The largest Jewish gathering in the Americas filled the seats of MetLife Stadium and its field with spectators and participants of the Daf Yomi, the daily study of the 7,211 pages of the Talmud Bavli, celebrating the 13th learning cycle since the launch of the program in 1923. With each cycle, the number of participants, learning groups, translations, commentaries, and apps relating to Daf Yomi have grown, demonstrating the desire to understand the Oral Law.
“The lomdei Daf Yomi struggled through difficult masechtos, day by day and week by week,” said Rav Yaakov Perlow, the Novominsker Rebbe, to the packed stadium. “They accepted the yoke of Torah; they are the major m’chutanim, but they are joined by all lomdei Torah in yeshivos and kollelim who toil in Torah their entire day. They are our pride and nachas.”
In the Neighborhood
Among such mosdos is Khal Adas Yereim in Kew Gardens, where Rabbi Avrohom Hecht organized a bus to MetLife Stadium for local participants. “It’s important when Jews come together and are proud of their heritage,” he said.
The walls of this synagogue are lined from end to end with s’farim that have been used countless times at multiple shiurim and chavrusa pairings. “This shul has a lot to do with today’s Daf. We are asked how does one become a talmid chacham? If t’filah does it, then why learn? You need both the learning and t’filah,” said Aron Cyperstein, in reference to Maseches Nidah 70b, which was read on the morning of the event. The actual completion of this sefer took place three days later on Shabbos, with many shuls offering a warm kiddush as a s’udas mitzvah. “Rabbi Shlomo Teitelbaum zt”l wanted that this place should be as much a mekom midrash as it is a mekom t’filah.”
Gershon Binder also learns Daf Yomi in Cyperstein’s chaburah. “There are lots of different viewpoints. The most important thing is to anchor yourself to what you know is true. The Daf offers a logical and analytical way of thinking,” he said.
The secular New Year offers the quickest opportunity to drive across the city without traffic. Within 40 minutes, the Kew Gardens group was approaching the Meadowlands, slowing down to take photos of electronic road signs pointing to the Siyum HaShas. We are still in Galus, but it’s not every day that one sees a highway sign for everyone to see, announcing an Orthodox Jewish event. “The significance of Daf Yomi is the dedication to learning. It is the unifying factor,” said Rabbi Binyomin Mittel of K’hal Nachlas Avos. “Part of the Hadran is that they toil and we toil. Usually the reward is the end result. But with learning Torah, every step is a mitzvah. We are rewarded in our own growth.”
At the Stadium
The multiple entrances and ample parking made the arrival seemingly effortless. It almost makes one forget the years of preparation by Agudath Israel of America, MetLife Stadium, and nearly 50 law-enforcement agencies to ensure that the event runs smoothly with securely, especially in light of recent anti-Semitic incidents.
“Aside from reserving the venues, marketing the event, distributing tickets, video production, coordinating satellite feeds and live streaming, and planning the speakers and musical performances, we also had to prepare contingency plans for possible bad weather. And especially, given the rise of anti-Semitism, we needed to coordinate security with federal, state, and city law-enforcement and counter-terrorism agencies,” said Agudah activist Rabbi Elly Kleinman in an interview with JNS. “Keeping 92,000 Jews safe in an open-air stadium requires a staggeringly complicated, coordinated effort that included protecting the airspace above the stadium.”
Kleinman served as the chairman of the previous Siyum HaShas in the summer of 2012. This one had seats on all sides of the stadium; the stage where the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah sat has seats facing out on four sides, surrounded by field seats for magidei shiur and community leaders. The women’s section took up nearly the length of the stadium’s western side – no m’chitzah, only a divider separating their seats from the men. The free magazine handed out to participants was three times thicker than the previous, with separate magazines for women and for young readers.
Certainly there were women who were turning the same pages each day as the men, but from the articles of the magazine and most of those in attendance, their role is to support their husbands’ learning, appreciating the effort and discipline of Daf Yomi. In turn, men should recognize the wives who enable them to learn each morning, while they wake the children and prepare them for school. “If the wife is not on board, it is not happening. If she is on board, then it is a success,” said Estie Gleiberman, who came with her husband Yossi.
“I was very impressed with the commitment and organization, the history of the event,” said Aliza Sherman. “It was the easiest event of the year.” Picking up on the comments of the stadium staff and state troopers, Sherman spoke of the contrast between the Siyum HaShas and a typical stadium event. “No alcohol, everyone was so nice. The football games, that’s a fight after fight.”
Most of the men at the Siyum HaShas wore suits and black hats befitting of the Torah sages present. But there was Yonatan Gray who dressed as the comic character Waldo to stand out in the crowd. West Hempstead resident Josh Silber dressed for the cold temperatures with the colors of his favorite football team, the Green Bay Packers. From the view of a “nosebleed seat” it was evident that this was not a uniform crowd. The Daf Yomi participants of Pittsburgh’s Shaare Torah Congregation drove eight hours to the event and celebrated with a pre-Siyum tailgating party, complete with games, a barbecue, and a circle with Rabbi Daniel Wasserman finishing the last pages, to be yotzei with the Hadran. Like a football game, the Daf Yomi went long towards its goal.
“One employee working there for 19 years said that it was the most beautiful event in all her time there,” said Agudah board member Chaskel Bennett. “The respectful crowd, the orderliness – she told me she wishes to do it again in seven years.”
The diversity of Jews in the stands reflected in the video presentations on the big screens, which included Yeshiva University’s Rav Hershel Schachter and Rav Aryeh Lebowitz praising the daily study, and videos of communities worldwide celebrating the Siyum. Israeli Consul General Dani Dayan sat in a field seat and proudly looked up at IDF soldiers dancing in a circle, broadcast at this Agudah event. “More than 80,000 Jews are gathered now in MetLife Stadium to proudly celebrate their adherence to their Judaism. I wouldn’t be anywhere else,” he tweeted.
The Purpose of Daf Yomi
The concept of the daily study of a page of Talmud was adopted at the 1923 First World Congress of Agudath Israel, where Rav Meir Shapiro gave an impassioned argument in favor of Jews worldwide being “on the same page.”
“What a great thing! A Jew travels by boat and takes a gemara B’rachos under his arm. He travels for 15 days from Eretz Yisrael to America, and each day he learns the Daf. When he arrives in America, he enters a beis midrash in New York and finds Jews learning the very same daf that he studied on that day, and he gladly joins them,” he said to the delegates. “Another Jew leaves the States and travels to Brazil or Japan, and he first goes to the beis midrash, where he finds everyone learning the same daf that he himself learned that day. Could there be greater unity of hearts than this?”
Learning a page a day may not provide one with a thorough knowledge of a topic, given the time constraints. “A blatt a day is by definition b’kius, not meant to be spent too much time on. Daf Yomi is engineered to be short,” said Rabbi Avi Shafran, Director for Public Affairs for Agudath Israel. “There are people who go to several Daf Yomi classes each day, people who need that motivation. It is essential to them.”
To remember and internalize the Daf, there are illustrations, exams, and apps. Yossi Gleiberman has been delivering the Daf shiur in his Brooklyn community for over 20 years. He shares the Daf with the world through short rhymes under the name Songs of Shas. “We’ve had over 100,000 hits,” he said. Gleiberman attended the past six Siyumei HaShas. “It’s so easy today, there’s no excuse not to learn. Each person learns as he desires. People who want to step it up have the opportunity.”
Dr. Isaac Perle has been doing the Daf since 1978. “When I started, there were no CDs, no tapes, no Soncino, no ArtScroll. You learned with someone who knew it. With the ArtScroll translation, it took off like a wildfire,” he said. Perle’s most memorable Siyum HaShas was in 1997, when it took place at Madison Square Garden, but he was in Boston receiving the broadcast from the event. “We had 650 people – that was the largest Torah gathering in Boston.” Likewise this year, the overflow crowd was hosted at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, with live streaming appearing on TheSiyum.org for the rest of the world.
“Not only is it a s’gulah for those who learned, it’s a siyata for all of klal Yisrael,” said Rav Aryeh Malkiel Kotler shlita, Rosh HaYeshivah of Beth Medrash Govoha of Lakewood. “Every one of us is enriched, even if not every one of us has finished… A person who learns the masechta inherits a kingdom, inherits the world. A masechta is more than that. It goes into his being, it becomes his being.”
Rabbi Elan Segelman of Kehilas Torah Temimah remembers this point from his rebbe, Rabbi Eliyahu Soloveitchik. “His father, Rav Ahron Soloveitchik, saw yeshivah students crossing a ‘do not cross’ tape. He said that they had read but had not learned Bava Kama. It’s about n’zikin, or damages to someone’s property and taking responsibility.”
The Hadran, or completion formula of Maseches Nidah and Talmud Bavli was read by Rav Shmuel Kamenetsky, the Philadelphia Rosh Yeshiva. “The Torah expects us to come back and give back. It isn’t the end. It’s the beginning.”
Queens Community at the Siyum
The Jewish community of Queens should take pride in the visibility of its rabbinic and communal leaders at the Siyum HaShas. Rabbi Paysach Krohn described the special Gemara set printed by the US Government and distributed by chaplain Rabbi Aaron Paperman to Holocaust survivors in DP camps. It was brought out again for this special event. “By making a siyum haShas with this Gemara, we are making a bridge to the difficult past, but we also make a commitment to the future,” he said in his video narration.
Assemblyman Daniel Rosenthal danced in the field with his colleagues David Weprin, Simcha Eichenstein, and Councilman Kalman Yeger. “I was in middle school and it was indoors at Madison Square Garden. The only word to describe it is beautiful; especially with what’s going on, it was full of chizuk. People flew to be here from all over the world, and for us it’s only a 40-minute drive,” said Rosenthal.
“It used to be for rabbis and students of yeshivah. Now people can listen to the Daf while traveling. There are more vehicles than ever before for the Daf Yomi,” said Weprin.
In the promotional magazine for the Siyum HaShas, Rabbi Noach Isaac Oelbaum of Khal Nachlas Yitzchok wrote an essay on the transformative effect of the daily learning; Rabbi Moshe Bamberger of Bais Medrash L’Talmud at Lander College for Men shared a handful of photos submitted to him by Daf Yomi chaburos from across the world.
Chazaq CEO Yaniv Meirov attended with his brothers Shlomo and Rabbi Ilan Meirov, along with a bus of public school students participating in Chazaq programs. “Most of the rabbanim on the roster know Chazaq on a firsthand basis. They have been to our office and spoken at our events.”
“It will go down in history as one of the best,” said Rabbi Shlomo Nisanov of Kehilat Sephardim. “It’s my third Siyum HaShas and there’s more of everything here. There was great outreach to the community, in particular the simultaneous Russian translation service.”
Across the Generations
Since the 1975 Siyum HaShas, the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah of the Agudah have dedicated the event to the Jews who perished in the Holocaust, their learning interrupted by a genocidal enemy. With those who personally attended the pre-war European yeshivos dwindling, those who lived to the 13th Siyum HaShas were given seats of honor at the stadium, and others appeared in the promotional six-minute video produced by Project Witness. “Baruch Hashem, I’m going to the Siyum HaShas with four generations. This is the greatest thing that could happen to me. It shows netzach Yisrael,” said Rabbi Mendel Tessler.
West Hempstead resident Chezky Wasser brought his son Daniel, 8, to the event. “It’s my fourth Siyum, and the first one where I’m finishing Shas. I’ve gone before with my grandfather and father. My son was very engaged, asking questions, and he sat through the whole thing.”
Avraham Engelson sat with his West Hempstead neighbor Josh Silber and me. We remarked on how much our lives have changed since then. Silber is now a father of three, his youngest child Binyamin is two years old; Engelson has two sons, ages five and two. I was single at the last Siyum; now I have a daughter, and a son who is three years old.
For the three of us, our Daf Yomi learning began here in Queens, with Rabbi Shmuel Marcus. His chaburah began with P’sachim at Kehilas Ishei Yisrael and continuing at the Young Israel of Queens Valley where he is the mara d’asra. We begin our program each morning at 5:30 am, with free coffee provided.
“That means our actual siyum haShas will be in November, and I’m looking forward to it,” said Engelson. “At the next Siyum HaShas in the stadium, we should bring our sons; they will love it,” said Engelson.
Together with Rabbi Marcus, Engelson and Silber have been my Daf Yomi companions throughout these past years, offering details, humor, and commentary on the topics at hand. In our respective families, we are the first in an unknown number of generations to have a familiarity with the Oral Law. We take this as a responsibility not only upon ourselves, but also to prepare our sons for this endeavor.
By Sergey Kadinsky