observing that we thank Hashem in the Haggadah for bringing us to Mount Sinai independent of His giving us the Torah at that site. The rabbi explained that we are grateful for the sublime level of unity achieved at Mount Sinai – “like one man, with one heart,” as Rashi famously comments. This is especially important today, said the rabbi, when we are faced with so many challenges as a nation, both from without and within.

Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv and former Chief Rabbi of Israel, who survived the Holocaust as a young boy , then spoke in memory of the six million Jews who perished in the Holocaust. His moving words were followed by a stirring hashkaba (prayer for the departed), which was chanted by the world-renowned hazzan Yitzchak Meir Helfgot.

The program concluded with a powerful address by the Klausenberger Rebbe, shlita, who described the Almighty’s immense love for the Jewish People. He cited the comment in the Midrash that the Oral Torah was taught to Moshe Rabbenu only at night, and was transmitted orally to safeguard it from the control of foreign nations. This teaches us, said the Rebbe, that Hashem’s love is manifest even when we sin and are subsequently driven into exile . By establishing the Talmud as an oral tradition, the Almighty ensured that the Jewish people will continue to diligently study Torah, and at the same time secured the promise that Torah will remain exclusive to His nation – even throughout our exile.. The Rebbe then led the assemblage in a formal acceptance of ol Malchut Shamayim (the yoke of Divine Kingship).

Rabbi Eliezer Ginsberg led a minyan for Arbit, and the sound of tens of thousands of voices responding “Yehe Sheme Rabbah mevarach” thundered throughout the stadium, a fitting way to end such an inspiring evening. The throngs returned home knowing that the experience and awesome display of kevod Shamayim (honor for Gd) left an impact that will remain with them throughout their lives.

The Woman’s Role in Daf Yomi

While many people intuitively associate Daf Yomi as the men’s accomplishment, the women play an indispensable role in this spectacular project. The woman is the essence of her home, and it is her support that enables her husband to succeed in his Torah endeavors. The Daf Yomi program requires years of commitment, and Jewish men are able to dedicate themselves to learning every day because of the women who stand behind them.

Rebbetzin Shelia Feinstein, distinguished educator, beloved mentor, and esteemed principal of Shaare Torah Girls Elementary School, says that an estimated 20,000 Jewish women stood at the 12thSiyum Hashas with the knowledge that “this celebration is also mine.”

“We all felt that we were part of the celebration,” she adds. “Women are partners in Torah, and their encouragement, enthusiasm and support was an integral part of the Siyum Hashas. Torah learning is not solely the responsibility of the man; it is a partnership that should be shared by the entire family. When a wife shows joy and pride and a willingness to discuss what her husband has learned, he is motivated to continue learning and growing.”

Rebbetzin Feinstein recalls the time when women were first able to join in the Daf Yomi celebration. “In 1990, when I called Rabbi Mordechai Becher of the Agudah to ask if I could buy a woman’s ticket to the Siyum in Madison Square Garden, he replied that he didn’t know if women would be part of the event. Fortunately they were, and the rest is history. That was the first time in America that women were present at the Siyum Hashas.”

But without question, the 12thSiyum Hashas hosted the largest turnout of women by far, with almost the entire upper decks reserved for women’s seating.

“I am blessed, beli ayin hara, to have shared this unforgettable evening with four generations of my family,” Mrs. Feinstein shares. “Standing together in fellowship with 90,000 Jews was entirely breathtaking. When the congregation began singing, dancing and saying the Shema and Kaddish prayers together, the voices reverberated throughout the stadium. It was an awe-inspiring experience.”  – Frances Haddad

Security at the Siyum Hashas – The Unsung Heroes

MetLife Stadium was filled to capacity when it accommodated more than 90,000 Jewish men, women and children for the 12thSiyum Hashas. And an event of such enormous proportions required equally enormous security preparations. Actively involved in the security preparations, David Heskiel, community liaison and veteran Police Chaplain, played a crucial role in assisting law enforcement agencies and ensuring the success of the event.  Utilizing his close connections with law enforcement, he acted as a bridge between the community and officials.

“The security protocols to protect participants at the Siyum Hashas were nearly equivalent to the levels of security normally reserved for the highest dignitaries and officials, and therefore it took a lot of energy to make sure that everything was in place for the 90,000 attendees.”

Over 70 law enforcement agencies, including the Federal Department of Homeland Security and the Joint Terrorist Task Force (JTTF), convened several times in the months preceding the event, according to David, in order to coordinate security measures and discuss the individual roles that each agency would assume. In fact, over 1,500 law enforcement personnel, including local, state and federal police officers, were involved in the effort to ensure the crowd’s safety. An estimated 660 officers patrolled the stadium during the Siyum Hashas checking for any illegal or suspicious activity, while the other 840 cops scouted out the parking lots and highways leading to MetLife stadium. Before the event, FBI and Homeland Security agents armed with machine guns peered into every vehicle that approached the Meadowlands and patrolled the train stations around the region. More than 60 K-9 units were employed at the stadium, and the specially trained dogs sniffed the thousands of busses and cars that approached, searching for radioactive or other hazardous materials. And everyone who entered the stadium was required to pass through metal detectors and was patted down by police officers.

“It is important to acknowledge all of the law enforcement agencies who invested time and effort, and essentially made the 12thSiyum Hashas possible,” David says, reflecting on the eight months it took to arrange and prepare the essential security measures. “Specifically, we owe a special thanks to the NJ State Police, the NY State Police, the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI and local New Jersey Law Enforcement agencies for collaborating with the community. Special thanks are also due to Rabbi Abe Friedman, NJ State Police Chaplain, and Rabbi Jack Meyer, Port Authority Police Chaplain, who prepared for months on end, and were present at the event, working hard to make sure that everything was a tremendous success.” – Frances Haddad

The Syrian-Sephardic Delegations

Anticipating a large Sephardic turnout the 12thSiyum Hashas, Agudath Israel, the group responsible for organizing the Siyum Hashas, reached out to rabbis and leaders of the community in late 2011 to begin coordinating for the mammoth event.

In the months leading up to the Siyum, several parlor meetings were held where Rabbis and participants from every major Daf Yomi group in the community were briefed on the rich history of the Daf Yomi, the order of the upcoming Siyum Hashas program, and plans for ticket sales.  These meetings also played a crucial role in further uniting and affiliating Agudath Israel, the largest Torah organization in the United States, with our community. Agudah further acknowledged this partnership by sending commemorative plaques to the major Daf Yomi groups in the community to applaud the efforts and achievements of the men who learn the Daf as part of a regular program.

Thanks in part to these efforts, the 12thSiyum Hashas saw an overwhelming turnout from the Syrian-Sephardic community, with over 5,000 tickets sold to members of the major Daf Yomi groups, and hundreds, if not thousands, more sold to individuals. And so, occupying several sections of preferred seating at Met Life stadium, thousands of community men and women sat alongside their Jewish brethren for the 12thSiyum Hashas.

Additionally, Agudah reserved honored seats on the dais for community rabbis, to sit alongside the rabbinic leaders of the Ashkenazic communities. And, in what was a highlight of the evening for many, Sephardic leader Hacham Yaakov Hillel was among the select group of speakers to address the 90,000 men, women and children who were present.

“One of the highlights of the Siyum Hashas was the incredible display of achdut, Jewish unity, among all the participants from so many different backgrounds and communities,” reflected Elly Kleinman , the Chairman of Siyum Shas. “It was especially meaningful that such a large contingent of Sephardi Jews joined in the great Simchat HaTorah, and that Rabbi Yaakov Hillel played such a prominent role in the program, as this sent an emphatic message that Jews from the Eidot HaMizrach (Eastern communities) are an integral and indispensable component of our Torah camp.”

Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, Executive Director Agudath Israel praised the Sephardic community for the growing numbers of Daf Yomi participants. “Of course, this essential truth, which was so noticeably on display at the Siyum, is also on display every single day of the year – in the growing number of people attending Daf Yomi shiurim in Sephardi batei kneisiot (synagogues), in the many outstanding yeshivot that are geared to Sephardi children, [and] in the tremendous rabbinic figures from the Sephardi community whose leadership is an inspiration to all of Klal Yisrael.”

Pointing to the Sephardic community’s longstanding relationship with Agudath Israel, Rabbi Shlomo Gertzulin, Executive Vice President of the organization added that, “For us at Agudath Israel of America, it is a source of special pride that Sephardi Jews are part and parcel of our organizational framework – both at the highest rabbinic leadership level of the organization, where Hacham Yosef Harari Raful is a member of our Moetzet Gedolei HaTorah, and in our many organizational programs in which Sephardim are deeply involved. At Agudath Israel, the achdut vision of the Siyum Hashas is one that inspires us through all of our activities. It is our most sincere hope that the Siyum will serve as a springboard for even greater involvement by our friends in the Sephardi community in the work of Agudath Israel. The bonds between us are eternal, and we can accomplish so much when we work together as one.”