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It Happened 100 Years Ago on Rosh HaShana

In 1923, the first issue of Time Magazine was published … the first game at Yankee Stadium was played … and the Walt Disney Company was founded.

It was also a momentous year for another important reason, at least for the Jewish community: 100 years ago, on Rosh haShana, the very first Daf Yomi cycle began.

It was the brainchild of Rabbi Meir Shapiro, who was born in Romania in 1887. If he were alive today, I’m sure he would be kvelling. What started out as a promising idea that he shared at the first General Assembly of Agudas Israel in 1923 has exploded into a worldwide phenomenon, engaging hundreds of thousands of Jews in daily Talmud study.

In his remarks at the convention in 1923, Rabbi Shapiro hoped that his proposal would not only impact the Torah learning of Jewish individuals, but would create more unity that would result from this simultaneous learning experience.

Listen to what Rabbi Shapiro said at the General Assembly, 100 years ago:

“How great it is! A Jew travels by boat and takes a tractate of Berachot in his arm.  He travels for 15 days from Eretz Yisrael to America, and each day he opens the Gemara and studies the daf. When he arrives in America, he enters a beit midrash in New York, and finds Jews studying the very same page that he studied that day, which allows him to happily join their study group. Another Jew leaves the United States and travels to Brazil.  He returns to the beit midrash and finds people immersed in the very page that he studied that day. Can there be a greater unity of hearts than this?”

Indeed, his words could not be truer today. Jews from around the world … from different backgrounds … speaking different languages … sounding different … wearing different kinds of yarmulkes on their heads and different types of clothing … are literally all on the same page!

Men and women … those learning online and offline … those learning at Agudas Israel in Brooklyn and at Agudat Sholom in Stamford … all doing the daf. We often take this for granted, but it really is an amazing accomplishment.

So how did this all come to be?

As mentioned, it started at the first General Assembly of Agudas Israel in Vienna in August 1923. In attendance was the Chofetz Chaim, Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzinsky, the Gerrer Rebbe, and Rav Elchonon Wasserman, among other Torah luminaries.

Rabbi Meir Shapiro, who was 36 years old at the time, proposed that beginning on Rosh haShana – September 11, 1923 – Jews around the world would begin learning Daf Yomi.

The response from the elders on the committee was mixed. Some members were enthusiastic, but others were lukewarm at best, as they felt the program would dumb down the learning of Talmud. Interestingly it’s a similar argument that some make today as to why one should not use the ArtScroll Talmud.

At the conclusion of the convention, it was agreed that Rabbi Shapiro could proceed with his idea, not in the name of the organization but as his personal program. Basically, the committee gave him its blessing, but told him that he was on his own.

One of his biggest supporters was the Gerrer Rebbe. After maariv services concluded on the first night of Rosh haShana, he said to his followers: “I am now going to begin studying Daf Yomi.”  These few words from the Gerrer Rebbe created great excitement among tens of thousands of Gerrer chassidim, and they all joined the Daf Yomi program.

The Chofetz Chaim was also a big supporter of Daf Yomi, too. He said, “You have done a tremendous thing, and in heaven they are rejoicing because of your initiative. The thrones of all the tractates will be filled, and the joy in heaven will be beyond measure. This is why you deserve the greatest congratulations.”

The very first Siyum haShas was held on February 2, 1931, which was Tu b’Shvat.  The main siyum was held at Rabbi Meir Shapiro’s yeshiva, Yeshiva Chachmei Lublin in Poland, which had just opened. It was the only Siyum haShas that Rabbi Shapiro attended, as he died three years later. In addition to the main celebration in Poland, smaller celebrations were held in Baltimore and Philadelphia.

Rabbi Shapiro was not only a first-rate talmid chacham; he was a marketing genius as well.

Let me explain.

If a rabbi came up to you and said that he felt it was important for you to learn all 2,700 pages of the Talmud, you would probably view the task as much too daunting.  However, if you were told that it was important to devote 45 minutes a day in the morning for Talmud study for seven and a half years, suddenly the task seems much more manageable.

What Rabbi Shapiro realized is that if you divide a task into bite-size portions, it’s viewed in a totally different way.  This was Rabbi Shapiro’s marketing genius in developing the Daf Yomi program.

There is a famous midrash in which the following question is asked: What verse in the Torah captures the essence of Judaism?

Ben Zoma said it’s the Sh’ma verse, a reasonable answer. Ben Nana disagrees and says it’s the famous verse, “V’ahavta l’reiecha kamocha.” Not a bad choice either.

Comes along Rav Shimon ben Pazzi, who offers a third possibility: “Et hakeves echad ta’aseh baboker, v’et hakeves hasheini ta’aseh bein ha’arbaim.” We should bring the daily offering, once every morning and once every evening.

So they took a vote … and which of the three emerged as the winner? Surprisingly it was the sentence about the daily offering.

The Midrash asks why are the sentences about God’s unity and the importance of loving kindness overshadowed by a peculiar instruction to offer animal sacrifices twice a day?

The answer lies in the importance of living our lives consistently. If you are unable to create a habit, a pattern, a ritual in your life … if you cannot live with temidut …. Then you are missing a critical part of Judaism. And that’s why the daily offering sentence is the most important sentence in the Torah that best captures the essence of Judaism.

That is the greatness of Daf Yomi. The fact that one can take on a commitment to learn the daf each and every day creates a sense of temidut.

Our commitment to stay on track – regardless of reluctance, hindrance, or other barriers – must always be present, because without that daily commitment as the anchor of our Jewish life, spiritual beliefs and proclamations will get lost in abstractions. Just like the daily offerings of sacrifices remind us of our commitments, so too are we reminded and encouraged to grow, evolve, and persist.

And that just might be the real benefit of the Daf Yomi program that was developed 100 years ago.

About the Author
Michael Feldstein, who lives in Stamford, CT, is the author of "Meet Me in the Middle," a collection of essays on contemporary Jewish life. His articles and letters have appeared in The Jewish Link, The Jewish Week, The Forward, and The Jewish Press. He can be reached at michaelgfeldstein@gmail.com
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