The Talmud begins appropriately enough with a question: “From what time do we say the [prayer] shema?” The answer: “From the time the priests enter to eat the terumah,” or offering. Okay . . . but when do the priests eat the terumah? That depends on whom you ask. Rabbi Eliezer says one thing, the wise men another. Rabban Gamliel holds a different opinion, too.
The Talmud’s first few lines set the stage for the next 2,711 pages, front and back, of questions on top of questions, allegories on top of allegories, and interpretations on top of interpretations. The Talmud does not provide simple answers. It requires devoted students, who can offer countless hours for pouring into the intricacies of the text.
There is a stereotype of the Talmud scholar: glasses, pasty skin, hunched back, and long side-curls. Although many students do indeed match this description, a new type of student has emerged. Modern Jews—lawyers, doctors, accountants, and businessmen—have assumed the responsibility of studying a page of Talmud everyday until they complete all six orders of the Talmud, or shas. The practice is called daf yomi, which literally means “a page a day.” With careers of their own, the aforementioned professionals cannot possibly spend their days and nights studying the Talmud. Daf yomi offers them a limited yet substantial way to continue studying. It takes seven-and-a-half years to complete daf yomi.
The concept of daf yomi originated with Rabbi Meir Shapiro of Lublin, Poland at a rabbinical conference in 1923. Many of the greatest sages of the time, including the Chofetz Chaim, quickly embraced the idea for several reasons. First, daf yomi gave Jews an international continuity that they previously lacked. Jews in Europe and Jews in America would all be studying the same material each day, which meant that if a Polish Jew moved to America, he could immediately enter any house of learning without missing a beat. Second, certain pages of Talmud previously received little attention from students. With daf yomi, the entire Talmud would be utilized. And third, the idea of studying alongside thousands of Jews creates strong social cohesion, which makes it less likely for a daf yomi participant to skip a few days and fall behind his peers.
It’s common practice to celebrate when somebody completes a tractate of Talmud. This tradition comes from a quote in the Talmud, where Abaya says, “Bring me a young scholar who completed a tractate, and I will make a festive holiday for all the rabbis” (Sabbath 118b). If one person’s completion of a single tractate is cause for a “festive holiday,” then the Jewish people are due for a major event every seven-and-a-half years.
In 1930, the first siyum hashas, or completion/festival of shas, was held in the city of Lublin. After the Nazis decimated European Jewry, the locus shifted to America. Madison Square Garden hosted 25,000 Jews for the last siyum hashas. This year, 92,000 Jews descended onto MetLife Stadium, the new Giants stadium and host of the 2014 Super Bowl. There wasn’t an empty seat in the house, even though tickets were selling for upwards of $200. An additional 100,000 or so streamed the event online.
Sitting in the bleachers, you cannot escape monotony of black and white. Black jacket and white shirt. Black jacket and white shirt. And so on. On the field, there is a large dais, on which some of the greatest contemporary rabbis sit, and several columns of seats for those devout few who want to sit extra close to the great men on the stage.
The speakers—all famous rabbis—mix Yiddish with English. A rabbi sitting near me translates the Yiddish. A phone number flashes below the jumbo-screen for people to call if they wish to hear a translation, but there are too many phones attempting to dial the number, with the result that hardly anyone can get through.
Almost all of the speeches have a self-congratulatory element. The “Hooray, we did it!” sort. Many of the speeches frame the gathering in the context of the Holocaust. Hitler’s damage surely can be quantified by the number of Jews killed, but that’s only half the story for the rabbis on stage. The Nazis also destroyed their culture and way of life.
The great irony is that these rabbis, though certainly among the greatest living sages, do not reflect the makeup of the daf yomi crowd. The rabbis on the dais aren’t workingmen who rely on daf yomi for spiritual and intellectual fulfillment. Before the Holocaust, they, or their fathers and grandfathers anyways, led strong communities. Now leading an army of acculturated Jewish professionals, they are anachronisms in modern American Jewish life.
Anachronistic or not, these rabbis have nonetheless assembled one of the greatest gatherings of Jews in American history. This fact should not be diminished. Motivating tens of thousands of Jews to devote an hour or so every day for seven-and-a-half years is an accomplishment in and of itself. Having close to 200,000 Jews celebrate this achievement is even more impressive.
The Talmud was designed for pious intellectuals to delve into the minutiae of Jewish law, yet the completion of it has quickly and increasingly become a national holiday for diaspora Jewry. The Talmud no longer solely belongs to the Talmud scholars, but to all of Israel.
Noah Glyn is an Agostinelli Fellow at National Review.
Become a fan of First Things on Facebook, subscribe to First Things via RSS, and follow First Things on Twitter.