By Jackie Schicker
Daf Yomi participants come from around the world to celebrate the end of a seven-and-a-half-year cycle of reading a page of Talmud a day.
Once every seven-and-a-half years, an extraordinary event occurs: Talmud scholars from around the world complete the study of the sacred text. The Daf Yomi (literally, “page of the day”) cycle dates back to Rosh Hashanah 5684, Sept. 11, 1923, when Rabbi Meir Shapiro, at the premier Agudath Israel assembly, proposed that individuals around the world read a page a day of the Babylonian Talmud, which would take seven-and-a-half years to complete. He envisioned that after each cycle, there then would be a celebration, a siyum. In 2005, nearly 120,000 people met across the United States to celebrate the accomplishment of Daf Yomi’s 11th cycle, that of reading one page a day of the 2,711-pages of text.
The 12th cycle ended Thursday, Aug. 2. The Siyum Hashas, an international celebration of global Jewish learning, took place the night of Aug. 1, at the MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., with more than 90,000 people in attendance. Hours before the event, Young Israel of Houston’s Rabbi Yehoshua Wender emailed an invitation and reminder to his constituents: “Join together with 6 continents, 17 countries, 85 cities, and 175,000 Jews from around the globe who will be viewing the 12th Siyum Hashas live from MetLife stadium in New Jersey.” Rabbi Yaakov Nagel, who teaches the Daf Yomi group in Houston, and his family attended, along with Zev Monk and others. The siyum included an array of video presentations, speeches and music, and according to Houston Rabbi Yossi Grossman, who attended, “It was dedicated to the victims of the Holocaust.”
Rabbi Grossman, who heads the Jewish Ethics Institute, led a group of around 15 Houstonians to the siyum. He related that Houstonian Geoffrey Singer, said, “How could I miss the greatest gathering of Jews since the destruction of the Temple. I felt like I had to be there to be part of this celebration of Torah and affirmation that Judaism is thriving.”
Mincha prayer services began at 6:10 p.m.; the program commenced at 6:25, with the official siyum running from 7:45-9. Services at the event were led in Orthodox style and the mechitza measured 2½ miles long. According to Rabbi Grossman, “Its curtains were drawn during prayers and opened when they were over. Women in the upper deck prayed from prayer books, listened intently to speeches and took cell phone videos of the gathering. Men rushed around the stadium’s hallways and field when not praying.”
More than 1.5 million lines of mishnayot were learned by children, masmideiha siyum, in preparation of the Siyum Hashas, to honor the 1.5 million children who perished in the Holocaust. The masmideiha siyum made a presentation at MetLife following an introduction by Rabbi Dovid Olewski, Rosh Mesivta Beis Yisroel D’gur. More than 6 million lines of Gemara have been learned, also, in honor of each individual Jewish person who perished during the Shoah.
Siyum worldwide included women’s groups, as well as men’s, and a weeklong Talmud simcha in Israel. Members of chevruta (study groups) worldwide work to remind others that it is not only a commitment made by Haredim, ultra-Orthodox Jews, but something that holds special meaning for Jews of all backgrounds.
Local Daf Yomi celebrations
Texas hosts five different Daf Yomi groups, two in Dallas, one in Austin and one in Houston. Rabbi Nagel hosts the Houston study sessions and uses the Schottenstein edition of the Bavli Talmud, published by Artscroll, as do most communities affiliated with Daf Yomi, internationally. “Rabbi Nagel is an official makhtershir [leader] of a group,” said Houston Daf Yomi participant, Dr. David Jacobson. “They were honored in New Jersey, I think a thousand makhteshirim.”
In Houston, in solidarity with Daf Yomi’s international completion, Young Israel hosted a viewing party of the siyum, which was streamed live the night of Aug. 1. Between 50 and 60 members of the community came “just to observe this event, which was incredible,” said Jacobson, who is one of Daf Yomi Houston’s six year-round students who learn with Rabbi Nagel. Following the siyum broadcast, many people remained to daven the evening service at 11.
The Houston Daf Yomi group began its learning in the middle of the 11th cycle, finishing one complete reading in the middle of the Daf Yomi international 12th cycle. A local Siyum Hashas was held at the completion of this local schedule.
Of the daily time commitment to study and members of his chevruta, Jacobson said, “We give it [Talmud study] an hour every day,” and that they are exceptionally grateful to have Rabbi Nagel lead them so diligently with a half-hour review of the previous day’s page and the second half-hour with the new page. When Rabbi Nagel is out of town, other leaders teach Talmud. Finishing up the last two weeks of cycle 12, yeshiva student Dovid Reich led the group, allowing Rabbi Nagel to travel to New Jersey. According to the students, Reich had done a fantastic job.
Jacobson noted that Daf Yomi has presented him with an opportunity to be a member of an important movement, having come from a “family who’s not religious.” He told the JHV that “over the last hundred of years, I’m probably the only Jew in my family to even open a book of Gemara, let alone have completed a book of it.”
According to Jacobson, the “meaningful connection” that Daf Yomi has provided has helped him raise his three children Jewishly, send both his daughters and son to Yeshiva University, and has blessed him and his wife, Suzanne Jacobson, with two granddaughters who, like the rest of the family, are shomer Shabbos. His youngest, and only son, is neither ready to be engaged nor married, like his older siblings, but he is a member of the a capella group, the Maccabeats, which shares Judaism with its audience.
Upon his return to Houston, the JHV spoke to Rabbi Nagel about the next cycle – the 13th cycle of Daf Yomi. “It’s another opportunity – the Bar Mitzvah cycle,” said Rabbi Nagel. “The excitement of people wanting to study the word of G-d, and may it continue.”
When Rabbi Nagel began Daf Yomi in Houston, there were many “naysayers in the beginning,” he said. “Sure enough, there was interest, and interest grew, and thankfully, it was a tremendous opportunity for people to connect.”
Ultimately, for Jacobson and others worldwide, Daf Yomi is about “maintaining a connection,” just as Rabbi Shapiro, its founder, had hoped it would be.
Regardless of religious affiliation, members of the community are welcome to begin the new cycle of Daf Yomi, taught by Rabbi Nagel at Young Israel, 7823 Ludington St., in Southwest Houston. The group meets Monday-Friday, 7-8 a.m., and the class repeats at 9:15 p.m. On Shabbat, it meets in the afternoon and on Sundays, 8:45 a.m., repeating at 9:15 p.m.
Lawrence S Levy also contributed to this story.