Last night I attended a packed house event at Binyanei Hauma – the Jerusalem Convention Centre. Tickets were sold out a long time ago and there were some tickets which were being sold on the black market as many people who had not applied early enough, attempted to get a seat.
And this was only one of many such events taking place throughout Israel in the coming weeks, including yesterdays full 70,000 house at the New York Mets stadium, and a similar event at the Wembley Arena in London.
It wasn’t a football game (UK or American version it doesn’t matter), nor was it the final reunion of the Rolling Stones or Simon and Garfunkel (or replace this with any name of your favourite singer or band).
It was an event to celebrate the completion of the latest cycle of Daf Yomi, the daily study of the entire Talmud, which takes over seven years to complete. All over the world, people have been studying the same page of the Talmud – in synagogues, in office lunch hours, on the bus, train or plane or in small groups of family or neighbours – with a persistence never to miss a page or a day, and to keep up with the rest of the world.
The idea, originally thought up by Rabbi Meir Shapiro in Poland in 1923, has now reached the end of its thirteenth cycle, and as each new cycle begins, more and more people are joining up for the challenge of completing the next seven year cycle. Not everyone who starts, necessarily makes it to the finish line, but the majority do and there is an immense sense of personal self satisfaction for those who make it – especially those who did not necessarily grow up in the sort of Jewish environment where they studied Talmud in school or at home from a young age.
In recent years, the study of Daf Yomi has been assisted by the production of many new sets of the Talmud, in Hebrew, English and many other languages, containing both traditional and more recent commentaries, diagrams and charts, and other learning aids, many of which can be accessed through the internet, assisting the first time learner to reach his or her level of proficiency. The hardest bit for the beginner is to get over the first month or two and to get into a regular cycle where the study of Daf Yomi becomes as permanent a part of the daily schedule as does eating breakfast, catching the train to work or being on time for an important meeting.
And if someone is a regular traveler, he/she knows that they can walk into any synagogue anywhere in the world, thousands of miles distant from their home, and the people sitting around the table will be studying exactly the same page and you can take up where you were just 24 hours previously without missing a beat.
If that isn’t globalization, I don’t know what it.
There are, of course, many different ways of studying Talmud. There are the traditional methods of the Yeshivot and orthodox synagogues, but there are also – and this is on the increase in recent years – more critical approaches with a greater emphasis on social and historical context than simply on Halacha. People who finish one cycle and immediately start all over again, change their approach or add commentaies for whom they didn’t have sufficient time during the previous cycle, always finding something new in the same page which they studied a few years previously. There are many people who have now completed the entire Shas three or four time, or even more, during their lifetime, while it has also become a popular pastime for retirees who, during their working life did not have the time or energy for such a task, but now find the time to sit down on a daily basis, without the external pressures of having to make a living or be at the office, and devote their time to the study cycle.
This coming Sunday, Binyanei Hauma will be full again, but this time for a womens only celebration of finishing the entire Shas, for the first time.
Within study groups, it also creates amazing friendships and social ties, and there have been many groups which have subsequently gone on to form volunteer groups, charities and other bonds which tie them together as family.
When Rabbi Shapiro originally conceived of the idea at the First World Congress of the World Agudath Israel in Vienna in August 1923, he could never have dreamed what would be taking place almost one hundred years later. It is study for the sake of study, with no one checking your attendance, no examinations at the end of each section of the Talmud, and no other obligation than your own stubborn intention to get from one page to the next and to reach the finishing line, seven and a half years down the road.
Anyone who studies Talmud, at whatever level, is aware of the fact that there are easier and more difficult sections. There are topics which seem, especially to the critical student, to have more or less relevance to the contemporary world. There are those topics which touch on basic concepts of belief, while others which are bogged down in the detail of ritual and daily practice. There is a certain style of discussion and of argument, of raising questions and providing proofs, and, perhaps most important of all – there are those topics which the Sages of the past could not resolve and were left unanswered under the terminology of “Teiku” – meaning that we will have to wait for the coming of the Prophet Elijah at a future date to provide the answer.
How beautiful that the word Teiku (like so many other Talmudic words and expressions) has become the modern Hebrew terminology for a tie or a draw at a sporting event, the sort of event which takes place more often in the stadiums and halls where the completion of Daf Yomi is now being celebrated.
In its wake, many other traditional Jewish texts – be it the Mishna, the Rambam or Halachic texts – are also studied on a daily basis, by those who maybe don’t have the time for a full portfolio of Talmud, or are perhaps seeking additional learning experiences. And even devoting an hour a day to the study of the Daf only allows one to come away with a superficial understanding of what is on the page – in the Yeshivot, full time students spend a whole year on one small section of the Talmud and delve into the topics and their commentaries in much greater depth. It can take advanced students weeks to get through a topic which only takes up a few lines on the original page – but that is not the target group of the Daf Yomi students.
Indeed, the original idea as conceived by Rabi Shapiro was aimed at the working man, the person who was not a full time student but who, so he believed, should find time to undertake some daily study.
Rabbi Shapiro passed away at a relatively young age of 46 in October 1933. In the 1920’s he had been the first orthodox Jewish member of the Polish Parliament. Newspapers across the entire political and religious spectrum, featured front-page biographies of Rabbi Shapiro. He was buried in Poland, but in 1958 his remains were transferred and reinterred in Israel.
Given the intervening Holocaust which, at the time, decimated Eastern European orthodox Jewry, the legacy left by Shapiro is even the more remarkable. The crowds filling the sports stadia and concert halls throughout the next few weeks are evidence of this – and the fact that the daily study cycle is being taken up by many other groups throughout the Jewish world, well beyond the study halls of the Yeshivot and the orthodox synagogues (where eighty percent of such study takes place) is perhaps the greatest legacy of the importance attached to education and knowledge which is such an integral part of the Jewish experience.
On a parting note of interest, for many Israelis the Jerusalem Convention centre is more associated with concerts of Israeli singers and musicians, than it is for Talmud study. It is perhaps worth noting that the one of Israel’s great contemporary singers, Shlomo Artzi, is the great nephew of Rabbi Shapiro (thanks to Michael Wegier for pointing this out to me). Perhaps, as the latest Talmud cycle comes to its end, and we immediately start (on the very next day) the next cycle, yesterday’s venue which has probably hosted far more Shlomo Artzi concerts than it has the completion of Daf Yomi, can also symbolise a connection between various forms and styles of Jewish culture – past and present. Heretical that may sound to some readers, but worth thinking about in this diverse, and all too often contested, space of defining what constitutes culture and learning in the year 2020.