Vayakhel 5765 — Siyum HaShas

 Over three thousand years ago, there was a gathering of the Jewish people to study Torah. This week’s Torah portion, Vayakhel, opens with the words:

“And Moses gathered all the congregation of the people of Israel together and said to them, These are the words which the Lord has commanded, that you should do them.”

This past Tuesday night I was at another gathering of the people of Israel. I was in New York City, at Madison Square Garden, fulfilling a promise I made to myself seven and a half years ago, before I had even decided to become a rabbi.

Seven and a half years ago I was living in the San Francisco Bay Area, working as an executive for a high-tech company. We were relatively observant, and were regular shul goers, but my Hebrew abilities were pretty marginal. Sure, I could recite the prayers, but I didn’t really have a lot of understanding of what they meant. I had started going to a once a week Talmud class given by a Chabad rabbi, and I took an online Introduction to Talmud course offered by JTS, but I certainly couldn’t study a page of Talmud without an English translation in front of me.

I read an article in the local Jewish newspaper about this huge celebration that was held in Madison Square Garden where thousands of Jews were gathered together to celebrate completing the study of the entire Babylonian Talmud. They had all completed a program called the “Daf Yomi,” where if you study a daf of Talmud every day (a daf is a two-sided page) in seven and a half years you can complete the study of the entire Talmud. I read about that celebration, and having recently celebrated Simchat Torah and enjoying the feeling of completion that comes when you read the whole Torah, even in translation, I decided I was going to give it shot. I decided that I was going to start doing this daf yomi program,

I was going to study a page of Talmud every day, and in seven and a half years I was going to go to Madison Square Garden to be a part of the next celebration.

So on Tuesday night, I was there. Having studied 5,422 pages of dense Aramaic, I was enjoying my reward of being a part of that crowd celebrating the completion of the study of the Talmud. What I would like to do this morning is share with you some of the things I learned and some of the things I felt at this amazing gathering of Jews.

First, by way of background, a word on why the Talmud is so important.  Why do we make such a big deal over the Talmud? It’s because it is really in many ways the heart Judaism. If you want to know what Judaism is all about, and you are only going to turn to one source, that source would not be the Torah—it would be the Talmud. For the Talmud contains the rabbis understanding of how we apply all those teachings in the Torah. The Torah tells us to observe the Sabbath—but the Talmud tells us what that means and how to do it. All the things we do to make Shabbat Shabbat: lighting candles on Friday night, saying blessings over wine and bread, blessing our children, enjoying a nice meal with friends and family—these are all things we learn NOT from the Torah, but from the Talmud. The Talmud has law, legend, superstition, and a unique way of approaching the world. In the Talmud you learn how to argue well, and you learn to respect other opinions. One of the things I love about studying Talmud is that it feels like “intellectual archeology.” When I study a page of Talmud I feel like I’m sitting in the study hall with these great rabbis listening to both their legal arguments and their personal anecdotes.

So on Tuesday I got some more anecdotes to add to my personal Talmud. My feeling of connection to other Jews started right when I got on the subway at 72nd street—there were a few “black hats” sitting near me, discussing which subway stop to get off for Madison Square Garden. When we got to our stop at Penn Station it was already quite an interesting sight to see—hundreds of Orthodox Jews all walking in the same direction, all streaming toward the Garden. The only other time I’ve been part of something like that was on Shavuot in Jerusalem, where, at 4 in the morning, Jews from all over the city are walking toward the Western Wall after being up all night studying.

Madison Square Garden was full–it was a sold out house. 30,000 Jews.  Not only were there 30,000 of us at the Garden, but we were linked electronically via satellite with large screen displays with similar gatherings in other places—Continental Arena in Newark, as well as gatherings in places like Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, and for the first time since the Holocaust, Jews in the home of the Daf Yomi idea, Lublin, Poland, also celebrated the siyum. All together there were 100,000 Jews all studying the same piece of Torah together at the same time, linked in person and electronically.

The story told in this week’s Torah portion – that Moses gathered the people together and told them what God commanded, in other words they studied Torah together – took place at Mt. Sinai. One of the speakers at the siyum, the Bostoner Rebbe, observed our gathering of 100,000 was the biggest crowd to be together all studying the same piece of Torah, since that gathering at Mt. Sinai. Now there’s an amazing idea!

Madison Square Garden was turned into the world’s largest Orthodox synagogue, with men on the main floor and lower levels and women up in the balcony. We started with saying the afternoon prayers. The intention and focus of the prayer leader was amazing: he was clearly on the verge of tears several times during the repetition of the Amidah, he truly had his whole heart in the words he was saying as he was praying for our communal health, prosperity, and ingathering from exile. Saying “Amen” together with 30,000 other Jews is definitely something to experience.

I was reminded of the teaching from Proverbs (14:28) “In the multitude of people is the King’s Glory” which is elaborated in the Talmud (Brachot 53a) where we learn that it’s better that people should pray together, rather than each one pray for himself, because “In the multitude of people is the King’s glory.”

The Daf Yomi program is a relatively recent innovation. It was started by Rabbi Meir Shapira, the rabbi of Lublin, Poland, in 1923. Jews had been studying Talmud since before it was written down; Rabbi Shapira’s innovation was to suggest a schedule whereby Jews all over the world would study the same page of Talmud on a given day, which would allow someone who was traveling to find other people to study with who were studying the same page of Talmud. The idea caught on, leading to the most recent completion of the cycle.

In 1923, Europe was the great center for Jewish learning. In those days before the Holocaust, the vast majority of the world’s great scholars in Jewish learning were in Europe. The celebration of the siyum was made in honor of the 6 million Jews who perished in the Holocaust, and especially as a kind of honor to the Torah scholars and learning that was lost. In honor of the European roots of the Daf Yomi, several of the speakers at the siyum spoke in Yiddish. I had to buy one of the $10 headsets over which they provided a simultaneous translation to understand what they were saying. R. Chaskel Beser said in his introduction that when he first came to America 60 years ago they called it a “treife medina,” an “impure land.” He said he never imagined there would be 100,000 Jews in America all celebrating completing the Talmud.

There are some Jews who believe that the days of the Messiah, the era of great peace and harmony, will be preceded by a very difficult period, the “birthpangs of the Messiah.” Not unlike what we went through with the Holocaust. There is a teaching in the Talmud which says one famous rabbi said he did not want to see the Messiah, because he did not want to have to live through the painful period leading up to it. R. Chaim Stein from the Telshe Yeshiva in Cleveland said that the Daf program was in a way a Jewish preparation for the difficult days ahead in the Holocaust. R. Stein said we prepare for the difficult days is by studying Torah and doing acts of kindness. He said it is the responsibility of every Jew who survived the Holocaust to help rebuild Torah, to learn and study, and rebuild the learning that was destroyed by the Nazis.

R. Stein started doing the Daf Yomi in 1938. He was given the honor of doing the actual siyum, the actual teaching completing our studying the last page of the Talmud.

We’re now going to do our own siyum, we will study the last teaching in the Talmud. I’m very glad so many of you were able to come today to help me celebrate!

And the completion of the Talmud is your party too. Just as many of you are here to help Alexx celebrate a milestone in her Jewish learning—her bat mitzvah—the completion of the daf yomi cycle is a celebration for all Jews as well.

One of the speakers, Rabbi Hershkowitz, shared an interesting story. He said someone approached him a few days before the siyyum, saying he was thinking of going, but thought that perhaps he shouldn’t because he didn’t study the whole Talmud so it’s not his party. The rabbi said, “no, of course you should go (if you can get a ticket). This is a celebration for all Israel. The ones who didn’t complete help the ones who did celebrate.  We are all “machatunim” (parents of the bride and groom).

So here we go, completing the Talmud:

The last teaching in the Talmud (Niddah 73a) says:

“The Tanna debe Eliyahu [teaches]: Whoever learns halachas, Jewish
teachings, every day is assured that he will have a place in the World To
Come, for it is said, Halikoth — the world is his; (Chabakuk 3:6) read
not halikoth but halakoth.”

The Tanna brings proof from a verse that by learning some halacha, something about Jewish law every day you are assured a place in the world to come. In a way this passage is the foundation for the great reverence that Jews have traditionally placed on learning—which may be one reason why we are so over-represented in professions that rely on learning, like law, medicine, and science.

R. Stein tied this to a teaching from the Tur, a 14th century code of Jewish law: After beginning the day at services in the synagogue followed by a period of Torah study, we are to go off to work, “because Torah without a livelihood will eventually come undone and turn into sin. For if we have nothing to eat, poverty will soon bring us to violate God’s word.

Nevertheless, we ought not to make our livelihood primary but secondary. The study of Torah should be the center of our lives as it was for the early pietists, who made their livelihood secondary and the study of Torah primary and both flourished” (Orah Hayyim 156).

The ideal for a Jew traditionally has been to combine Torah with derech eretz, to combine learning with making a living—but you should remember that learning is the thing that’s really important.

It’s difficult to make time to study every day. During the last seven and a half years I’ve learned to squeeze in a few minutes of learning Talmud on coffee breaks, at lunch, on occasion even when stuck in traffic. All too often I do some learning at 11:30 at night when my mind is not at it’s sharpest.

But our rabbis teach that this is the path not only to eternal life, but to a better life in this world. Now there are some people who say, well, I’m too busy now, I’ll study …and insert your favorite future time here: when the kids are all back to school, when I get the next promotion, when I make partner, when I retire. But to that the great rabbi Hillel said, “do not say I will study when I have leisure, for perhaps you will never have leisure.”

Reverence for study and learning Torah is something that binds all Jews together. Several of the speakers pointed out this was a great celebration of Clal Yisrael, of all the people of Israel. They spoke about how there were Ashkenazi and Sefardi Jews, Chassidic Jews, Jews from all over the world celebrating together. One harsh note for me, however, was when R. Shmuel Bloom, the Exec VP of Agudath Israel said “we have Jews who go to Agudath synagogues, who go to Chasidic synagogues, who go to OU synagogues all together.” Not mentioning at all that there were also Jews there—at least one—who goes to a Conservative synagogue!

But in a way I can’t blame him—mine was a lonely grey hat in a sea of black hats.

There are three times as many Conservative Jews than Orthodox Jews in America. Torah is just as much our legacy it is their legacy. Torah is the spiritual heritage of all Jews, regardless of what kind of synagogue you go to. Yet the Orthodox managed to fill Madison Square Garden with people who studied the entire Talmud. We could probably fit all the Conservative Jews who studied the entire Talmud in the last seven and half years comfortably into our chapel, let alone this sanctuary.

Seven and a half years ago, reading about other people completing the daf yomi inspired me to give it a shot. I’m hoping that my sharing the story of completing the daf will inspire you to do the same. The last seven and a half years have been a time of amazing learning for me, and I hope the next seven and a half years will be a time of amazing learning for all of us.

One of the speakers, R. Hershkowitz talked about how he never finishes a lesson with the end of a chapter—he always leaves a little something over, or starts something else. You should not be content that you finished a chapter—or that you finished the whole shas, the whole Talmud. You need to start over, keep going.

I hope that Alexx today feels the way I did on Tuesday night. Not a feeling of “wow, I did it, I’m done,” but rather a feeling like “nice milestone—now let’s keep learning.” Because for a Jew, learning is a lifelong enterprise. It’s just like exercise and diet. If you go on a diet and start working out every day, you can feel good when you reach your goal. But if you quit working out, you’re going to get fat again.  Reaching your goal does not mean you’re done and finished and can sit on your tuchas.

So having just finished the Talmud, let’s start over.

The very first teaching in the Talmud, Brachot 2a, says

“From when do we recite the evening Shema?” Rabbi Hershkowitz brought a teaching from the Yerushalmi, the Palestinian Talmud, which focuses on the word “korin,” recites. The word is written in the plural form. Why is it written in the plural form? To teach us that everyone must recite the Shema for himself—it’s not enough to have someone else say it for you.

It’s the same way with Jewish learning. You can’t have someone else do it for you. Not your spouse and definitely not your rabbi. We all need to do our own learning and take ownership of it. If you want to start studying the daf yomi, Artscroll has a great English translation of the whole thing, with explanatory footnotes that really make it possible to study on your own. You can buy it a volume at a time—and you’ll go through a volume every six weeks or so. There are great resources available on the internet.

Another speaker, Rabbi Frand, said last time there were 50,000 people celebrating the siyum, this time there were 100,000. He said a big part of the reason why is the inspiration of this event. Studying the Talmud is not elitist anymore. He said when people see their friends doing it, they get an attitude of “if you can do it, I can too.” Nothing encourages people like the knowledge that other people are doing it too, there’s a real ripple effect. I did it, I at least got started, when I was a lay person, just like you. You can do it too. God willing, in seven and a half years there will be a lot more “gray hats” at Madison Square Garden.

If studying the whole Talmud seems too ambitious for you, pick something else. If you read a chapter of the Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible every day—something which takes about five or ten minutes—in two and a half years you will have read the whole thing. Or pick up a contemporary Jewish book and read a little something from it every day.

May God strengthen us in our efforts to learn and to teach and to grow.

May the Torah we learn inspire us to deeds of charity and kindness and to more learning.


Barry Leff

Rabbi Barry (Baruch) Leff is a dual Israeli-American business executive, teacher, speaker and writer who divides his time between Israel and the US.

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