As nearly 100,000 Jews prepare to travel to the Meadowlands on Wednesday to celebrate the completion of a 7 Â½-year cycle of daily cover-to-cover Talmud study, Jody Eisenman has advice for anyone thinking of jumping on board.
“The hardest thing is beginning,” he said. “Once you survive for a certain period of time – one month, two months – it becomes like second nature, like anything else you do every day.”
Eisenman, who lives in Teaneck, started about 20 years ago. This will be his third time at the Siyum HaShas celebration. (Siyum HaShas means “completion of the Talmud.” The study cycle is called Daf Yomi, which means daily page.)
While the final composition of the Talmud took place at least 1,300 years ago, the Daf Yomi cycle is a 20th-century innovation, dreamed up by Agudath Israel, an organization originally formed to unite strictly Orthodox Jews against the breakdown of tradition sweeping European Jewish communities as a result of religious reform, secularism, socialism, and Zionism. It was at Agudath Israel’s 1923 convention that Rabbi Yehuda Meir Shapira, a Talmud scholar and teacher who also represented Agudath Israel in the Polish parliament, proposed the cycle of daily Talmud study, which would start with the first page of the Talmud at the upcoming Jewish new year.
A page a day is a large commitment – particularly because a “page” of Talmud consists of two sides of a closely typeset print. Translated and explicated into English, it can become seven or eight pages.
Even with help from English, it’s a time commitment of about an hour a day.
Eisenman recalled that when he took up Daf Yomi, “I was looking to take on something additional in my life spiritually and this sort of came into my hands.”
Will he do it again?
“You never want to go down spiritually. I never want to give it up. So long as I’m able to do it, I’m going to continue, God willing,” he said.
When he first started, he attended classes and listened to tapes. Now, he relies more on the ArtScroll translation and commentary. And continued study makes a difference. “It’s a good feeling when you remember something from before,” he said.
For Leon Miller, also of Teaneck, this is the second time through the cycle. The first time, he studied mostly on his own. Now, he takes part in an informal small study group that meets at Congregation Bnai Yeshurun in Teaneck every evening.
A larger class draws between 30 and 40 people at 5:30 every morning at the synagogue. Other classes meet daily at several other Teaneck Orthodox synagogues, as well as in Englewood and Fair Lawn.
“You’re learning some Torah every day,” Miller said, explaining the attraction. “It advances your knowledge of Talmud and you’re studying topics you probably never learned in yeshivah. After seven and half years, it’s nice to know you’ve done something for seven and half years straight.”
He won’t single out one of the 2,711 pages in the Talmud as a favorite. “Every day you learn something new. Just going through the daf is challenging enough and rewarding,” he said.
Like many participants, he is looking forward to attending the Siyum HaShas celebration. “It is an event that brings together people from all walks of life, and shows a tremendous achdus, unity,” he said.
Not all of the attendees on Wednesday night will be Daf Yomi students. Nearly a quarter of the seats have been set aside for women, who are barred from studying Talmud in Agudath Israel’s interpretation of Jewish law. A barrier separating the women’s section from the men’s is being installed in the stadium, at a reported cost of $250,000. Seats in the women’s section are available at all levels on the stadium, though not on the field itself.
Susan Choueka, whose husband leads a congregation and teaches a Daf Yomi class in Long Branch, told the Sephardi monthly Community that she was anticipating attending the Siyum with excitement.
“We receive olam haba” – a reward in the world to come – “through the Torah learning of our husbands,” she said. “We must remember that we are the ones who enable and empower the men to learn.”
While the stadium celebration reportedly is sold out, as of press time a handful of tickets still are available on ebay.com. On the TeaneckShuls mailing list, there has been a stream of messages offering and seeking spare tickets. Ticket prices range from $18, for the highest levels behind the dais, to $1,000. According to Agudath Israel, the tickets are tax deductible, just as high holy day synagogue tickets are.
Despite the talk of unity, even the Orthodox world isn’t coming together. In Israel, Ashkenazic and Sephardic Orthodox political parties are sponsoring separate celebrations.
At the Agudath Israel celebrations at the 80,000-seat MetLife Stadium, the Vishnitzer Rebbe of Monsey reportedly has withdrawn his participation, protesting the inclusion of former Israeli Chief Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, who is a Zionist.
And in New York the following Monday night, a coalition of liberal Orthodox groups are sponsoring their own celebration at Congregation Shearith Israel, featuring a roster of Modern Orthodox – and co-ed – speakers. Among the sponsors are Congregation Netivot Shalom in Teaneck, whose Rabbi Nethaniel Helfgot will speak at the event.
For those considering taking the plunge and interested in studying the Talmud from cover to cover, Miller offers encouragement.
“They should try it. They should do it. It takes hold of you and the more you put into it the more you’ll get out of it.”