Around 3,600 Jews filled the Metro Toronto Convention Centre on Jan. 5, to mark the conclusion of the seven and a half year daf yomi reading cycle, in which participants study a page of the Talmud every day. They were joined by hundreds of thousands of their peers in similar celebrations around the world.
Rabbi Tzvi Sytner of Toronto’s Village Shul, who served as MC of the 13th Siyum HaShas, shared a story of a Holocaust survivor, “Mr. Berkowitz,” whose family he knew. Berkowitz survived Auschwitz-Birkenau and was liberated from Dachau, but it was a single moment shortly after his liberation that demoralized him.
He was walking down the street when he saw two children eating popcorn out of a paper cone. Upon closer inspection, he realized the paper cone was in fact a page of the Gemara. Berkowitz tracked down the stand where the kids had purchased the popcorn and saw the vendor standing there with a Talmud beside him. With each new sale, the vendor would rip off the top page, roll it up into a cone and fill it with popcorn.
According to Rabbi Sytner, Berkowitz was heartbroken to see his beloved text used to hold handfuls of greasy popcorn. The Gemara was being defiled so thoughtlessly – not out of hatred, but out of convenience – and it broke his heart.
Rabbi Sytner hoped that Berkowitz was watching the gathering in Toronto and other similar ones around the world. What a contrast it represented from the days when the sacred text was used as a food receptacle, and what a tribute it is to the will of the Jewish people who, as Rabbi Sytner said, are inscribing the text on their hearts.
“It’s a simcha, it’s an accomplishment,” said Mordechai Plopper, who was at the Siyum HaShas celebrating his third completion of the daf yomi cycle. He said he enjoys the process of waking up early and going to shul every day to study the Talmud, but he commits to the process for more than just enjoyment.
“It’s an integral part of my day, the beginning of my day, and if I don’t have that, I feel that something’s lacking,” he said. “I wish I would learn a lot more than I can, but it’s a must.”
Daf yomi was created by Rabbi Meir Shaprio in 1923 to align the Talmud studies of Jews around the world. Similar to how every congregation reads the same Torah portion every Shabbat, every Talmud study group reads the same page every day.
“No matter where you travel to, no matter where a Jew would find themselves, as long as there is a Jewish community, there he would find like-minded individuals that are studying the exact same page that he’s studying,” said Menachem Brown, one of the organizers of the Toronto event.
“In the current chapter of klal Yisra’el’s march through history, there are few moments which capture our hearts like a Siyum HaShas of daf yomi,” read a letter from the organizing committee members in the event’s program. “It is a moment of achdus and joy, a pure celebration of kavod HaTorah together with all facets of our esteemed community. It is a rare moment where we share our unreserved love of our holy Torah with all Torah learners, from all different backgrounds, at any level. We must capture this moment as it has captured us.”