I imagine many men (and women) want to know what it was like in the women’s section of the Jerusalem (English) Siyum of the Daf Yomi Wednesday night. My husband and I drove back to Netanya, along with his Daf Yomi maggid shiur (teacher), and we were spiritually“high” from the gathering of 5000 men & boys, and 2000 ladies & girls (I intentionally use the non-PC term ‘ladies’, because that is our honorific of choice). I will describe the entire event elsewhere.
The essence of the siyum is the hadran (lit. “we will return”, a special prayer upon completing a segment of study). Modern Hebrew adopted this ancient term to describe an encore after a concert – and I have heard many a concert hadran in the Binyaney HaUma, International Conference Center in Jerusalem. However, this cavernous hall reverberated with a traditional, authentic hadran this week at the completion of the entire Talmud. One hadran section says “We arise early, and they arise early…we toil and they toil.” It is helpful to understand how one group differs from another by contrasting it with the focus of another group. The point is not to put another group down but to see how focus on a priority A leads to consequences a,b,c in contrast to a focus on priority B which leads to consequences d,e,f. Therefore, I will contrast what I call the “Daf Yomi sector” with two other Orthodox sectors. (1) The Daf Yomi and Orthodox women; (2) The Daf Yomi and national religious sector.
(1) Daf Yomi and Orthodox women. Who were the 2000 women and girls who came to the Conference Center through a separate entrance and watched the proceedings on a floor-to-ceiling screen in the gigantic hall? These were women whose husbands, sons, or brothers participate daily during the year in Daf Yomi study. Some 60% seemed to be English-speaking seminary (post-high school) girls. There were even a sprinkling of little girls in party dresses. Many seminary girls aspire to marry a full-time yeshiva student, and at the very least to marry a fellow who studies the Daf Yomi. The honor they showed to the event was reflected in their holiday dress. Their priorities were reflected in the commercial booths in the lobby of the women’s hall, selling children’s car seats, kosher bedroom furniture (no double beds), home library Talmud sets, subscriptions to Hamishpacha magazine, etc. Several of the rabbis who spoke referred directly to the sacrifice of women who catalyze and support the men; without this encouragement many men would not study the Daf Yomi, and this acknowledgement was received with enthusiastic applause.
After the hadran was recited celebratory music was played and the men broke into spontaneous dancing, with even the elderly rabbis swaying or clapping. As I watched hundreds of seminary girls form circles and dance enthusiastically in the women’s hall, I felt optimistic about the future of Jewry.
I contrasted this in my mind with the Jerusalem Post article about the few women in the modern Orthodox sector who themselves study Daf Yomi. The title is revealing, “A Gemara of her own” (a play on Woolf’s “A Room of Her Own”). By no means do I denigrate the sincere desire by a few women, gifted intellectually and emotionally, who have the skills to study Daf Yomi. But I want to pose a question. By expropriating men’s traditional role, does that undermine Torah study as the quintessential man’s endeavor, which civilizes and enobles men?
The concluding speaker, Rabbi Mendel Weinbach of Or Sameah, spoke at length about the critical role of women in the Daf Yomi endeavor by men, and pointed out that a home where this is a priority has a different atmosphere. Sure, it is more difficult for a woman to put the children to bed alone if her husband is at his Daf Yomi. But women who make this sacrifice believe that the overall ambience and values of the home are thereby enhanced. I think women are intelligent enough to realize where their best interests lie, and those hundreds of seminary girls dancing are making a statement, that their empowerment lies in encouraging their future grooms to maximize their study. They realize the benefit/cost ratio is overwhelmingly positive. This is a social transformation that has been wrought in the last half-century. Joel Rebibo describes the role of women in resurrection of the status of the male scholar in his Summer 2001 essay in Azure. He quotes Rabbi Grozinski. who said fifty years ago that to marry a full-time scholar would be a last resort for an unfortunate girl. Today, the most ambitious and intellectual haredi girls will insist on marrying a talmid hakham.
There are a few haredi women who make use of the translations to study Daf Yomi with their husbands, but they do this to encourage them, and do it without fanfare. Recently we hosted a haredi couple who are both professors in the sciences, and they excused themselves for an hour in order to study Daf Yomi. The husband asked his wife to embark with him on this endeavor because he travels so much; this way he has a built-in hevruta (study [partner]. But they are raising their children in the yeshiva and Beit Yaakov system, because they realize theirs is an exceptional situation.
Yesterday we were asked to host 7 American seminary girls for Shabbat. At first I hesitated. Then the scene of the hundreds of girls dancing at the siyum flashed across my inner eye, and in a tribute to them, the future of Jewry, I accepted the challenge.
(2) Daf Yomi and the National-religious. There were several hundred modern-Orthodox or national religious participants (identifiable from their crocheted kippot). The Daf Yomi unites all sectors of Orthodox Jewry. Nevertheless, I would like to ruminate about the way these two sectors use the word “mesirus nefesh” (lit. self-sacrifice). At the siyum, the Kaliver Rebbe used the term mesius nefesh twice in connecting with Torah study, and once in connection with the sacrifice by women. The Kaliver Rebbe’s beardless and shining countenance, framed in white hair, stood out among the rabbis on the dais. The torture he suffered as a boy during the Shoah affected him physically (he cannot grow a beard), but not spiritually. He led the thousands in attendance in reciting the Shma, with eyes covered, in memory of the millions lost in the Holocaust, a pledge he was asked to make if he survived. Then he spoke about mesirus nefesh needed to study the Daf Yomi.
I contrasted this use of the term with an article I read in Haaretz on the way to the siyum, about the controversy by a few extreme settlers in Gush Katif of whether mesirus nefesh was demanded if the disengagement forces Jews out of Gaza. In “Choose death over violation of the law?” by Nadav Shragai, Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook was quoted as saying, “ It is a positive commandment from the Torah, …that we are obligated to this land, and all of its borders, with mesirus nefesh. When a situation of coercion arrives … we are all obligated to yihareg ve’al yaavor.”
I contemplated the the consequences that ensue from the different foci in these two sectors of Orthodoxy: the Daf Yomi rabbis invoke mersirus nefesh for study, while some in the national religious sector apply mesirus nefesh to emphasis on the land of Israel.
Despite the variations in the sub-groups at the siyum, all held their breath in silence as Rabbi Nosson Tzvi Finkel, head of Mir Yeshiva (with several thousand students, the largest yeshiva in the world) spoke. Due to advanced age and severe illness, he was barely able to stand and speak. I held my breath (along with everyone else) as each one of the few words he managed to speak was uttered. I will close with a quote from the Hamodia newspaper,which used the word “mesirus nefesh” in describing the scene:
Rabbi Finkel spoke with mesirus nefesh and brought out the beauty and sweetness of Torah when he said, “It isn’t often that we hear the words hadran alach Talmud Bavli [we will return to you, Babylonian Talmud]. How beautiful and sweet are the words.”