Siyum HaShas and the Shufflers

One way in which authentic Judaism differs from societal norms currently in vogue in the Western world is that Judaism abhors the cult of hero-worship. Before you lift your strongest finger to punch out your indignant comment, well, let me try to explain. Also, be nice because this is my first post.

Judaism promotes hard work and substance over style. It is inconceivable that a Torah leader would have any bit of his personality invested in marketing his image and reputation. Torah leaders are almost literally designated by the people as a result of their piety and scholarship. Yes, sometimes we ‘worship’ our heroes – in some circles there even seems to be a trend in that direction. But, and here’s the key, our heroes do not worship themselves. Memo to Madonna, Arnold and the rest: at the end of the day it’s not how well you look or sell, it’s what you are.

Which brings me to the fine folks celebrating next week’s Siyum HaShas. Clearly only a small percentage of those in attendance are actually completing all of Shas. What are the rest of us (yes…sigh…us) doing there?

I can’t speak for others but I know why I wouldn’t want to miss it. These guys trudged out every morning or every night, rain or shine, often bleary-eyed and bone tired, to plow through the daily two-sided page of terse aramaic diamond-hard sentences and structures, surviving mostly on the skill of their teachers and the books of Artscroll. In this daily push, this consistency, lies greatness. Unheralded, no marketing plan and no fan base, just doing the right thing every single day even when it hurts. This is the essence of Judaism. It is what makes ordinary folks into heroes, and we attend their moment in the spotlight out of recognition of what they have achieved and the powerful lesson it holds for us all, men, women and children, long-time learners and beginners alike. Low-key consistency doing the right thing is the highest of virtues.

Yocheved and Miriam, the mother and sister of Moshe, are first introduced to us in the Torah as Shifra and Pu’ah, because these names in Hebrew allude to their devotion and care for children. Day in, day out. Lots of diapers. Lots of meals. Always available, never ‘off’. The greatest women of the generation became great through their selfless devotion to babies. Their greatness is not in spite of this, it is because of this.

Back in my Brooklyn days I marveled at all the elderly gentlemen, some in their nineties, who trudged in every day for Shacharis. They were old and frail and utterly dependable. A friend of mine called them, somewhat lovingly, the Shufflers – they couldn’t walk fast and they’d just shuffle along, but they’d be there every single day. You could set your clock to them. My heroes.

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13 Responses

  1. Michael Klein says:

    Well said! Couldn’t have said it any better!

  2. Brother Bob says:

    But let’s be honest about what Daf Yomi people actually accomplish and don’t accomplish.
    What the Agudah is pushing is actually eerily similiar to popular culture as people are investing tremendous amounts of time in something with minimal practical or halakhic payoff.

    In a larger sense, they are being encouraged to “do the daf” for reasons other than strictly Talmud Torah.

  3. Victor says:

    I don’t understand Bob’s comment. The fact that it has “minimal practical or halakhic payoff” is proof that it is Talmud Torah Lishma.

  4. Michael Klein says:

    Learning the entire shas is something with minimal practical or halachic payoff??? 1) Whose looking for practical or halachic payoff? (Whatever that means). 2) What about Torah lishma payoff? I don’t learn Daf Yomi, but I have tremendous respect for those that do.

  5. Ken Applebaum says:

    “Low-key consistency doing the right thing is the highest of virtues”–what a wonderful statement. Thanks for a fine post.

    Ken Applebaum

  6. Aaron says:

    Michael, take it easy. All he is saying is, there are many people who learn the Daf, but since the pace is so quick, they don’t have time to review, and the material subsequently gets forgotten. The Talmud states n many places the importance of review, which necessarily means not going further. By the way, maybe the Amud Yomi is better for some people, where you can review & even go into the practical Halachah of the Sugya.

  7. Gedalia Litke says:

    Dear Brother Bob: I’m kinda upset that you didn’t go easy on my very first post, especialy since I explicitly asked for mercy. But because of my wonderful nature and hard-earned midos (especially humility) I forgive you.

    Your comment is one that I have heard in various versions over the past few weeks. My reaction to you specifically is twofold.

    (1) I don’t agree completely with your premise. Daf Yomers accomplish a great deal, if not in retention then at least in re-connecting and involving themselves in learning. You must be familiar with the midrashim about cleaning out the barrel even if the water doesn’t stay in. You make it sound like someone who learns material that is not perfectly suited for him is simply wasting his time and is no better off than if he sat idly or engaged in trivial matters; that is patently false. You might say instead that for a certain segment of the daf yomi population there is an even better way to spend precious learning time, and I think that is true. Through the efforts of Kollel Dirshu and others more and more people for whom the daf is not optimal are finding other avenues for their daily learn.

    (2) Even if I agreed with you completely, your comment is irrelevant to my post. My post says, basically, that daily pursuit of a worthy goal is a great thing. It is focussed on the individuals’ accomplishments. You are upset with the organizers or promoters. What do your views about the Aguda or anything else you write have to do with it? On balance what you wrote seems more agenda-laden than substantive, at least that’s how I read your comment.

    Good Shabbos,


  8. DMZ says:

    “Judaism abhors the cult of hero-worship”

    This is some kind of joke, right? Everything I’ve seen indicates exactly the opposite. Take our gedolim, for instance: these are indisputably great men, without question. Yet, a couple hundred years after their passing, we’ve started telling stories about them that sound amazing, yet cannot be proved historically, and, honestly, are probably not even true. Don’t you think this smacks of hero worship? In fact, isn’t our emphasis on being like the gedolim a form of hero worship to begin with? I’m not saying the latter is a bad thing, but let’s not kid ourselves.

    Don’t even get me STARTED on Chassidus, either. This premise of “Judaism abhors hero-worship” might be true in some sort of idealistic form, but it’s sure not practiced in the communities I’ve seen.

    You do make a good point about the importance of learning every day, I guess, but I’m not sure this is a terribly earth-shattering revelation.

    As for, “don’t be mean, it’s my first blog”, welcome to the Internet. You throw your thoughts out, and they’re for everyone to comment on. I know people don’t pull any punches on my blog… 🙂


  9. Eliezer Barzilai says:

    If there’s anyone out there who has the chance to join the Siyum Hashas, please don’t miss the opportunity. Let me tell you that it is more inspiring than Ne’ilah on Yom Kippur. Nobody attends because they want to eat fleishik, or to not fast erev Pesach, they come because of chavivus hatorah and ahavas hashem. It is the closest thing we have to being in the Azoro on Yom Kippur. Participating in this apical event nourishes the Torah-soul, and woe to the man whose heart has never learned to perceive the joy of kedushas haTorah. Nebach.

  10. sharvul says:

    Good post Gedaliah!

    I don’t understand some of the negative comments here, or why people insist on finding what’s wrong with the Daf Yomi. The fact is that this monumental project has brought thousands of Jews to Talmud Torah, people who otherwise would have not had the chance to learn Torah on a continuous basis.

    Instead of arguing with these nay-sayers, I prefer to tell my story. I joined the Daf Yomi about 2.5 years ago, in the middle of Sanhedrin. Even though I come from a religious family and I am dati myself, the race between work and family has prevented me from devoting time for consistent Torah study. The Daf Yomi enables me to do just that; the system works for me. Furthermore, having studied the entire Seder Kodashim I have learnt things which I did not know about and most likely would have never come across. After all, who studies Zevachim or Bechorot, or even the basic rules of korbanot?

    I study alone, with shi’urim given on the internet by Meorot HaDaf HaYomi in Israel. I live in a country with a very small Jewish community; we rely on guests and travellers for a minyan on Shabbat. Needless to say, there are no Daf Yomi shi’urim here. I will be eternally grateful for the opportunity offered by Meorot (and others) to enable me to study under these conditions. I have learnt the Daf at home, on train, on planes, in hotel rooms…

    So instead of focusing on the negative, why not see the tremendous benefits the Daf Yomi project brings to Jews all over the world?

  11. Avraham Frank says:

    Gedalia — thank you for your beautiful and well stated post. You’ve captured so well why so many non-daf’ers go to the siyum, as well as what a Jewish hero is. I printed out your post to show to my family, and I have probably re-read it half a dozen times myself. May I suggest submitting to a periodical that has a wider readership (such as the Jewish Observer)?

  12. S Katz says:

    Gedalia, I truly appreciated your post. It’s wonderful to see such a sensitivity to the humble efforts of individuals in their quest for connection to Torah and Gd. I especially liked the connection to the so called “shufflers” who never lose their passion and determination, even when their bodies no longer support their inner will. Kol Hakavod!

  13. Jewish Girl says:

    When I saw the title of this article, I was nervous. “Shufflers” made it sound an awful lot like this would be negative about the people who shuckle back and forth during Shmonah Esrei. Let me say that I liked this article a lot. I was at the Siyum, and I felt the same way you did.

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