This Day in Jewish History Jews the World Wide Start Reading the Babylonian Talmud

On this day in 1923, all Jews committed to reading the six orders of the Mishna, one page a day.

David Green
David B. Green
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David Green
David B. Green

September 11, 1923, the first day of Rosh Hashanah in the year 5684, marked the beginning of the first cycle of organized Daf Yomi study.

On that day Jews worldwide committed to reading through the entire Babylonian Talmud, one page per day.

Reading the 2,711 pages of this keystone of Jewish Oral Law takes a little under seven and a half years. Each such cycle culminates in a celebration called Siyyum Hashas – “completion of the Shas,” the Hebrew acronym for “shisha sdarim,” referring to the six orders of the Mishna.

The inspiration for getting Jews around the world onto the same page, as it were, came from Rabbi Meir Shapiro (1887-1933), who proposed the idea at the First World Congress of World Agudath Israel, in Vienna in August 1923. (Agudath Israel was at the time an organization of ultra-Orthodox European Jewry.) Shapiro was then the rabbi of Sanok, Poland: he went on to found the Chachmei Lublin Yeshiva. He saw the Daf Yomi program – the term means “daily page” – as a way of getting Talmud students to learn more than just the few of its 63 tractates that were then commonly studied, and also saw it as a means of strengthening the links between Jews from different countries.

Rabbi Shapiro explained his idea to the participants in the congress, who were from both Europe and the United States, in the following way: “What a great thing! A Jew travels by boat and takes gemara Berachot [the first tractate of the Talmud] under his arm. He travels for 15 days from Eretz Israel to America, and each day he learns the daf. When he arrives in America, he enters a beis medrash [study hall] in New York and finds Jews learning the very same daf that he studied on that day, and he gladly joins them. Another Jew leaves the States and travels to Brazil or Japan, and he first goes to the beis medrash, where he finds everyone learning the same daf that he himself learned that day. Could there be greater unity of hearts than this?”
The idea was accepted enthusiastically, and the coordinated reading of the Daf Yomi began a few weeks later, on Rosh Hashanah. That first cycle, which went on for 2.702 consecutive days and pages (another nine were added during the next cycle, when Tractate Shekalim of the Jerusalem Talmud was added to the program), was completed on February 2, 1931. Celebrations were held in several European cities, including Lublin, where Rabbi Shapiro’s yeshiva had its official opening, in Jerusalem, and in the United States, in both Philadelphia and Baltimore.

In recent decades, as the numbers of Torah-observant Jews have increased globally, so have the numbers involved in Daf Yomi study. For the 10th Siyyum Hashas celebration, in 1997, an estimated 70,000 people participated, in the United States alone; seven years later, there were thought to be 120,000 in the U.S. completing the cycle, and 300,000 worldwide. Last year, the central event of the Siyyum Hashas was organized by Agudath Israel of America at the MetLife Stadium, in the Meadowlands, in New Jersey. That venue alone, which was sold out, has 90,000 seats.

According to a report in The New York Times at the time, there were rabbis who described the gathering as “the largest celebration of Jewish learning” since the destruction of the Second Temple, in the year 70.

Generally, reading a daily page requires about an hour’s investment of time. For those who pursue this on their own, there are numerous study aids, and a number of organizations make available online outlines, translations and a whole variety of lectures. El Al planes have Talmud lessons linked to the Daf Yomi as part of their entertainment program, and each morning, on the 7:51 and 8:15 Long Island Rail Road trains heading into Manhattan from Far Rockaway, a group of men gather in the last car to learn together.

Today, September 11, 2013, the Daf Yomi will be turned to Tractate Pesachim, page 83.
Image of rabbi meir shapiro

Hadaf Hayomi street, Bnei Brak

A fragment of an ancient copy of the Babylonian Talmud, being studied and preserved at the Israel National Library.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi
There's even a street named after the Daf Yomi practice.Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Meir ShapiroCredit: Wikimedia Commons



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