Aristotle, Shakespeare, and the Siyum HaShas

Do Greeks in the thousands gather early every morning to study the works of Plato and Aristotle? How many Britons study Shakespeare or John Milton every single day? Last month’s Siyum HaShas before 93,000 daf yomi supporters in MetLife Stadium demonstrated once again that we are a singular people. Several landmarks were reached.

1)   It elevated the stature of Torah and Talmud. Millions now realize that Am Yisrael is truly Am HaSefer, and that our devotion to Torah learning is the real secret of our existence.

2)   Ninety-three thousand Jews davened Minchah and Maariv together, recited Shema Yisrael together, and danced together in celebration of Talmud — 70 years after the Holocaust. Only a fool could have imagined this in 1945.

3)   It affected millions of non-Orthodox Jews, who surely looked on with awe at what they once considered a dying breed of fanatic, benighted Jews who were out of tune with modern life. It made them think twice about who they themselves are and where they are going — and that maybe the Orthodox have a point.

4)   It projected Orthodox Judaism as a powerful and dynamic force.

But transcending the impressive number of participants , this represents the culmination of decades of grinding toil and sweat, of relentless building of day schools and yeshivos and Bais Yaakovs and girls’ seminaries. The ground was hard and unreceptive; communities were suspicious, and often opposed day-schools outright as being too Jewish. But the intensive efforts, plus the help of the Almighty, has borne delicious fruit. The otherworldly conviction that Torah was fecund enough to take root even in the hostile soil of a hedonisticUSAhas been vindicated.

But a wise people dare not rest on its laurels. For there are “promises to keep and miles to go before we sleep.” For example:

a) The great Rav Elyashiv ztz”l was niftar just prior to the Siyum. His 102 years of life almost paralleled the daf yomi cycle. He embodied deep Torah learning, studying 18 hours a day in modesty and simplicity. Had his achievements been highlighted more prominently at the Siyum, he could have served as a subtle counterpoint to anyone who might feel that Talmud can be mastered in one hour per day. It is not a derogation of the exemplary discipline and will power involved in seven years of daily Talmud study to note that one hour per day only scratches the surface of the surface. Authentic Talmud learning requires careful preparation, constant review (cf. Chagigah 9b), intensive grappling with new ideas — all not possible in the daf yomi system. Although the system is a superb way to arrive at an appreciation of Torah, Rav Elyashiv’s life underscores that one hour per day is only a beginning.

b) The Siyum speakers spoke of Jewish unity, noting that “all kinds of head coverings were present: shtreimlach, black and colored hats, kippot srugot, black yarmulkes.” But apparently the ideal of Jewish unity extended only to like-minded frum Jews, because some kinds of head-coverings were obviously not on the program. Even the inclusion of former Chief Rabbi Lau, with all of his credentials as a learned and pious leader, became a source of tension in certain circles. Jewish unity, even among the Orthodox, still remains a consummation devoutly to be wished.

c) Most painful of all: Millions of Jews were not present at all — they who wear no head coverings, never heard of Shas or siyum, are unable to read alef-beis much less Talmud, and are falling off the edges. Intermarriage, Jewish illiteracy, and Jewish ignorance are endemic. Their souls thirst for Torah, but we have not slaked that thirst. A powerful Orthodoxy can find creative ways to reach out to our brethren drowning in a sea of nothingness. Behind all the trappings of triumph — all richly deserved — there looms this dark cloud.

c) During the Siyum, the prophet Michah’s hatznea leches — walking humbly with G-d (6:8) — kept drifting across my mind. Amid the cameras and armed security men and general tummel — all unavoidable — I remembered that the essence of Torah scholars is to be quiet and self-effacing (like Rav Elyashiv). “Im lamadta Torah harbeh … If you learned much Torah, do not be proud, because for this were you created” (Avos 2:3). Pride and self-satisfaction at completing the cycle are understandable and deserved, but the second Ten Commandments were given without fanfare, and unlike the first set, they lasted. It does not diminish this magnificent event to dream about the apparently impossible: a magnificent, restrained and muted mass siyum, a gilu bir’ada, a rejoicing in awe (Tehillim 2:ll).

Bottom line: There is no daf yomi, l’havdil , for Aristotle or Shakespeare or even the sacred literature of others. “Mi k’amcha Yisrael … Who is like Israel, Thy singular people?” (Divrei HaYamim I 17:21)

This column is in memory of Moshe Esral z”l, whose discussion with me just before his sudden death on 18 Av was the catalyst for this essay. It first appeared in Mishpacha.

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13 Responses

  1. Fred says:

    “It affected millions of non-Orthodox Jews, who surely looked on with awe ”

    Proof of this?

  2. lacosta says:

    But apparently the ideal of Jewish unity extended only to like-minded frum Jews, because some kinds of head-coverings were obviously not on the program…..became a source of tension in certain circles

    —kudos to the MO and their leaders,[who reportedly make up a sizable segment of dafyomi learners], who , attended a party where they know that they, their leadership, their gdolim, and their minions are accepted only backhandedly, secondarily , and derisively — yet they attended graciously with a ‘vayidom aharon’ resignation to the fact of their second class citizenship in the Aguda ‘big tent’— big enough to include all who leave their personal baggage outside…..

  3. langer says:

    think we have to be honest with ourselves.

    rabbi feldman is on target–this was a great kiddish hashem anyway we look at it.

    however now that our confidence is re-affirmed–

    we can expand our circles without harm.

    imagine if the entire modern orthodox community was present

    imagine if their greatest talmudic mind of our era was asked to speak.

    how would that impact. how may more daf learners would enlist.

    how would that educational infrastructure be changed. observance.

    what message would their followers in eretz yisroel carry forward.

    and the federations and jewish organizational leadership

    what nikuda of pinimias could be reached. what would that do for the kla

    alot to think about—this great success story becomes the platform for the future

  4. Mr. Cohen says:

    I wish that the editors of the Orthodox-bashing Jewish Week
    would read this article; their article on the Daf Yomi Siyum
    was on PAGE NINE.

  5. Leon Zacharowicz says:

    To me, it was simply inspiring.

  6. mb says:

    I really don’t understand the attempted connection between a siyum for Daf Yomi, studying a page of a legalistic text, and rather new in Jewish terms, 1500 years after its publication, and the fact there is no Siyum for Shakespeare et al. Why would there be?
    In fact there are many,many celebrations of Shakespeare, festivals, theatre, etc and indeed, his texts are studied by millions every day. Hey, Bloomsday is a big deal every year.

  7. tuvia says:


    why do people think that?


  8. Mr. Cohen says:

    Many Jews are not aware of Jew-haters propagandizing against the Talmud.

    One example” If you go to YouTube and search for the word TALMUD,
    your search results will include videos that “expose” the Talmud with
    “Talmud quotes” that are taken out-of-context or mistranslated.

    These “quotes” are designed to make the Talmud and Jews look evil and foolish.

    So far as I know, nothing is being done to counter this.

  9. Nachum says:

    Mr. Cohen: Gil Student has a whole website responding to it line by line. But you can’t really reason with anti-Semites.

  10. Steve Brizel says:

    R Feldman deserves a huge Yasher Koach for his incisive comments on why the Siyum was a great Kiddush HaShem and how it can be tweaked even more so that the simple meaning of Achdus will be present and evident by speakers who are great Talmidei Chachamim, even if they are not part of the Moetzes Gdolei Torah and/or the Charedi yeshiva and Chasidishe worlds.

  11. L. Oberstein says:

    Agudath Israel is the sponsor of the daf hayomi and although learning Talmud is non political, it is understandable that the organizers chose speakers who were part of that coalition. Those who are outside the tent of Agudah may fail to realize what a difficult balancing act it is to maintain unity within the diversity of that spectrum. To me and every other reader of Cross-Currents, Rabbi Lau is Jewish hero, an icon, a living symbol of Jewish survival and his presence added much to the program. He was also the only Holocaust survivor who had a speaking role. That certain rebbes and roshei yeshiva boycotted the siyum hashas because of the presence of someone who was a Chief Rabbi, shows how extreme these elements are and how hard it is to keep them within the tent.
    It is sad that the OU did not have a speaker on the program,even one who is himself of the Agudah hshkafa, but that is politics. It would be like Lieberman speaking at the Republican Convention and look where that got him, it ended his career.
    I was struck by how significant Chassidim are numerically in New York religious cicles. We who live out of town do not realize how many Chassidim there are and how insistant they are on their way or the highway. After all is said and done, I sympathize with the leaders of Agudah who have to put up with such tactics, but admire their balancing act. In the end, it probably makes us stronger. Besides, is there any other orthodox organization, OU,YU,YI that could get even a third as many people in a stadium for anything? Whether you like it or not, the frum world is moving in that direction and some of us feel we are passe, but it is what it is.

  12. Jewish Observer says:

    “We who live out of town do not realize how many Chassidim there are”

    – out of which town?

  13. Mr. Cohen says:

    Two important aspects of the Siyum HaShas have not been mentioned in any newspaper:

    The first unreported story behind the Siyum HaShas is the proliferation of resources
    designed to help Daf Yomi learners.

    Between the 11th Siyum HaShas and the 12th Siyum HaShas, the number of
    Daf Yomi study aids increased from around 8 to around 80.

    The second unreported story behind the Siyum HaShas is the dramatically increased
    Daf Yomi participation of: Russian-speaking Jews from the former Soviet Union,
    Syrian Jews and Persian Jews.

    These have increased from around zero in the 11th Siyum HaShas cycle to
    a dozen men or more in each participating synagogue.

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