As soon as tickets went on sale for the 11th Siyum HaShas sponsored by Agudath Israel of America, I arranged to be there. I traveled to New York to be at Madison Square Garden. Having seen videos of the last Siyum HaShas, I didn’t want to miss a chance to recite Kriyas Shema with 25,000 Jews at Madison Square Garden and to join together with over 100,000 Jews by satellite hookup.
Nevertheless I had more than a little ambivalence about attending, which struck me as appropriating a crown to which I am not entitled: lomeid hadaf. Tens of thousands of Jews successfully completed the just concluded cycle, and they along were their spouses and children are the true celebrants. The rest of us are mere hangers on and pretenders, I thought to myself.
Even worse, I knew I had no intention of joining the next cycle either. Thus I could not even pretend that I was in Madison Square Garden to jump start my participation in the next cycle. As Rabbi Yissochar Frand put it in his speech from Chicago, learning Daf Yomi is like touring through Shas. And I, at least, find the tour to be of the "If this is Tuesday, it must be Belgium" variety.
Once upon a time, I enjoyed learning a daf a day at Mirrer Yeshiva, but that was with periodic chazaros and tests. Every stab at Daf Yomi learning, however, has quickly ended in frustration at my inability to gain even a superficial mastery of the material.
Apparently I was not unique in my ambivalence. Rabbi Chaskel Besser, the first chairman of Agudath Israel of America's Daf Yomi Commision, began his opening remarks by addressing those who do not learn Daf Yomi. If your brother makes a simchah, he said, you go. Tonight we all have many, many brothers making a simchah.
But our attendance was something more than simply participating in another’s simchah. It was a form of paying homage to the achievement of those who completed the cycle of Daf Yomi. The completion of the Daf Yomi cycle requires tremendous discipline and dedication. Most of us have a hard time keeping up with much smaller undertakings for even a few weeks, much less 2711 days in a row.
Daf Yomi requires minimally an hour a day for a shiur or chavrusah, and normally at least twice that amount of time to provide any feeling of satisfaction. The pace is relentless. Even missing one or two nights can leave one struggling to catch up.
Unless one makes the time for shiur or chavrusah study virtually sacrosanct, there is little chance of success. And even then, there are the inevitable illnesses, family simchos, and times when one is traveling. If one did not possess strong skills in time management at the outset of learning Daf Hayomi, he would surely have acquired them by the end.
Rabbi Paysach Krohn tells the story of the rav who is known as one of the world’s greatest experts on Mishnah Berurah. Someone once asked him how he had acquired his phenomenal knowledge of Mishnah Berurah. He replied that since a young age he had always learned Mishnah Berurah for a half an hour after Shachris. His interlocutor replied, "But I could have done that."
"Yes, but I did," answered the talmid chacham.
For those who did not complete the Daf Yomi cycle, the Siyum HaShas was our way of honoring those who did. And in saluting them, we also obligated ourselves.
Indeed that is one of the most important by-products of the proliferation in Daf Yomi shiurim in recent years: they obligate the rest of us. As Rabbi Frand put it, "You arrive for davening at 6:30 a.m., and realize that there is a large group that has already been in shul since 5:30 a.m." Last week, I saw posted in a medium-sized shul in Riverdale the schedule of five daily Daf Yomi shiurim, each one of them taught by someone who works full time.
Walking into shul and seeing the look of satisfaction on the faces of those who have just finished an hour of early morning learning while the rest of us are still rubbing the sand from our eyes helps us recognize the centrality of fixed Torah learning in any fulfilled Jewish life. The pre-Siyum issue of the Jewish Observer (published by Agudath Israel of America) was filled with moving testimonials to the transformative impact of learning or teaching Daf Yomi. Many participants commented on the fact that their wives gladly made the sacrifices necessary for them to maintain their learning schedule because they recognized the positive changes in the family as a result of the father’s learning.
One businessman who teaches three Daf Yomi shiurim every day cheerfully admitted that few who knew him in his yeshiva days would believe that he learns the Daf Yomi, much less is a maggid shiur. But that’s just the point: He is no longer the same person he was in yeshiva. Rather by virtue of the huge commitment he has made to Daf Yomi, he has become someone quite different.
Daf Yomi learning is not for all of us. But by honoring the lomdei haDaf, we also acknowledge our own need to create a similar island in time, completely removed from anything else happening in our lives, to immerse ourselves in the sea of Talmud.