Several dozen times over the past seven years, the Levine family of Greenwich Village has invited a few friends to a private celebration in a kosher restaurant. Each meal was a siyum, marking the completion of a tractate of Talmud studied by Danny Levine and his two teenage sons. “Usually about eight or nine” people came, Levine said.
Tuesday will be the Levine family’s final siyum, but a restaurant couldn’t hold everyone coming.
Levine and his 17-year-old son Hart will join some 20,000 men and women at the Siyum HaShas, a mammoth night of prayer and learning at Madison Square Garden sponsored by Agudath Israel of America. The event sold out weeks ago. The Orthodox organization also is sponsoring siyum events at the same time at the Continental Airlines Arena in New Jersey and scores of locations in North America, with a satellite link to the Javits Center in Manhattan and cities around the world.
Daf Yomi is the daily study of a page of the Babylonian Talmud, which takes seven and a half years to finish. The siyum marks the completion of the 11th study cycle. It will also end, temporarily, what Levine calls “a positive father-son adventure,” while other participants will start the 12th cycle the next day.
To encourage unity in Talmud learning, Daf Yomi was introduced in 1923 by Rabbi Meir Shapiro, head of the Rabbinical Academy of Lublin, during the First International Congress of Agudath Israel. Since then it has attracted more participants each cycle, becoming particularly popular in fervently Orthodox circles. Shas is an acronym for the names of the six orders into which the Mishna is divided. The Babylonian Talmud includes the Mishna, the oral law compiled and edited around 200 C.E.; and the Gemara, rabbinic arguments inspired by the Mishna recorded between 200 and 500 C.E. in present-day Iraq. The Talmud contains laws and stories, discussions on such topics as daily blessings and holidays, marriage contracts and marital relations, and a wide range of other practical and philosophical matters.
Learning Talmud is an often-exhausting exercise in logic, an observant Jew’s version of law school training.
The celebration of the Siyum HaShas has spread to the non-Orthodox world. Jewish Unity Live 2005 (www.jewishunitylive.com), an educational and cultural program coinciding with the siyum, will be held at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark, featuring Elie Wiesel, Sen. Joseph Lieberman, musician Peter Himmelman and journalist Dan Raviv. Related events will take place in cities across the country, on college campuses and U.S. military bases.
Levine, the fourth-generation owner of J. Levine Judaica in Manhattan, said he read about the siyum events in 1997, and was impressed by the discipline required to study the 2,711 pages of the Babylonian Talmud.
While many of the tens of thousands of Daf Yomi participants around the world are members of the fervently Orthodox community, the Levines are Modern Orthodox. Clean-shaven Levine, 49, attended Yeshiva University and its MTA high school; all of Hart’s education has been at Ramaz, a landmark Modern Orthodox institution on the Upper East Side; Shawn, 19, a Ramaz graduate who will attend the major Israeli Daf Yomi celebration in Jerusalem’s Binyanei Ha’Ooma convention center, is studying at a Modern Orthodox yeshiva near Jerusalem.
While most Daf Yomi participants begin the series as adults, Shawn and Hart began at 11 and 10, respectively. The Levines also did most of their learning at home, while many Daf Yomi participants attend sessions at their synagogue.
“The breadth and the scope of the accomplishment of people who did it [in previous years] was awe inspiring,” said Levine, who proposed the learning project over dinner a month before the last Siyum HaShas. “Why don’t we do the entire Daf Yomi together?” he asked. He wanted to return to the Talmud studying he had done at YU, and he wanted a chance to bond with his sons before they grew up and left the house.
“Right away, both said they liked the idea,” said Levine. They used the ArtScroll edition in Aramaic and English. ArtScroll is issuing the 73rd and final volume of its Schottenstein English translation to coincide with the Siyum HaShas.
Usually the Levines learned at night in the family room. “We did it every single day,” Danny Levine said. “We did it on trains. We did it on planes. We did it in the car. We did it in Israel.” When they occasionally missed a few days, they caught up. “We would sit for 4 and a half hours catching up.”
Blu Greenberg, founding president of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, remembers walking out of a JOFA plenary session at the Grand Hyatt a few years ago and seeing Levine, who was running the bookstore at the biennial conference, learning Daf Yomi with his sons in a small room off the main lobby.
“It was all quiet. It was empty except for Danny sitting learning with his sons. They were sitting at a table,” Greenberg said. “It was just a beautiful scene … permanently imbedded in my mind’s eye. It reminded me of my father, of blessed memory, who did this all the time.
“It was somebody taking advantage of every minute to study Torah,” she says. “He could have been tallying up the sales of his books. He could have been schmoozing in the lobby. It epitomizes how he managed to [complete Daf Yomi] with his sons.”
Levine said Shawn, who has kept up with Daf Yomi in Israel, will call his father and brother on Monday night so they can all learn the second-to-last daf together.
“I give the boys a lot of credit,” Levine said. “I never had to force them. They’re both good, serious boys.”
Their classmates, he said, “are in awe. It’s unique — no one knows anyone of their age who has ever studied the entire Talmud, and surely not with their father.”
“This is a nice example for other Modern Orthodox families, because it shows that you can get things done with your kids if you set your heart on it,” Shawn said. “It doesn’t have to be Shas,” said Shawn, adding that learning the weekly Torah portion, laws of Shabbos, or any other Jewish text “are all good opportunities to connect with your child in a Torah way.”
“This excursion has given me a unique opportunity to get familiar with Gemara, Gemara concepts, names of rabbis, stories, halachot and other great values,” Shawn said. “I think this could inspire other fathers to learn with their children.”
“It has been an incredible bonding experience with both my brother and my dad,” Hart said. “The Daf Yomi cycle connects Jews from around the world. To think that I am studying the same pages as rabbis from long ago and from faraway places makes my sense of Jewish community and responsibility so much greater.”
Levine and his sons won’t take part in the 12th Daf Yomi cycle that starts next Wednesday. Shawn and Hart will be away at college next year.
But the Levine tradition won’t end next week, they say.“I can’t wait to have kids of my own,” Hart said, “so I can continue the Talmud study that my father started.”