March 3, 2005
End of Talmud study cycle celebrated by Jews worldwide
By URIEL HEILMAN
Like many of the tens of thousands of Orthodox Jews that turned out Tuesday night to celebrate the completion of the Talmud study cycle, Dovid Chait was choked up as he looked around Madison Square Garden.
The arena that is home to the NBA's Knicks had been taken over for the night by a sea of dark suits and black hats, all Jews celebrating Daf Yomi, the page-a-day Talmud study program started 82 years ago by a Polish rabbi in Vienna.
In place of the Knicks' Jerome Williams' name in lights up on the JumboTron, there was Rabbi Yaakov Perlow, the Novominsker Rebbe, his words booming around the arena. Instead of thousands of raucous, beer-drinking fans cheering on 7-foot basketball players, there were furrowed brows on sober men who stroked their beards as they listened to words of Torah from octogenarian rabbis. And in place of a celebration of the athletic prowess of basketball players, the masses at the Garden were celebrating Jewish scholarship.
"This is what this arena was built for," said Chait, a native of Queens who now lives in Jerusalem. "They think it's for the basketball, but it's really for this."
After the last page of the Talmud was read-followed by a special prayer that drew stark contrasts between pursuers of Torah and pursuers of worldly pleasures-thousands of men in dark suits and black hats took to the aisles, dancing fervently as Hasidic music blasted from the arena's speakers. In the upper tiers, the women mostly watched.
"This is the eternity of the Jewish people," Chait said. "In what other society do people celebrate knowledge as much as ours?"
At the rate of a folio page a day, it takes roughly seven and a half years to complete the Babylonian Talmud's 2,711 pages. Tuesday marked the end of the 11th cycle since the Daf Yomi program was started in 1923 by Rabbi Meir Shapiro.
As the 12th cycle of Daf Yomi got under way Wednesday with the study of the first page of Tractate Brachot, which begins with a discussion of what time the Shema may be read in the morning and in the evening, attendees of Tuesday night's events talked about how the 11th Siyum HaShas-literally, completion of the six orders of the Talmud-had been the biggest in history.
An estimated 120,000 people attended Siyum HaShas venues in North America, including sold out crowds at the Garden and at Continental Airlines Arena, home to the NBA's New Jersey Nets. A roughly equal number attended events in Israel and around the world.
In New York, the celebrations began the evening before the siyum at Gracie Mansion, the official residence of New York City's mayor.
Wearing a black velvet yarmulke and tossing around Yiddish phrases liberally, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who is Jewish, talked to his mostly Orthodox guests about the significance of the worldwide synchronized study of the Talmud-and promised to clean city's streets of the snow that was falling in time for the next day's siyum.
Then he and the city's police commissioner posed with rabbis and their wives eager for photographs as guests mingled and snacked on a kosher sushi spread. A few took a tour of the house to the tunes of the Hasidic music piped through the mansion's speaker system.
The celebration at the Garden the next day was a bit more parochial, with lengthy speeches in Yiddish sending the event into overtime. It ended with the symbolic restarting of the Talmud from the first tractate, reflecting the Simchat Torah tradition of restarting the Torah from Genesis immediately after its conclusion.
"Our work is never finished," one of the rabbis said at the event. "This is the work of the people of Israel."