Monday night’s celebration at the Nokia basketball arena in Tel Aviv.
Monday night’s celebration at the Nokia basketball arena in Tel Aviv marking the end of the seven-year cycle of Talmud study. Photo by Tomer Appelbaum
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More than 11,000 people flocked to Nokia Arena in Tel Aviv last night to celebrate the worldwide completion of the study of the entire Talmud. Jews across the globe learn one page a day of the Talmud, known as Daf Yomi, and it takes seven and a half years to finish the entire cycle. It is traditionally celebrated at a ceremony called a Siyyum Hashas.

Last night's Siyyum Hashas symbolized the end of an era and the beginning of a new one, as it was the first time the new Haredi leadership assembled, following the death ten days ago of the Lithuanian-Haredi leader, Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv.

A loud rendition of "Thou wilt add days to the days of the king" accompanied the slow procession of Elyashiv's successors at the event. Many of those successors are quite old themselves. The crowd stood up and sang euphorically when a very small and wrinkled man entered the arena, Rabbi Aharon Yehuda Leib Shteinman, the new 98-year-old leader.

Shteinman, who never embraced militant positions, stood in the same place where one of the previous leaders, Elazar Menachem Man Shach, delivered his infamous "rabbit and pork eaters" speech, and Shteinman's message could not be more different. His speech was short, about three minutes, and its peak was the saying that man's proper goal in life is to observe mitzvot. Not a word about current political issues.

Most of the major Ashkenazi leaders and rabbis were present, with the notable exception of rabbi Shmuel Auerbach and his followers, who declared he was Elyashiv's heir and refused to accept Shteinman's leadership.

The rabbi who originally came up with the Daf Yomi idea had two goals: to encourage the public to set aside time for Torah studies, and to form a common denominator among all students, regardless of status, profession or country of origin. 89 years later, the program is a stunning success. Tens of thousands of Jews take part in this global enterprise, and are about to complete the 12th cycle of learning.

The second goal was never attained, as evident from Monday's celebration - split into two, each tribe celebrating by itself. The huge Orthodox world can no longer unite, not even around the Talmud. For that reason, the Ashkenazim at Nokia Arena, and the Sephardim at Teddy Stadium in Jerusalem.

On Tuesday the Ashkenazim will celebrate again in Jerusalem, and during the week the religious Zionists will celebrate at Binyanei Hauma in Jerusalem. The Hassidic courts held their celebrations independently.

At Teddy Stadium, Shas' celebration attracted some 25,000 people. But the event nearly became a fiasco when thousands flooded the football field to block the car of their leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. Only when Interior Minister Eli Yishai threatened to take the rabbi back home did the crowd return to the stands. At this point, the 92-year-old Yosef entered a tiny Golf car that drove him to the stage.

It was the first time Shas' leader was seen in this vehicle, but that wasn't the reason the crowd cheered. The very same car was used by Rabbi Elyashiv for the past decade, to drive him from his home to the nearby place of study, two or three times a day. While Rabbi Shteinman faced inner opposition, Rabbi Ovadia came and did his bit, perhaps hinting that at the least as far as automobiles go, he is actually the true heir.