March 1, 2005
For diligent talmudists, a day to celebrate

By URIEL HEILMAN
NEW YORK

When tens of thousands of Jews assemble Tuesday night at a pair of basketball arenas in the New York area to celebrate completion of the seven-and-a-half-year Talmud study cycle, it will mark a milestone both for Torah study and for Orthodox Jewry.

The page-a-day Talmud study program called Daf Yomi, which was started some 82 years ago by a Polish rabbi in Vienna named Meir Shapiro, has become increasingly popular over the last 22 years covering the last three study cycles. Every day, Jews all over the world make their way through the 2,711-page Babylonian Talmud at a rate of a folio per day-one blatt, or two sides of the same page-so that on any given day Jews in New York are studying and discussing the same page of Talmud as Jews in Jerusalem, Moscow and Johannesburg.

Daf Yomi's status as a fixture in the Orthodox community will be on vivid display at Tuesday's Siyum Hashas celebrations (literally, completion of the six orders of the Talmud's 63 tractates), which are expected to draw more than 100,000 people in the United States, and tens of thousands of others in Israel and around the world.

"It has evolved into a celebration of Torah study in and of itself," said Rabbi Avi Shafran, director of public affairs at the Agudath Israel of America, which is organizing the major ceremonies in the New York area.

They will include simultaneous events for sold-out crowds at Manhattan's Madison Square Garden and New Jersey's Continental Airlines Arena-home to the NBA's Knicks and Nets, respectively-and an overflow crowd at the Jacob Javits Convention Center, in Manhattan. Even New York City's mayor is getting involved, with a pre-party reception Monday night at Gracie Mansion, the mayor's residence in Manhattan.

"When they established Daf Yomi, one of the ideas was to bring about the unity of Orthodox Jews through the study of Torah, and by doing that they demonstrate the vitality of Orthodox Judaism," observed Marc Shapiro, professor of Judaic studies at the University of Scranton, in Pennsylvania. "I don't think any of the other movements could fill any of these huge stadiums. It's really quite incredible."

Even as Torah scholars in major Jewish population centers mark the day at song-and-speech-laden events with great fanfare, the Talmud's completion also will be marked at yeshivas, synagogues and in private homes with little more than a swig of whiskey, a minyan of men and recitation of the special prayers one says upon completing a tractate of the Talmud, which includes a special version of the kaddish.

Then, on Wednesday, something equally extraordinary will occur: Thousands of Jews will reopen the Talmud's first folio and start learning it anew-"just so we never want to feel like we finished something and ended it, but that every ending is a new beginning," Shafran explained.

The popularity of the Daf Yomi program has transformed Talmud study, helping make the esoteric Talmud accessible to almost anyone who wants to study it. Daf Yomi has spawned daily classes at synagogues, schools and places of business where Orthodox Jews work, a study-by-telephone program called Dial-a-Daf, and even downloadable versions of the day's Talmud portion for those wishing to read it on handheld PDA devices.

Perhaps the most significant development in the last decade and a half, however, is the anticipated completion in March of Artscroll's Schottenstein edition of the Talmud, an English translation and commentary that has made the Aramaic-and-Hebrew text of the Talmud somewhat comprehensible even to the most elementary student. The effort took 15 years, and last month the entire Schottenstein Talmud was presented to the Library of Congress at a special ceremony in Washington.

On one Long Island commuter train, the executive vice president of the National Council of Young Israel synagogue organization, Rabbi Pesach Lerner, leads a daily Talmud class aboard the 7:50 AM from Far Rockaway to Manhattan's Pennsylvania Station. His students consist of accountants, lawyers, computer programmers, stock brokers and diamond dealers-and the occasional non-Jewish commuter who finds himself in the right train car at the right time.

On Tuesday, one of the group's members will be sponsoring a breakfast in honor of the Siyum Hashas.

"We're not going to have a big shindig," Lerner said. What's more important, he said, is to study the Talmud every day, which is the whole idea behind the Daf Yomi

"It's a k'vius, a consistency. You can't skip it," Lerner said. "Besides the unity that you've got thousands and thousands of individuals learning the same page, which I have to believe makes a major impression up in the heavens, Rabbeinu Shapiro created this concept that wherever and whenever I am, I have a common language in learning with my fellow Jews."