Women celebrate Siyum HaShas in Jerusalem

3,300 women gathered to celebrate the first Siyum HaShas for Women in Jerusalem. While Talmud's study used to be exclusively for men, there's been a revolution in women's study in the past 40 years.

Halle Kahan, Rabbanit Michelle Cohen Farber and Ruth Kahan (photo credit: LINDA GRADSTEIN)
Halle Kahan, Rabbanit Michelle Cohen Farber and Ruth Kahan
(photo credit: LINDA GRADSTEIN)
Every morning, for the past seven and a half years, Ruth Kahan, a freelance language editor, has gotten out of bed at 4:30 a.m., exercised, and walked to a Talmud class in her neighborhood in Ra’anana where she learned one daf, a double-sided page of Talmud. At first, she wasn’t sure she would be able to persevere.
“When people asked me if I was really going to stick with it for seven and a half years, my answer was, ‘I have no idea, but I’ll go tomorrow.’ I did it drip by drip and drop by drop.”
Her family, she said, was overwhelmingly supportive. Her husband David Kahan left either a chocolate or an encouraging note on her volume of Talmud every morning. She saved one of those notes, which said, “It’s a good day to learn gemara [Aramaic for Talmud].”
On the night of January 5, Kahan was among 3,300 women from Israel and abroad at Jerusalem’s International Convention Center who gathered to celebrate the first “Siyum HaShas for Women.” It was billed as the first large-scale celebration by women who had completed the entire Talmud.
The Siyum HaShas for Women was attended by some 3,300 women from Israel and abroad
The Siyum HaShas for Women was attended by some 3,300 women from Israel and abroad
In a well-orchestrated program, the packed audience experienced waves of excitement and emotion, culminating in a “Koololam” musical pinnacle, which fused all the elements of joy, learning and coming together.
Most of the attendees signed up to study at least one page of Talmud and for many it was their first time opening the oversized volumes. A few dozen completed the entire seven-year cycle.
“It’s no longer a locked book in front of us, but rather every single person can learn,” said Rabbanit Michelle Cohen Farber, whose Hadran organization arranged the event. The American-born Farber taught the daf every day except Shabbat for the past seven and a half years and has a daily podcast of her 45-minute class.
Kahan, who is one of her students, had only praise for her teacher and the Jerusalem event.
“Michele is brilliant,” she said. “She pulls everything together and notices broad themes. On the last day on Friday when she summed up the whole Talmud it was absolutely mind-blowing.”
“Mind-blowing” is not a word  you would usually use to describe a 1,500-year-old text. The Talmud, a 2,711 page compendium of arguments about Jewish law and stories about Jewish life in Babylonia was written partly in Hebrew and partly in Aramaic. Even for those fluent in both languages parts of it can often be indecipherable.
“The Siyum HaShas for Women seems to have jumpstarted a trend among women – choosing to learn daily, and bringing to life an ancient text in its everlasting meaning and application,” said project coordinator Maggie Sandler. “Women seem to be excited to learn Talmud from a woman. The Hadran team that Michelle brought together, which I felt privileged to be introduced into as if through a back door given that before I met her I had never opened a Talmud myself, is an impressive group of energized and positive women who believe in the potential of all women as intellectuals – how each and every woman who learns Talmud brings a unique perspective to the text.
“They have each relayed to me the power of introducing Talmudic thought into their daily lives and into their homes.”
Daf Yomi began in Lublin, Poland, more than 200 years ago. The idea was that Jews around the world would all be studying the travel from Warsaw to Baghdad to Casablanca and all Jewish men would be learning the same page of Talmud every day.
The siyum or celebration of finishing the Talmud once every seven and a half years was always a big deal. Just a few days before the women’s siyum in Jerusalem, more than 90,000 men, the vast majority ultra-Orthodox, crammed into the MetLife Stadium in New Jersey for a similar event.
Until recently the Talmud was the exclusive province of men. It was seen by many as too “complicated” or “difficult” for women to understand. Some rabbis said it was even dangerous.
There is the famous dictum by Rabbi Eliezer: “He who teaches his daughter Torah teaches her foolishness.”
But in the last 40 years there has been a revolution in women’s Talmud study in both Israel and the US. Organizations such as Matan have taught adult women Talmud. High-school girls in the network of Pelech high schools began to learn Talmud seriously. Many young women in Israel spent a gap year between high school and either the army or national service studying in places like Migdal Oz in Gush Etzion and Midreshet Lindenbaum in Jerusalem.
But it is still a jump between learning Talmud seriously and committing to learning a page every day, including on Shabbat and Jewish holidays. At the event, women who had finished the entire Talmud were invited onstage or to stand in their seats. One woman, Dr. Deena Zimmerman, a pediatrician, had finished the entire Talmud for the fourth time.
About a half-dozen well-known teachers from the US and Israel spoke briefly at the Jerusalem event. They were greeted like rock stars with cheers and thunderous applause, and with most of the crowd standing in respect as they came in, the custom with well-known rabbis.
One of the teachers, Esti Rosenberg, is the granddaughter of the famed American sage Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, who opened the gates of serious Torah study to women.
“When my father and grandfather opened up Torah to women, I don’t think it was so much because of what they thought about women, but about what they thought about Torah. They couldn’t imagine life without it,” she said to thunderous applause.
Ruth Kahan attended the event with her daughter, Halle, who is spending a year studying Talmud in Jerusalem before starting her mandatory army service. Halle told all her friends how proud she was that her mom finished the whole Talmud.
“You think that women studying Talmud is normal,” Ruth told her daughter. “You’ve grown up with this every day. You can’t realize how historic and groundbreaking this is.”
She got home from the event Sunday night around midnight. Where was she Monday morning at 8:15 a.m.? Right back at Michelle Farber’s house for a lesson on the first page of the Talmud, for the second time around. This time her sister Jessica, who lives in Pennsylvania, is joining her, listening to the podcast each day.
Like last time, Ruth isn’t sure she’ll stick it out for another seven and a half years. “All I know is that I’ll go tomorrow,” she said with a laugh.