The Daf’s Quiet Triumph

For all the talk of “triumphalist” Orthodoxy, the Agudah (and everyone else) has been remarkably muted about what transpired across America a few weeks ago. The Siyum HaShas was greeted with enthusiasm, to be certain, but we have not heard it trumpeted as an unparalleled achievement in American Jewish life — though it surely was.

For the past fifteen years or so, the Jewish community has been studying and writing about a phenomenon called the “Continuity Crisis.” Because Jewish affiliation is down and intermarriage is up, the overall Jewish population of the United States is in rapid decline. Between 1990 and 2000, the Jewish population declined from 5.5 to 5.2 million, despite an influx of several hundred thousand immigrants from the countries of the former Soviet Union and elsewhere. In just one decade, over half a million Jews went missing. Unless this trend is reversed, the implications for the Jewish future are both obvious and bleak.

Along comes the Siyum HaShas (Completion Celebration) of Daf Yomi, the program of daily study of a single folio of Talmud. In 1990, there were about 35,000 attendees at Madison Square Garden. In 1997, there were 50,000 across the country (and via satellite from as far away as Melbourne). In 2005, the number approached at least 100,000, possibly as many as 120,000.

Some of this expansion is because the Agudah brought the event to more locations. Some is because people told their friends how great the last one was. But some, without question, is because there were more people — many more people — learning Daf Yomi in 2005 than in 1997.

So here we have a program that is not merely holding its own, but expanding — and showing no sign of slowing down. Does anyone doubt that, barring a truly unusual event (like the coming of the Messiah), the next Siyum will be larger — and probably much larger — than the one just held? Want to know how to solve the Continuity Crisis? Start a Daf Yomi class.

The Agudah could be crowing. After all, it was at the First World Congress of Agudath Israel that Daf Yomi got its start, in Vienna in 1923. And it was Agudath Israel of America that arranged the nationwide Siyum. They proved the naysayers wrong — traditional Judaism isn’t merely surviving, but blossoming. And while everyone else is worrying about continuity, the Agudah is worrying where to fit everyone the next time around — even if New York doesn’t get the 2012 Olympics (and kol shekeyn, all the more so, if it does).

But you didn’t hear a word of this sort of talk. For the New Yorkers, I heard that the ultimate highlight was simply experiencing 30,000 other people answering Kaddish and Kedushah. The speeches themselves were inspirational as well, as I (and many others) wrote at the time. The theme of the evening was inspiration — as in, inspiring more people to learn more the next time around.

The speakers barely mentioned Agudath Israel (if at all), and instead gave all the credit to the individuals who completed the cycle. They were right, of course — while it may have been (and was) a lot of work arranging a big event like this, the real effort was put in by those who learned “the Daf” every day.

The result of this choice of emphasis is further growth. There are more people learning Daf Yomi at the end of March than there were at the end of February. Some of this is because, of course, people want to start at the beginning. And some of that, undoubtedly, is thanks to the inspirational night of March 1.

Some have criticized the Daf, because — they argue — many attendees would get more value out of a program in chapters of the Bible, Mishnah, or a slower-moving Talmud study class. While that might be a reasonable claim, Daf Yomi is self-directed. There are many other classes available — but students of the Daf recognize the value of both the daily schedule and phenomenal, yet attainable, goal of having at least seen every page of the Talmud. If they thought they would get more benefit out of a different class, they would go to a different class.

Students of the Daf learned (on March 6) that igra d’pirka, rihita — as Rashi explains: “the main reward for those who rush to hear a drasha from a Sage is the reward for rushing itself, since most of those going don’t understand enough to follow the lecture and repeat the words of their teacher afterwards, so that they would get reward for the study.” By contrast, those who attend Daf Yomi classes are certainly understanding a good part of what they hear, and Artscroll has made it easier to follow along. The attendees are not merely rushing to sit there, but rushing to learn. You don’t need to be an advanced scholar, you just need to be dedicated. And no one should minimize either the effort, or the accomplishment, of each person who demonstrates this dedication to Jewish learning, day in and day out.

What Daf Yomi produces is not merely dedicated Jews, but informed teachers and laypeople.

The Jewish Federations have spent millions studying the Continuity Crisis. Daf Yomi is busy solving it.

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9 Responses

  1. Shira Leibowitz Schmidt says:

    Many, many daf yomi learners could not do it without the support of women. My husband decided to make the new daf yomi cycle one of his highest priorities (previous cycle he went once or twice a week). Now the whole family is happy to arrange the family schedule so he can go every evening with nary a miss. This is a tremendous burden which we all feel is a privilege to bear. If the women in the family would also be going, there would be no “give” no elasticity in the family structure. I just wanted people to realize that going to a daily daf yomi takes planning by the whole family, including the women. It doesn’t just happen by itself.

  2. exdafyomiattender says:

    Learning by the Daf: Your comment about Rav Schachter leads me to a comment-Rav Schachter is certainly among the top 3 YU Roshei Yeshiva-arguments could be made for R. M . Twersky and R. M. Rosensweig-but since both are close to 20 years younger they are respectful of age, But if one went back 40 years ago YU had Rav Soloveitchik ZT”L and R. David Lifxhitz ZT”L not even including Yibadel lchaim R. A. Lichtenstein.
    On the Agudah side from 43 years ago no one compares with R. A. Kotler AT”L or from 19 years ago R. M. Feinstein ZT”L or even R. Y. Kaminetsky ZT”L or how about R. Hutner ZT”L. Sometimes both machanot RW-Chareidi and MO should think of what we don’t have anymore.

  3. exdafyomiattender says:

    Seth: I agree with what you expressed in 6.
    I hope learning by the daf is not accurate in 5 because if he is the Agudah has to be careful not to slide back to some of the scarcasm they often used in the pre Shafran -Zweibel regime.

  4. Seth Gordon says:

    exdafyomiattender: the “Continuity Crisis” that R. Menken refers to is generally defined as a decline, from one generation to the next, in the number of people who identify themselves as Jewish. This is independent of the question of how much of the Mesorah is transmitted from one Jewish-identified generation to the next.

    I won’t challenge the proposition that Daf Yomi is a good thing. I’m just not convinced that it’s a good thing for this particular reason.

  5. Learning the Daf says:

    Yes, give credit where credit is due. The Daf Yomi, for all its real faults, is by far a net positive force for Klal Yisrael. And Agudah has been at the forefront in pushing Daf Yomi learning, so it certainly deserves our thanks for that. But contrary to your suggestion, there was much off-putting Agudah politics on display at the siyum as well. For example, would it have killed them to ask Rav Hershel Schachter to say a few words in honor of the occasion? With all due respect to the Roshei Yeshiva on the dais, Rav Schachter’s piety and erudition is second to none of theirs. Even putting him a few rows back with the “second tier” rabbonim was, to my mind, a lack of derech eretz to one of our leading talmidei chachomim. And what was with some of those speeches? Was it really necessary for Rav Salomon to take thinly-veiled potshots at Nosson Slifkin? Do I really have to believe in the efficacy of the remedies mentioned in Maseches Gittin in order to be a Torah-true Jew? And Rabbi Wachsman took a shot at Rabbi Slifkin as well. “We don’t look at Torah from different perspectives.” (I’m paraphrasing). Why not? Aren’t there in fact “ayin panim laTorah?” I love the Daf Yomi, but was disappointed with the Siyum.

  6. exdafyomiattender says:

    Assuming arguendo that part of our Mesorah is transmitted by Daf Yomi-then it helps promote Jewish continuity. Anything transmitting part of our Mesorah helps Jewish continuity. Seth Gordon’s point that it would not increase the numbers of those remaining Jewish is true-but so what. Daf Yomi to the extent it is effective should be for the already committed-it is not good outreach.

  7. Seth Gordon says:

    I’m missing something here. How do we know that Daf Yomi is promoting Jewish Continuity, and not just providing a service for people who would have remained Jewish with or without it?

  8. baalhabayis says:

    “Some have criticized the Daf, because – they argue – many attendees would get more value out of a program in chapters of the Bible, Mishnah, or a slower-moving Talmud study class. While that might be a reasonable claim, Daf Yomi is self-directed. There are many other classes available – but students of the Daf recognize the value of both the daily schedule and phenomenal, yet attainable, goal of having at least seen every page of the Talmud. If they thought they would get more benefit out of a different class, they would go to a different class.”

    There is also something very exciting about being a part of a larger group of people learning the same thing, as well as the fact that one can know where the group is and pick back up if the seder is interrupted for some reason. Finding the right program of learning for a person’s stage in life and level of learning is not always the simplest thing to do.

    One recommendation I would make is to “tackle” Mishnah before throwing most of your time into daf yomi. As anyone who has learned gemara knows, the gemara assumes you already know the basic concepts and that you’re familiar with the mishah in “uktzin” (for example) when you’re learning a gemara in brachos (and vice versa). Learning the mishnah through with Kehati is an amazing accomplishment as well.

    Another amazing source I’ve found useful is the DVD-Shas from Torah Communications Network — audio shiurim on the entire Shas (55 min per daf) are available for $79. I listen to them on my commute, usually a few days behind the daf that I’ve learned from a gemara, and this adds a much-needed chazara element to the daf yomi that is indeed essential for better retention.

  9. exdafyomiattender says:

    Kol hakavod to the Agudah for putting on a event that was not intended to be divisive-and appears to be a kiddush hashem. Having said that I’m one who did the daf for a little more than a cycle-spent about 3 hours a day on it-i hr preparing, i r shiur and i hr chazara. When I arrived at Kodashim the next cycle-I realized I didn’t remember a thing. I get far more out of shiurim that are not daf oriented. The problem is that the daf shiurim are Ok for the first Amud-but then to make the daf-they stop being limud hatorah-but the magid shiur has to daven the 2nd amud. I get much more out of 2 parsha shiurim that I go to most weeks eg in my case R. Goldwicht live-and R. Frand on satellite-I can remember far more of Rav Frands lectures than I could remember the daf. Gemarrah was never intended to be studied exclusively-by people who are not fluent in halacha-instead of shnayim mikra vechad targum. The Art Scroll has made it easy for people to “study” Shas without effort. Of course, we all know what Chazal say about that. Unfortunately, I wish there were more shiurim other than the daf-didn’t the writer of I believe the Chayei Adam? state for people learning only 3-4 hours a day it should first be halacha-one must know what God demands of us lmaaseh-before attempting to learn chakiras. But certainly, the idea behind more learning is a kiddush hashem.