A window into the Jewish soul

Desire to understand God’s will through Talmud leads thousands to seven-year study odyssey.

July 30, 2012 01:42
DIRSHU’S CELEBRATION of completion of Daf Yomi

DIRSHU’S CELEBRATION of completion of Daf Yomi 370. (photo credit: Dirshu)


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The seven-year Talmud-studying marathon known as Daf Yomi reaches its grand finale on Monday night, when tens of thousands of people in Israel and some hundreds of thousands around the world will rejoice at having completed the study of the Babylonian Talmud – all 2,711 pages.

In the previous (11th) cycle, which ended in 2005, more than 300,000 Jews spanning the globe celebrated the end of the grueling course, and expectations are even higher for 2012 given the ever-growing enthusiasm for the program.

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This year, more than 90,000 people are expected to attend one event alone on Wednesday night, a mass celebratory ceremony concluding the Talmud at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey, with numerous other parties of many thousands of revelers being held in Israel and other locales.

Daf Yomi (“a page a day”) involves the study of one double- sided folio page of the Babylonian Talmud (Gemara) every day for seven-and-a-half years.

The growing popularity of the Daf Yomi idea – begun in 1923 by Rabbi Meir Shapiro in Poland – during the past few cycles, and the general increase in Torah study around the world, has been quite remarkable.

The Talmud is in essence an exhaustive compilation of rabbinical discourses on Jewish oral law and tradition, redacted in the sixth century – and in almost every yeshiva in Israel and around the world the majority of the day is devoted to Gemara study.

For those devoted to deciphering the intricate details within the debates of the Talmudic sages, such intense study of ancient Jewish law and jurisprudence is a direct path for connecting with God.

One organization that has been at the forefront of efforts to make the study of traditional Jewish texts more accessible is Dirshu, an international organization based in Israel that promotes the Daf Yomi program and other Torahstudy initiatives in 15 countries.

According to Gershon Kroizer, a senior Dirshu director, more than 107,000 people have participated in the organization’s international programs in the past seven years, including 8,000 people in its Daf Yomi course.

Dirshu’s Daf Yomi course is somewhat different from other programs in that it emphasizes the retainment of knowledge acquired throughout the process, a feature of much of the organization’s work.

“Daf Yomi focuses on the fulfillment of daily targets and accomplishments, but if one is not careful all the knowledge a person learned can be gone again two weeks later,” Kroizer said.

To forestall this problem, Dirshu has established a system of tests taken at regular intervals on the material studied in the preceding period.

Those participating, numbering several hundred around the world out of the 8,000 Dirshu Daf Yomi students, are tested every month on the previous 30 pages of Talmud studied, every four months on the previous 120 pages, and every half-year on the entire amount of material learned up to that point.

Substantial monetary stipends are provided to those passing the tests as an incentive.

“It’s not enough to just read through the Gemara and then forget about it,” Kroizer asserted. “One has to really make an acquisition on that knowledge because in this way you have it in your hand, so to speak – it’s yours and it will always stay with you. This is the goal of our Daf Yomi program.”

This philosophy guides much of Dirshu’s work around the world. The organization is based in Israel but operates in 15 countries including the US, Canada, Brazil, the UK, France, Belgium and Russia.

The goal of the organization, when it was established in 1998 by rabbi and businessman David Hofstedter, was the general strengthening of global Torah study. To this end Dirshu created several programs on the model of frequent testing, incentivized by monetary stipends, for learning Jewish law and ethics, the Mishna (on which the Gemara is based) and in-depth Talmud study.

“There’s nothing else like it in the world,” Krozier said of Dirshu and its work. “The importance of Torah study is ultimately to strengthen a person’s character. If you really toil in your studies then one becomes intimately familiar with the Torah, with Jewish law, and therefore [with] how one should act in and behave in life, and how to improve one’s behavior – both in relation to a person’s interaction between himself and his fellow man, as well as in his relationship with God.”

“This is the goal of Dirshu,” he said. But to many outside Orthodox Jewry, the complete devotion to the study of what can appear to be arcane and complex details of ancient Jewish law is somewhat bizarre. And it is this culture gap that partly underlies the modern day political and social battle being fought in Israel between the haredi and secular sectors of society.

Rabbi Aharon Feldman, a prominent ultra- Orthodox leader in the US, current dean of the renowned Ner Yisrael Yeshiva in Baltimore and former dean of the outreachfocused Ohr Somayach Yeshiva in Jerusalem, highlighted what lies behind the intense focus on Talmud study.

“Torah is the lifeblood of the Jewish people, and it can’t be understood without the oral tradition – which is what the Talmud is,” said Feldman, who will be addressing a siyum (concluding ceremony) being staged for the Anglo community in Jerusalem, as well as another siyum being held by Dirshu. “Studying the Talmud is therefore a window into the Jewish soul, through which every aspect of the Torah is explained.”

The importance of studying Talmud, Feldman pointed out, is beyond merely finding out what one should and shouldn’t do.

“Torah is the will of God and the Gemara is its interpretation, so when someone becomes engrossed in studying the Talmud, then what he is doing is immersing himself in the mind of God, in figuring out the will of God and what he wants from mankind,” he said. “In this way, learning becomes for man an act of total subjugation to God.”

According to Feldman, it is this fundamental principle that provides the fascination and attraction for the tens of thousands of people around the globe who devote their time to studying the Talmud – whether in full-time yeshiva study or as part of their daily or weekly schedule, in different frameworks including the Daf Yomi program.

“Everything done by the Jewish people and all aspects of Jewish law is determined by the Talmud, and so by studying the Gemara one gets an enlightened insight into the workings of the Jewish people,” Feldman said, noting that there have never been as many yeshiva students studying at any time in Jewish history as in 2012 – even at the height of the European Jewry – nor have there been yeshivot with as many students.

The Daf Yomi program, the rabbi added, is extremely helpful as a framework for regular study for those not undertaking fulltime Torah learning.

“It’s a way for working people to maintain their connection to Torah study,” he said.

One such person is Yossi Dinner, a young musician living in London who plays in a band at weddings, bar mitzvot and other celebratory events.

Discussing his reasons for starting Daf Yomi, Dinner said that he had been inspired by Hofstedter, who held a siyum in 2005 at the end of the previous cycle, at which Dinner was present.

“I was awed by the fact that a famous businessman with a crazy schedule was still able to devote time every day to giving a Daf Yomi lesson and thereby complete the Talmud,” Dinner said. “I told myself then, ‘If he can make time for it, then maybe I can too,’ despite the fact that I work fulltime as a factory manager in London and also play at weddings and simchot in the evenings.”

Speaking of the importance of his Daf Yomi studies, Dinner said the program linked him to the Torah world.

“If I wouldn’t be learning Daf Yomi, I wouldn’t feel that the Gemara is a part of my life,” he explained. “Today, I can proudly assert that I truly belong to the Torah world.”

The Shas political movement is holding its siyum with an extravaganza at Jerusalem’s Teddy Stadium on Monday night, and all 20,000 tickets have been sold. Shas’s spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, will be the guest of honor.

Dirshu is putting on its celebratory event at the 12,000-capacity Yad Eliyahu Stadium in Tel Aviv – which it expects to fill – also on Monday night. It will be attended by Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman, the leader of the “Lithuanian” haredi world, as well as other senior rabbis from the haredi, hassidic and Sephardi streams. The event will feature musical performances from a 101-strong choir of boys, as well as a specially assembled orchestra.

The United Torah Judaism party will hold its event on Wednesday night at the capital’s Ammunition Hill, with more than 15,000 people expected to attend along with haredi politicians and senior rabbis.

And more than 5,000 English-speakers living in Israel will attend a siyum at the Jerusalem International Convention Center (Binyenei Ha’uma) on Thursday night.

Regardless of which party those complete the Talmud choose to attend, one thing is for certain: After studying a folio page of intricate Talmudic law every day for seven years and five months, having stood up to this challenge and prevailed they will certainly merit their night of rejoicing.

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