NEW YORK (Mar. 2)
When Henry Lowenthal used to prepare for business trips, he’d pack a bag full of typical travel sundries — along with a photocopied packet of pages from the Talmud. As a top financial officer of greeting card giant American Greetings Corp., he traveled a lot, and he didn’t want to miss a single day of Talmud study.
Even now, Lowenthal, 73 and retired, travels frequently. But he no longer needs photocopied pages to keep his learning up to speed.
Instead, he slips a CD-Rom that contains the entire Talmud into his laptop computer and studies away.
Lowenthal, a Baltimore resident, joined some 27,000 other mostly Orthodox Jews at New York’s Madison Square Garden on Tuesday night to take part in a celebration marking the completion of the study of the entire Babylonian Talmud, one page a day for 2,711 days in a row.
All together, more than 100,000 Jews gathered across North America Tuesday night to mark the completion of the 11th cycle of the Daf Yomi, or daily page, since it emerged in 1923.
Celebrations at the Garden and the Continental Airlines Arena in New Jersey were the largest, packing in some 46,000 Talmud enthusiasts, according to Agudath Israel of America, which organized the events.
Daf Yomi groups also celebrated in Albany, N.Y.; Baltimore; Chicago; Salt Lake City; Birmingham, Ala.; and other U.S. cities.
Another 100,000 took part elsewhere in the world, including Israel, Venezuela, South Africa, Argentina, Russia and Australia.
In Lublin, Poland, some 200 Jews celebrated the tradition at the yeshiva whose rabbi originated the idea of studying the daily page more than 80 years ago.
Lowenthal is one of thousands of learners who are taking advantage of technology to bolster their study of the ancient Jewish text, which codifies the ancient rabbinic discussion and commentary on Jewish civil and religious law.
Indeed, the 21st century has seen the proliferation of several technological approaches being applied to Torah learning, beyond the CD-Rom.
There are also Webcasts of Talmud lessons, instruction over the phone and now, hot off the assembly line, what’s known as the "ShasPod," a hand-held 20 gigabyte iPod loaded with mp3 files containing a complete set of talmudic shiurim, or lessons, by a rabbi named David Grossman.
"No computer necessary," reads an ad on the ShasPod Web site. "No technical knowledge needed. The ShasPod is sent to you fully ready for the next cycle of the Daf HaYomi."
But for many of those who attended the massive Siyum HaShas at Madison Square Garden, the ceremony was a time to celebrate the old-school approach to studying the ancient text of rabbinic writings: hunching over an open book.
"Most people here, we grew up learning in yeshiva. We’re used to opening up the Gemara and learning," Moshe Usher Reinitz, a New York-area computer programmer, said, referring to a part of the Talmud.
"This other stuff is just supplemental."
Lowenthal agreed, saying that although his Talmud CD is "a passable substitute," there’s nothing like the real thing.
"I prefer to be in a shiur where there’s a real give-and-take," Lowenthal, who was completing the learning cycle for the fourth time, said, using the Hebrew phrase for class.
The top floors of the Garden were filled with women, most of whom came to support their husbands or sons. They were, some said, taken in by the sheer breadth of the event.
"This is a once in a seven-and-a-half-year event; it’s amazing to see this many Jewish people together in one place," said Melissa Gardonyi, 26, from suburban New York.
In Los Angeles, more than 2,600 people filled the Walt Disney Concert Hall, where the early evening event drew a mostly Orthodox crowd and plugged into the East Coast gatherings by satellite.
Michelle Kleinert, Calif. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Jewish community liaison, sat in the women’s section, as did fraternal twin sisters Shoshana and Hadassah Klerman. They were among busloads of teenagers from local Orthodox high schools who attended the event.
"This reflects the continuity that we have with Torah throughout the ages, from the beginning of time until now," said Shoshana, a sophomore at the all-girls Beis Yaakov High School in Los Angeles’s Fairfax District.
"You think that, okay, the Holocaust happened and these kinds of things happen and people try to wipe us out but we’re still here."
Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, called this year’s event "one of the most significant events in American Jewish history; it shows the renaissance of the Jewish people after the Holocaust not only in population but in terms of a recommitment to their heritage."
Leading rabbinic authorities have dedicated the Siyum HaShas as a memorial to the six million Jews killed in the Holocaust.
Howard Gluck, a deputy Los Angeles city attorney, came with his two sons even though he did not undertake the lengthy Daf Yomi course.
"I wanted my children to be part of a very unified day celebrating the completion and the starting of the Talmud," he said. "It’s an amazing thing to have a program where the same page is being studied in Los Angeles and New York and in Poland and in Moscow and in Israel. The main thing is, we are all part of one family, the Jewish people."
After a fervent mincha, the afternoon prayer service, at the Garden in New York, a series of rabbinical luminaries addressed the crowd from a huge dais on the arena floor that usually is home to the New York Knicks basketball team.
Overhead, beneath championship banners celebrating the Knicks and hockey’s Rangers — and beneath the upper decks, which were reserved for women — scenes of gatherings from Calgary to Poland were piped in on large screens.
In the halls outside the arena itself, men chatted — with each other and on cell phones — and waited in long lines at concession stands to buy soft drinks, Twizzlers and potato chips.
After the last of the Talmud’s 2,711 pages was taught — it came from the order called Niddah and dealt with issues of women’s purity — the Madison Square Garden ceremony, which had been somber to that point, took on a wedding-like tone, with loud music and energetic dancing.
As a singer crooned "Siman tov u’mazal tov," thousands of black-clad men rose to their feet, grasped each others’ hands and began swaying, dancing, shuffling.
A sea of bobbing black hats animated the arena. Hundreds of men slapped their hands onto fellow revelers’ backs and formed a giant human train that circled the Garden’s Second Promenade, causing the floor to shake.
Half an hour later, the crowd returned to their seats as the cycle was begun anew, with the teaching of the first page of the first order, Berachot.
The practice of studying a page of Talmud each day originated in 1923 at the First International Congress of Agudath Israel in Vienna.
It was designed not only to bring uniformity to the study of Talmud, but unity to Jews worldwide. It seems to have worked.
"Wherever you go in the world, you can find a Daf Yomi shiur and join them, and they’re at the same page you’re at," said Lowenthal.
Asked how it felt to be among so many Jews who were simultaneously completing study of the Talmud, Lowenthal began to cry.
"It’s so emotional, I can’t describe it," he said.
Seven and a half years ago, Josh Goldberg started learning the Daf Yomi. After three years, though, he stopped.
"You have to understand the amount of commitment" this takes, he said. "This is like going to the gym every day without missing."
Goldberg said he planned to start the new cycle Wednesday morning at 9 a.m. sharp, with a shiur being Web-cast at the Web site www.yadavraham.org.
"The Daf changes your life," he said. "It gives you structure."
For Jaime Zonana, 20, who comes from Mexico City and has spent the last year studying at a yeshiva on Staten Island, the event was about unity.
"You feel like you’re here with the whole people," he said. "It gives you strength."
This year, for the first time, a program called Jewish Unity Live created a series of national programs with Jewish performers, films and celebrations coinciding with the siyum, planned to attract a non-Orthodox audience.
Organizer Rabbi Yitzchok Oratz said that Jewish Unity Live wanted to "take the energy and excitement of tens of thousands of Jews gathering and extend it to Jews of a more secular background, to allow those who haven’t been studying Talmud to join in unity with their brothers and sisters who have."
In Scottsdale, Ariz., a Jewish Unity Live event sponsored by the Phoenix Community Kollel attracted nearly 500 people.
Hadassah Lieberman shared stories of life on the presidential campaign trail with her husband, Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.), and musicians, including songwriter Peter Himmelman, entertained the crowd.
Rabbi Zvi Holland, director of the Phoenix kollel, said, "Jewish Unity Live seeks to share the joy and unity of Torah study with every Jew."
And for those who study, the connection runs deep.
"This is what the Jewish people is all about," said Daniel Himmel, who attended the Daf Yomi event in Boston.
"The reason the Jewish people are in the world is to do God’s will through the commandments and to elevate mankind to standards of ethics, morality and love of God.
"We accomplish this by learning Torah."