Universal expression of faith
By Brian Fitzgerald
For Rabbi Joseph Polak, Boston University was an apt setting for a large ceremony to mark the end of the seven-and-a-half-year process of reading the Talmud under the Daf Yomi study program.
After all, “this is a center of learning,” said Polak (Hon.’95), director of BU’s Hillel. And Daf Yomi is, in effect, a worldwide yeshiva (Talmudic academy) without walls. In fact, BU hosted a celebration the last time the cycle was completed, in September 1997.
On March 1, more than 500 members of the Boston Jewish community gathered at Morse Auditorium, connected via satellite to similar groups in New York, Toronto, Chicago, Denver, and Los Angeles. There were simultaneous celebrations in more than 40 cities across North America, as well as cities in South America, Europe, South Africa, China, Australia, and Israel — many of them joined by satellite hookup with the New York–area sites.
Daf Yomi involves studying one daf, or page, of the Talmud each day. Known as Siyum HaShas, the international event was the culmination of the reading of the entire 2,711 pages of the sacred text, and the beginning of another cycle. The Talmud, written in Aramaic and Hebrew, is the collection of Jewish oral laws, ethics, and legends set down in writing. It consists of interpretations of the Torah — the first five books of Moses.
The Boston-area gathering at Morse was cosponsored by BU’s Hillel and the New England chapter of Agudath Israel, an Orthodox Jewish movement that promotes educational and religious programs.
At the First International Congress of Agudath Israel, in Vienna in 1923, Rabbi Meir Shapiro, a young Polish rabbinical leader, proposed an idea to increase Torah study and unify Jews in distant places and of varied backgrounds. Daf Yomi was initially met with some skepticism — many rabbinic leaders thought that a page a day was too quick a pace for complex Talmudic issues. “People argued with him and said, ‘Impossible — who is going to do this?’” said Polak. “And cycle after cycle, we do it. We manage it, because he believed in us.”
In synagogues and homes, Daf Yomi participants devote approximately an hour a day to demanding Talmud study. “It’s quite a commitment, but it’s getting more popular — there are even lectures and discussion groups online,” says Ari Dach (CAS’06), BU Hillel student board president. Daf Yomi is also available through audiotapes and there is even a “Dial-A-Daf” telephone network.
“Some people study by themselves, and some people learn in Chavruta style — in pairs and small groups,” says Elise Polaner (CGS’06), who helped coordinate the event. The daily study can take place anywhere: for years one class has been meeting during the morning commute on a specially reserved car on the Long Island Railroad.
The group at Morse Auditorium ranged from children to adults, many wearing black hats or yarmulkes. The satellite television feeds, shown on a large screen, included scenes from celebrations at Madison Square Garden in New York City and the Continental Airlines Arena in New Jersey, where a total of more than 46,000 had gathered to hear speeches by some of the world’s greatest Jewish scholars.
The BU event began with Mincha, or evening prayer, followed by a welcome by Isaac Perle, chairman of the New England chapter of Agudath Israel. “Think for a moment of how the angels have been dancing with Meir Shapiro for decades, of the millions of pages of Talmud that have been read by tens of thousands of people,” said Perle. “This singular idea has forever transformed the landscape of Jewish learning.”