A translation: Siyum HaShas means Completion of the Talmud. People make a small celebration to mark the Siyum, completion, of a single tractate of Talmud or one of the six orders of the Mishnah. To complete the entire Talmud (Shas is an acronym for Six Orders, and is used colloquially to refer to the Babylonian Talmud) is no mean feat and cause for a larger celebration — all the more so when tens of thousands are completing it together.
Last night’s celebration was by and for all of those who have learned the Daf Yomi, the “Daily Page” of Talmud, following a cycle shared around the world — and completed eleven times since Rabbi Meir Shapiro, zt”l, Rabbi of Lublin, Poland and founder of Yeshivas Chachmei Lublin, started the program in 1927. It takes nearly seven and one-half years to proceed through the 2,711 complex folios (both sides of each page comprise a “Daf”) of the Babylonian Talmud.
When the speakers last night spoke of the importance of Torah learning, they were not speaking about its importance to elite scholars, but to everyone — including those not able to complete the Talmud (yet). Rabbi Ephraim Wachsman set the tone by quoting from the Tomer Devorah, which says that every Jew has a portion of the soul of every other Jew. We are all interconnected, so when a person learns Torah, he uplifts everyone — “even those who don’t know the Shas belongs to them too.” Rabbi Yaakov Perlow, the Novominsker Rebbe and Head of Agudath Israel of America, called upon everyone to take a direct, hands-on approach, spending one hour a week learning with someone with less background.
As with the last Siyum, the Agudah tried to bring all the different locations together with some well-done satellite feeds. While the two main sites were Madison Square Garden in Manhattan, and the Continental Airlines Arena in the Meadowlands, there were many others. Rabbi Adlerstein, while you may have applauded there in Los Angeles, the announcement that your site was the “Walt Disney Conference Center” was greeted with a wave of chuckles in Baltimore.
And in addition to all the satellite feeds, they were flying Rabbis around the globe to further demonstrate the unity of support behind this massive Torah project. The speaker broadcast from LA was a Rabbi from Jerusalem, while Toronto’s was Rabbi Dunner of London. What I can’t figure out is why they had to fly our own Rabbi Yissocher Frand up to Chicago, but they certainly knew how to package the event.
Regardless of where he is speaking, Rav Frand is always inspiring. He mentioned how Daf Yomi has grown — last time there were 50,000 celebrants, while this time there were over 100,000 and perhaps as many as 120,000. The number actually completing the Talmud is similarly blossoming.
And he returned to the theme of Torah study for everyone, describing an unlearned man, a former professional boxer, who decided to begin studying with his observant son. When, after a year’s effort, the man finished a single Daf, he wanted to make a Siyum. The son consulted with the outstanding scholar and authority Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, zt”l, who not only said that it was permissible to make a celebration, but that he himself would attend. That very night, following the Siyum, the elderly man passed away. Rabbi Feinstein said at the funeral, that just as the Talmud speaks of “one who gains his World [to Come] with a single hour,” the deceased was “one who gained his World with a single Daf.”
Rabbi Frand said, “It is never too late, and it is never too little, and it is never enough.” He illustrated with a second story involving Rabbi Feinstein, and the latter’s nephew Rabbi Michel Feinstein. Reb Moshe called Reb Michel:
Reb Moshe: We need to make a l’chaim; I’m making a Siyum on Shas.
Reb Michel: Uncle, if you make a l’chaim every time you finish Shas, you’ll be a shikker (a drunk).
Reb Moshe: No, this is special, it’s the second time.
Reb Michel: Uncle, you’ve finished Shas many more than two times, what do you mean the second time?
Reb Moshe: No, I mean this is the second time that I’m fulfilling [Rebbe Meir’s statement in the Talmud that] “One who learns something one hundred times is not comparable to one who learns it one hundred and one times.”
Reb Moshe learned the entire Talmud over two hundred and two times. “It is never too late, and it is never too little, and it is never enough.”
One of the most remarkable facets of the Daf Yomi is that the celebrants are not, by and large, current students of a yeshiva, a Rabbinical school. They are “ordinary guys” — businessmen, plus college and graduate students on the one hand, and retirees on the other, who dedicate time every day to completion of “the Daf”.
Out of “ordinary guys” come an extraordinary achievement. About ten years ago, I was asked to step in to give a Daf Yomi class when the regular maggid shiur (teacher) had other obligations for a few months. One of the students at that time was the son of a prominent Rabbi. He was in graduate school, and had “lost his taste” for Torah learning. But Daf Yomi, he said, brought it back for him. The idea that he could accomplish so much, make such progress with a daily commitment, made learning Torah that much more enjoyable. At last count he stayed with it, and if so has been through Shas (the entire Talmud) and is more than halfway through his second journey.
Last night we celebrated people like him and their great accomplishments — and today, thousands more will join them. I’ve decided to do so myself; it is, after all, the most opportune time to start learning “the Daf.”
If the Daf is not for you, many of the speakers recommended finding something you can accomplish, and doing that as a daily project. Perhaps an Amud (one side of a page) rather than the Daf. For beginners, someone created a “Mishnah of the Daf” project, so that you can learn the Mishnah along with those doing the full Talmud (which is the Mishnah and the additional discussion known as the Gemara). I think they will have a web site shortly, but in meantime today they are learning the first Mishnah of Berachos. For those who want to complete the entire Mishnah in seven years (given that many volumes of Mishnah do not have corresponding volumes of Gemara/Talmud), they will also learn the first Mishnah of Pe’ah. So for those able to learn a Mishnah a day, you too can join those learning, daily, around the globe.
All in all, it was an inspiring, emotional, incredible evening. As Rabbi Frand said, the task now is to harness the euphoria, to translate it into ongoing action. No one suggested that the celebrants pat themselves on the back and sit on their laurels — on the contrary, the longest speech of the night was starting the Talmud again, from the beginning.