The big stadium seemed to be levitating; looking up, framed against storm clouds, 90,000 Jews were on their feet, then were rising to their toes in unison, once, twice, three times, calling out loudly, “kadosh, kadosh, kadosh.” Some took out cell phones, calling those that that were not present, “you have to hear this,” holding phones in the air, to hear 90,000 call out the “Shema,” or answer “Yehay Shmay Rabba” to Kaddish. When the davening fell to a sotto-voiced hush, cell phones remained in the air so listeners could hear how silent 90,000 could be, a hush as tangible as the darkness in Egypt.
This twilight prayer — perhaps with the largest minyan since the Jerusalem Temple or Mount Sinai — had the crowd ecstatic, and this was just the opening to the main event, the 12th Siyum HaShas celebrating the completion of Shas (Talmud) via the Daf Yomi (page-a-day) study program that takes a Ripkenesque 2,711 consecutive days, more than seven years without pause. The davening was spiritually entwined with the Siyum; many rebbes say that siyums are a prime opportunity for healing, particularly if the right tractate is matched to the need of the supplicant. When a “Mi Sheberach” was said for the sick, thousands whispered the names of the ill, and some eyes teared.
The spectacle of the Siyum was in sharp contrast to the grueling, intellectual infantry work that is Daf Yomi itself. Rabbi Gedaliah Weinberger, 64, chair of Agudath Israel’s Daf Yom Commission (hosts of this Siyum), teaches Daf Yomi in a Brooklyn shul. “It takes me a minimum of two hours, usually more, to prepare,” he says. “I start the night before, and then I wake up at four in the morning,” to prepare some more. “I’m not unusual. This is typical.” His group davens at 6:20 a.m., the shiur (lesson) is from 7 to 8, and then he goes to work. He does this every day.
Daf Yomi is not for those expecting outreach or courtship. This is about love, but not the love of summer romance or affairs. Jewish Ideas Daily featured Devorah Steinmetz explaining, Daf Yomi “is a marriage. Much of the time it is a joy. But sometimes it’s not, and that is exactly the point. … If sometimes what it says makes you mad, you know that you will still be there the next day to continue the conversation. And if some days you really don’t want to bother, you know that you have committed to be present nevertheless.”
Though organized by Agudah, which represents many though not all, yeshivish and chasidic Jews, an Agudah spokesman guessed that the stadium crowd was 20 percent Modern Orthodox. Spotted in the seats was a teacher from Ramaz, as well as Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, who said he didn’t do Daf Yomi but “I’m here with a third generation, my son and grandson. I want them to be part of this.”
There were almost 20,000 women there as well, “in support of their sons and husbands,” said Sheila Feinstein, principal of Shaare Torah, a Sephardi girls’ school. Because of the time commitment, “I don’t think there would be a Daf Yomi without the support and encouragement of the women.”
The women were seated in the upper deck, with a translucent mechitza during the davening, but not during the rest of the program. Traditionally, Talmud study has been the sole domain of men; today, while growing numbers of Modern Orthodox venues for women’s Talmud study are opening, there are no such venues in the haredi world, and Talmud is not part of haredi girls’ education.
“It’s not an accepted thing,” for women to learn Talmud in her Agudah circles, said Feinstein, “but no one would say ‘Oh my gosh, we’ll throw you out.’ It’s not like that. Most of us have so many other obligations. We go to other classes. Any Torah anyone learns in our family is not his or hers but ours.”
Women were not at any of the Daf Yomi siyums prior to 1990. “When the siyum moved to Madison Square Garden,” said Feinstein, “I remember calling Rabbi Labish Becker [Agudah’s executive director] and asking how could I get a ticket. He said, ‘You’re right, a woman’s ticket, someone else wrote me a letter about that.’ And women have been at the siyum ever since.”
Neither Feinstein nor her husband, a rabbi and rosh yeshiva, do Daf Yomi, “but my children do Daf Yomi,” she said, “and when my son-in-law calls my husband about a daf they can talk for an hour. There’s so much to prepare. Thank God for ArtScroll.” (This year’s siyum was dedicated to the memory of Jerome Schottenstein, benefactor of ArtScroll’s 73-volume translation of Talmud).
Rabbi Elie Kaunfer, ordained by the Conservative movement and co-founder of an egalitarian yeshiva, Mechon Hadar in New York, told JTA that Daf Yomi is beginning to catch on in non-Orthodox circles, though he was not aware of any non-Orthodox synagogue with a Daf Yomi group.
By contrast, 500 Orthodox synagogues were represented in Met Life Stadium.
Almost all Daf Yomi groups follow Agudah’s Daf Yomi schedule. Around 400 people from more than 50 Modern Orthodox schools and shuls marked the siyum with an evening of lectures and Talmud study from a Modern Orthodox perspective, including women speakers (unlike at the Agudah siyum), at Congregation Shearith Israel on the Upper West Side. But even this event was held Monday night, five days after the Met Life siyum, so the participants could first do the event with Agudah.
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.
One who was there, Joseph Friedenson, editor of an Agudah monthly, “Dos Yiddishe Vort,” wrote, “We were a tiny group of broken survivors … At the time, all we had were two, maybe three, volumes of Talmud.” One of which was Gemara Brachos, “and here we started again.”
Daf Yomi was doing well in Israel, but almost forgotten in the United States. There was a modest Siyum HaShas in 1960 at the Glen Wild Hotel in the Catskills, in 1968 in a Boro Park girls’ school, and in 1975 in a half-empty ballroom in Manhattan, all with only a few hundred or about a thousand in attendance. As the yeshivish-chasidic population grew, the siyum moved into the Felt Forum (5,000 seats) and then into Madison Square Garden in 1990, selling out 20,000 seats, with a burst of newspaper and television coverage. The siyum was suddenly a hot ticket.
This was when some began disparaging the siyum as “triumphalist,” not inclusive, in part because some non-Agudah rabbis asked for seats on the dais and an opportunity to speak to the vast crowd, only to be turned down. They were welcome to attend, said Agudah, but not on the dais. The orphans of Lublin and their Agudah supporters finally had a phenomenon on their hands with a huge audience, and they didn’t feel like sharing it. What organization would?
You have to understand, explained one Agudanik, it’s like a wedding: A parent nurses a sick child for years, more alone than not, and then when this child grows into a beautiful bride, all these new faces want to walk her down the aisle and sit with family on the dais. “Really, what chutzpah.”
In the stadium, a Kaddish was said, a unique Kaddish said only at a person’s burial or a siyum, praising God who “will resuscitate the dead … and rebuild Jerusalem …” And after that Kaddish, with an amen and a mazel tov, the stadium erupted into wild and sustained dancing, chasidim with Modern Orthodox, Russians with the yeshivish, teens in sneakers dancing with old bearded men in dress shoes, and a child in a wheelchair. In the upper tiers, reaching to the sky, whole rows linked arms and swayed side to side, side to side.
To all the students and maggidei shiur (Daf Yomi teachers); to all the angels of Lublin and DP camps; to those rising pre-dawn or learning after dark, doing the Daf on commuter buses and trains; “Hadran Alach,” went the words of the siyum, “We shall return to you … and you shall return to us. Our thoughts are with you … and your thoughts are with us. We shall not forget you … and you shall not forget us, neither in this world nor in the World To Come.”