On Saturday, Jan. 4, 2020, corresponding to 7 Tevet 5780, thousands of people around the world will celebrate as they finish studying the 73rd page of Tractate Niddah and thereby complete their study of the Talmud, known as Siyum Hashas. The very next day, they will begin learning the first Tractate of the Talmud, Berachot, and they will continue in this shared learning experience until the entire Talmud is next completed on Saturday 2 Sivan 5787 (June 7, 2027)!
The largest siyum celebration will take place on January 1 at the MetLife stadium (expected attendance 93,000) in East Rutherford, New Jersey, 13 km west of New York City. The Toronto siyum will take place on January 5 at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre. All told, approximately 200,000 participants are expected at venues across the globe.
Siyum Hashas – Daf Yomi Through The Decades
Rabbi Meir Shapiro of Lublin, Poland, could not have dreamed of those numbers back in the 1920’s when he had a ground-breaking idea: to unite Jews around the globe by having each of them study exactly the same text of Talmud on a daily basis. By reading a double-sided page (“Daf”) a day (“Yomi”), they would complete the Talmud’s 2,711 pages in approximately seven and a half years.
Written in Hebrew and Aramaic, the Talmud is the often terse compendium of law, logic and philosophy that became the foundation for modern Judaism. In Discovering the Talmud, Dr. Eric Chevlen does a great job explaining its importance and the challenges that the work poses to modern student.
“Its subject matter is often abstruse, ranging from such exalted topics as the contents of the phylacteries worn by a decidedly non-corporeal divinity, to such humble ones as the direction a person should face while defecating. Its logic is precise, indeed sharply exacting, but idiosyncratic. There is no obvious order to its discussion, it has neither index nor table of contents, not even punctuation, and it is riddled with unexplained abbreviations. Oh, yes, one other thing: there are no vowels.”
The 12th Siyum Hashas at MetLife Stadium, Aug. 1, 2012
The idea for holding a celebratory event to mark the completion of a substantial body of Jewish learning stretches back to the Talmud itself. The scholar Abbaye would make a special festive meal for anyone who completed a tractate (a section of the Talmud.) Rabbi Reuven Lauffer points out that according to the Midrash, “after being granted infinite wisdom by God, King Solomon made a festive meal for all of his servants. This, notes the Midrash, is the source for making a celebration upon completing the Torah. Just as the increase of wisdom of one man was a cause for celebration for his entire entourage, so too is the increase of Torah knowledge a reason to celebrate.”
And what is the celebration like? Uriel Heilman was a fly on the wall at the last siyum (also at the MetLife Stadium) and presented his own “Play by play at the Siyum HaShas.” Some observations:
6:57 Pulling into MetLife Stadium. Instead of tailgaters in the parking lot it, it’s full of Hatzolah ambulances. Are they on the job or just here for the party?
9:00 Big cheer as video narrator declares this the biggest Siyum HaShas ever. “A great American palace of sport has been transformed into a sanctuary of the spirit!” and “May it hasten the arrival of Moshiach tzidkeinu” — the messiah.
9:06 Walking around the stadium, the N.J. State Troopers seem to be in a good mood. This must be an easy crowd for them. No scent of weed wafting through the air to track down, no fights in the stands, no flashing in the upper deck, no wilding on the ramps. Heck, there’s no alcohol here. What are they going to make a l’chaim on when they finish this thing?
The Bostoner Rebbe Levi Yitzchok Horowitz, zt”l, at the 2005 Siyum
Jonathan Mark was also there and added this poignant observation. “High in the heavens, a satellite carried a closed-circuit broadcast of the Agudah siyum to more than 100 cities and more than 120,000 Jews. In the wee hours after midnight, the siyum was being watched via satellite in a room at 57 Lubitrovska Street in Lublin, Rav Meir Shapiro’s old yeshiva, where the first Daf Yomi Siyum HaShas was held in 1930, seven years after Rav Shapiro first suggested Daf Yomi to an Agudah convention.
“There was a 1938 siyum in that Lublin yeshiva, but by 1939, the yeshiva building was being used by the Nazis, and Daf Yomi was being studied, often by heart, in ghettos and cattle cars. The Siyum HaShas in 1945 was held in the November chill of a Displaced Persons camp in Felderfing, Germany.”
Why do so many people drag themselves out of bed, day in and day out, year after year, to learn the Talmud? The late Herman Wouk, author of This is My God and The Winds of War, explains why he made the commitment (in this page cleverly laid out like a page of Talmud.)
“Because by now the Talmud is in my bones. Its elegant and arcane ethical algebra, its soaked-in quintessential Jewishness, its fun, its difficulty, its accumulative virtue all balance against the cost in time and the so-called ‘remoteness from reality.’ Above and beyond all its other intellectual and cultural values, the Talmud is, for people like us, ‘identity,’ pure and ever springing.”
Next time, women and the daf.