Yair Shahak not only knows how many proverbs King Solomon was said to have written — 3,000 — and which biblical figure was described as “a maker of parables” — Ezekiel — but he was able to conjure up those facts — quickly, on live TV, in fluent Hebrew — as one of 16 contestants in the International Bible Contest Champion of Champions competition held in Jerusalem during Chanukah.
Bergen County was well represented among the 16 finalists; both Mr. Shahak and fellow contestant Rabbi Ezra Frazer live in Teaneck.
They were eligible to try out for the contest by virtue of their achievements in previous international adult Bible contests. Mr. Shahak, 30, tied for first place in 2016, and Rabbi Frazer, 40, placed second in 2012. (Rabbi Frazer also won the U.S. National Bible Contest for Youth in 1994, placed fifth in the international youth contest in 1995, and coordinated the National Bible Contest from 2009 to 2016.)
In the end, neither of these serious Bible buffs had enough accumulated points to progress past the first round of the televised oral quiz, and Elior Yehuda Babian from Beit Shemesh was crowned Champion of Champions.
However, they said they were thrilled to take part in the one-of-a-kind event, staged by the Education Ministry in honor of the 60th year of the Chidon HaTanach (Bible Contest) and the 70th anniversary of the State of Israel.
The syllabus was almost impossibly broad, encompassing 842 of the Hebrew Scriptures’ 929 chapters. “Neither of us had that much time to study for it,” Rabbi Frazer said. “We knew going in it was unlikely we would place that high. But I knew if I had a good experience in Israel I’d walk away happy, and we both had a great time.” “Not much time” is quite an understatement for these two busy teachers and fathers.
Mr. Shahak and his wife, Yaelle Frohlich, became first-time parents less than 30 days before the written qualifying test was given in August. They had just moved to Teaneck and Mr. Shahak was about to start a new full-time job teaching Hebrew at the Frisch School in Paramus. That’s in addition to his bar/bat mitzvah and wedding gigs as a vocalist and violinist (note the violin on his tie in the photo) and his duties as cantor of the Rimon Center for Jewish Learning in East Windsor.
“The last half a year has been a whirlwind of changes, and I was fully aware that my time for studying for the Chidon was probably going to be an hour a week, so why did I do this? I told my students that Tanach is something that goes beyond meaning a lot for me. It’s really part of who I am,” Mr. Shahak said. “Every single day I find some time to study it. I especially love Job, Isaiah, and Proverbs.”
Moreover, he wanted to show his students “that if you really want something you should just go for it, embrace the challenge, and accept that you may not come out on top. I think it’s an important message not to be afraid of getting something wrong, especially when it’s something you have a passion for.”
Rabbi Frazer, the father of three daughters, teaches Judaic studies at the Ramaz Upper School in Manhattan. He said that when he was contacted by the Israeli Education Ministry to assess his interest in taking the initial qualifying quiz, he replied that he was interested but didn’t know if he would have adequate time to prepare.
“But then I figured it can’t hurt to take the test and take advantage of an amazing opportunity to be able to go to Israel,” he said.
Both Mr. Shahak and Rabbi Frazer have married siblings and nieces and nephews living in Israel, so they were particularly pleased to qualify for the contest from among 18 diaspora hopefuls who tried out in August.
In Israel over Chanukah, they had time to spend with their relatives despite taking part in group activities and a written 60-question preliminary round with the other 16 finalists, seven of whom came from outside Israel.
One of their activities was a visit to a state facility where they were shown fragments of Dead Sea Scrolls not yet revealed to the public. Mr. Shahak noted that one of the recently deciphered fragments was inscribed with verse 14 of Deuteronomy 30, which translates in part as “The word is very near to you, in your mouth, and in your heart,” referring to the Torah.
It was a singularly apt description of how near and dear the words of the Bible are to these 16 masters of the timeless text.