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Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Siyum HaShas

Tomorrow evening, some 93,000 Jews will gather in MetLife Stadium, along with hundreds of thousands of other Jews worldwide (including in Tel Aviv's Nokia Stadium and Jerusalem's Teddy Stadium), to celebrate the 12th Siyum HaShas of Daf Yomi.

Daf Yomi is a study program initiated in the 1920s by Rabbi Meir Shapiro of Poland. His idea was that Jews worldwide would study a folio (2 pages) of Talmud every day, in sync. The entire Talmud - 2,711 folios - would be completed in roughly seven and a half years. (The English Artscroll translation spans 73 volumes, and each folio of Talmud is between 6-10 English pages.)

The Siyum HaShas is the celebration of the completion of the entire Babylonian Talmud.

Think about it: Every day, tens of thousands of Jews take time out to study the day's "Daf." Many go to lectures in synagogues or in ad-hoc workplace conference rooms, and some have been doing it on the Long Island Railroad for over twenty years. Lectures usually take an hour or so.

Others started off the current cycle in 2005 listening to lectures on cassette tapes or CDs; now many listen on MP3 players, or online. Still others learn it in pairs, or by themselves.

Sample page of Artscroll translation of theTalmud
Through business trips, holidays, births, bar mitzvahs and weddings, the people who follow the program kept going.

The Talmud, the richest source of the Jewish legal tradition, discusses every conceivable topic, from fanciful stories of ancient rabbis to heavily detailed discussions of the dimensions of every portion of the Temple and all its parts, from the laws of blessings to the laws of sex, from geometry to astronomy. It records intricate arguments using a unique logical framework, painstakingly parsing every letter in some Torah verses to extract hidden meanings. Pairs of rabbis became famous for their arguments with each other - Hillel and Shammai, Rav and Shmuel, Abaye and Rava.

The arguments are perhaps the most fascinating, and integral, part of the Talmud. The two sides must not only back up their arguments, but they must show how their arguments are consistent with the teachings of earlier, more authoritative rabbis, how they are not redundant, and how they are consistent with their own teachings in other areas of law. Each side would bring challenges to the others' arguments and they must defend themselves, each building an edifice of logic that ensures consistency even as they come to different conclusions. (Or, as often happens, one of them fails and cannot answer the final challenge. ) Sometimes the arguments are three- or four-way, and sometimes there are disagreements as to what the earlier arguments were, where the later interpreters must defend their own ideas of the basis of the earlier discussions.

(And this is only in the Talmud itself - I'm not even talking about the arguments among the commentaries, written hundreds of years later!)

Page from Latin translation of Mishnah
Seeming non-sequitors are introduced, and it can take pages before their relevance to the topic at hand is revealed. Stories can be brought up which brings up more stories; questions are not just asked on how rabbis thought but on how they acted.

Jews learn to argue from the Talmud.

And, in a sense, much of the entire Western legal system was heavily influenced by the Talmud as well, through the early innovators such as John Seiden, who was amazingly proficient in portions of Talmudic law. (The entire Mishnah - which outlines the Talmud - was translated into Latin in the late 17th century, along with commentaries by Maimonides and the Bartenura; here it is.)

To study the entire Talmud is a remarkable achievement, and it is almost beyond belief that so many people have managed to do it. The current Daf Yomi cycle started before Twitter existed, before Facebook was anything beyond a college phenomenon, before the iPhone. Over seven years of dogged study have occurred in every Jewish community worldwide.

Daf Yomi is a modern manifestation of Jewish unity - and a remarkable proof of Jewish continuity.

The Siyum is a real celebration for every Jew, whether you have ever studied Talmud or not.

But even if you haven't - the new cycle starts on Thursday. Feel free to join!