David Walk

Torah, Torah, Torah! 

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My wife’s parents OB”M are buried in Har Menuchot, here in Jerusalem. It’s a really massive cemetery, but we have no trouble finding their graves. They’re buried just a few meters from Rav Meir Shapiro (1887-1933). There’s a fine structure built over his grave, which can be seen from all around. There are also signs directing people to the scene of his tomb. Why? Because he instituted Daf Yomi. 

Rav Shapiro was really an amazing individual. He was the first Orthodox Jew elected to the Sejm, or Polish parliament in 1922, and he was the head of the Chachmei Lublin Yeshiva. But, of course, he’s most remembered for Daf Yomi.  

As many of you know, it takes a little over 7 years to complete all of the Talmud at the rate of one daf or folio page per day. the process was introduced by Rav Shapiro at the Agudath Yisrael Convention in 1923, but  it took a little while to take off.  

There was a siyum or completion ceremony in the US for every cycle, but the first time the event was of note came at the end of the 6th cycle and was commemorated at the Bis Ya’akov of Boro Park, Brooklyn in 1968, when over 300 attended. But that was the just beginning of this event’s growth. The next cycle, in 1975 was in Manhattan with over 5,000 in attendance. Then it stayed steady in 1982, because they couldn’t get a larger venue, but for the ninth cycle, the Jews of New York went all in by booking Madison Square Garden over 2 years in advance, and were rewarded with an overflow crowd of over 20,000 participants.  The 10th cycle siyum was held simultaneously at Madison Square Garden and the Nassau Colliseum for about 40,000. The 11th was held in three location for about 50,000. Then came the 12th siyum at Met Life Stadium in New Jersey, all 92,000 tickets were sold and there was an overflow crowd watching on a Jumbotron outside. They’ve basically run out of venues large enough for the event. The 13th, again sold out Met Life Stadium, which is amazing because it was held outdoors in January, 2020. For the less hardy, there was another 25,000 participants in the Barclay’s Center in Brooklyn.  

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So, now you can understand why there’s a nice structure over Rav Meir’s tomb. He posthumously, became very famous. 

This exponential growth of Talmud study is a big part of my story of the resurgence of vibrant Orthodoxy in America in 1960’s.  

When I was a kid, there were very few adults studying Talmud. The one regular Talmud class I remember being announced in my shul in the early 60’s was Ein Ya’akovwhich is a selection of Aggadata or stories from the Talmud.  

I’ve already written about Torah U’Mesora and the phenomenal growth of day schools in America, but this spread of Talmud study is another phenomenon with all kinds of ramifications. If more people are studying Talmud, you need more teachers, and you need more texts. I’m planning another article on the growth of Jewish publishing in America, but let me state here that publishing the texts for Daf Yomi and translations into English is a business unto itself. People who had no Hebrew book in their homes growing up (like me), soon had complete libraries, which would have made a shul or school in Eastern Europe proud. 

This was a totally unexpected development. If you check general adult education in America, it’s mostly about literacy and numeracy, basic skills. That the Orthodox adult population is engaged in advanced study is truly remarkable and unique.  

For me this is very ironic, when I was in YU in the late 60’s and Daf Yomi was just raising its profile on the horizon, most of my teachers denigrated the effort. They said it’s fine for very basic learners, but a real Talmud Chacham (scholar) doesn’t learn bekiyut (quick, survey style study), rather he does iyun, intense study, which can’t be measured in pages per diem. Well, the world changed, and quickly. 

Tomorrow is Shavuot, Z’man Matan Torateinu, the annual recreation of the revelation at Sinai. Normally, many thousands attend all night learning session here in Jerusalem, and many tens of thousands around the world. Covid-19 will curtail this year’s efforts.  

I remember, fondly, staying up all night from the time of my bar mitzva until I went to YU. It was a lot of fun, and I felt important, because even though my home town had 5 Orthodox shuls, I was needed to make the one minyan for the pooled resources of all of them. I’m not sure how much I learned during those all-nighters’, but they gave us beer and that was reward enough for me. 

By the end of the 70’s, adult Torah study was definitely a thing, and it’s been growing ever since. 

Next: The Reaping! 

About the Author
Born in Malden, MA, 1950. Graduate of YU, taught for Rabbi Riskin in Riverdale, NY, and then for 18 years in Efrat with R. Riskin and R. Brovender at Yeshivat Hamivtar. Spent 16 years as Educational Director, Cong. Agudath Sholom, Stamford, CT. Now teach at OU Center and Yeshivat Orayta.
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