Shmuel Mermelstein found the time during a vacation in Anatalia, Turkey. Jay Radin took a meaningful pause outside the elephant cage of the Bronx Zoo.
Abraham Biederman often indulged his spiritual pursuit at City Hall, when he was the city’s commissioner of finance in the 1980s.
At Madison Square Garden Tuesday evening, a handful of the 25,000 people there taking part in the 11th Siyum HaShas Daf Yomi celebration recalled some of the more unusual settings in which they have demonstrated their commitment to the daily study of Talmud, which was completed — and renewed for a new seven-and-a-half-year cycle — this week.
“I may have missed a few days here or there, but I always caught up,” said Mermelstein, 21, a mortgage broker from Brooklyn. “After leaving yeshiva, it gives you something to hold onto. Instead of learning here and there, there is a set goal.”
Radin, 37, an administrator at Brookdale Hospital in Brooklyn, recalled the day he was running late during an outing with his kids to the zoo, and paused to take out his Artscroll edition of the tractate Yevomos, which deals with prohibitions on marriage, among other matters. “Everyone was staring at me,” said Radin, who was celebrating his second Siyum HaShas Tuesday. “You make sure the day doesn’t go by until it’s completed. It’s the commitment to learning that is the most successful part about doing the Daf.”
In all, an estimated 50,000 people, primarily men, observed the milestone locally, including 20,000 at the Continental Airlines Arena in New Jersey’s Meadowlands and 5,000 at the Jacob Javits Convention Center in Manhattan. The Siyum HaShas Daf Yomi festivities are arranged by Agudath Israel of America every seven and a half years, the time it takes to complete the study of all 2,711 pages of the 63 Talmudic tractates, at one page per day.
Attendance this year was up from the 45,000 who packed the Garden and Nassau Coliseum in 1997, a stark illustration of the vibrancy of modern Talmudic scholarship.
“Every ticket in every arena was sold” this year, said Biederman, a member of the steering committee for the event and who was marking his third Siyum HaShas. “I had people calling me this morning asking me if they could come. The unity is the draw.”
There were celebrations in 71 cities around the world, but the New York event — which was beamed via satellite to other locations — was by far the largest.
“To see so many Yidden come together at the same time and place for the purpose of learning is phenomenal,” said Yosef Davis, 60, a health care consultant from Chicago, who flew in with his son, Yehoshua, 35, for the New York event, although there was one closer to home — attended by 3,000 — at the Allstate Arena in Rosemont, Ill. “This is bigger, with more enthusiasm,” said Davis.
Daf Yomi, or daily page, was introduced in 1923 at the First International Congress of Agudath Israel in Vienna by a young Polish rabbi, Meir Shapiro, as a way to bring uniformity to the worldwide study of Shas, an acronym for the names of the six orders of the Mishna, on which the Talmudic sages recorded their commentaries around 200 C.E. Agudah said 120,000 North American Jews were taking part in the celebration this year.
“It’s an awesome thing to see so many Jews here at once,” said Mermelstein, outside the Garden before the event began. Sipping coffee as he stood beside a police officer with a barking canine, Mermelstein added that he was proud so many people had turned out for the event in an age of high concern over security. “It shows that even after 9-11, we’re not afraid,” he said. “You do what you have to do. It’s a kiddush Hashem,” or sanctification of God’s name.
Inside, the atmosphere at the sporting arena (and frequent rock concert hall) was notably transformed for the event. The electronic scoreboard posted above center court informed the crowd that “Mincha can be found in the Yiddish portion of your program.” Hot dogs and Nachos at the snack bar were replaced with kosher Reisman’s brownie bars and Paszkes gum. At the few open gift shops, Knicks and Rangers merchandise were set aside. Instead, wireless receivers for simultaneous translation from Yiddish were available for $10, provided by The Buzz, a chasidic-owned electronics store in Flatbush. (The devices may be saved for the next event in 2012, according to the packaging.)
At 5:30 p.m., the typically clamorous arena was enveloped by a silence rarely seen when the Garden is filled to capacity, as mincha commenced. During the silent Amidah prayer, virtually the only sounds in the room were the gentle sobs of Shmuel Yosef Rieder, chair of the event’s steering committee, who emotionally led the prayer service. The men wore mostly black hats or felt yarmulkes, although a few knitted kippot were seen, and women were restricted to the upper levels.
Cameras on booms transmitted the proceedings via satellite around the world, although the organizers reportedly forbade the event from being broadcast via cable TV or the Internet, media proscribed by many rabbis. (Others, though, allow the Internet for Torah study, and some celebrants studied Daf Yomi via Web sites, CDs or DVDs, or on their Palm Pilots. Fliers distributed at the event advertised the new ShasPod, a version of Apple’s IPod digital recording device pre-loaded with lessons of the complete cycle of the Daf Yomi.)
In their addresses, prominent rabbinic leaders spoke of the unity of the Jewish people and their desire to see greater participation in study. “When one Jew learns Torah, he lifts up every single neshama [soul] in klal yisrael [the nation of Israel],” said Rabbi Ephraim Wachsman of Yeshiva Meor Yizchak in Monsey. Other speakers emphasized that the Siyum was a ceremony of beginning as well as one of completion. “This represents not only what we have finished but what we have started,” said Rabbi Levi Yitzchok Horowitz, the Bostoner Rebbe, of Brookline, Mass., and Jerusalem. “The children must finish our learning. We will not be able to finish it until the kedoshim [martyrs] come back with Moshiach.”
Rabbi Avi Shafran, a spokesman for Agudath Israel, noted in the Garden’s press box that every Talmudic tractate begins with page 2, a reminder to scholars that complete knowledge is unattainable. The actual Siyum, the reading of the last lines of the final tractate of Niddah, which concerns the laws of menstruation and ritual purification, was officiated by Rabbi Chaim Stein.
The head of the Telshe Rabbinical Seminary near Cleveland, Rabbi Stein was completing his 9th Daf Yomi cycle. His studies date back decades to prewar Lithuania, and were uninterrupted even when he was imprisoned by the Soviets in a Siberian labor camp.
Noting that the Talmud says terrible events will be the “birth pangs of the messiah,” Rabbi Stein said he hoped such events were behind the Jewish people, with the messianic era on the horizon. Following his Siyum, the Garden was filled with singing and dancing in the aisles, with groups joining in a circle on the floor level.
The new cycle of Daf Yomi began this week with the tractate of Berachot, which analyzes prayers and benedictions, beginning with the recitation of the Shema.