2012-09-07 / Columnists

A Prescription For Reason

Thoughts on The Daf
Commentary By Dr. Harold Bendelstein

For those intrepid readers of this paper who have taken the time to read this article, you may have been enticed by the mysterious title. What is a daf? To most Orthodox Jews the word is well known. Its literal translation in Hebrew simply means page. Accordingly, why should such a commonplace term be the subject of any scholarly or even quasi-intellectual piece of writing. In reality all of us are readers of many types of literature. Is a page of this particular literary conglomeration any more special than any other work of writing that we indulge in on a regular basis? Emphatically it is. The daf is not merely a page but one of 2,711 pages long. The objective of its participants is to study and elucidate the materials and knowledge of one of the total of 2,711 pages daily. Taken in its totality, the entire exercise spans seven years and five months of studying. In real terms each page learned in Babylonian Aramaic is the equivalent of ten sides of commentaried information in technical argumentative format. Those who complete the entire process of this Daf Yomi, literally, “page a day,” will have acquired the notable distinction of having learned the entire Talmud. Such a feat should not be taken lightly. It is a monumental achievement of staggering dimensions. At the conclusion of this massive academic endeavor, Jews around the world who labor to its finality perform a “Siyum Of The Shas,” the completion of the Talmud convocation. The recent American gathering took place at the Met Life Center with 93,000 celebrants. Surprisingly this historic gathering and its meaning hardly drew any media attention and coverage despite the titanic scope and transcendent nature of this assemblage.

How does one explain this? Most of us have been brainwashed and manipulated by cultural forces to become attracted to more mundane acts. Our days proceed regularly without intense deep meaning or aspirations to higher goals of attainment. We work, eat, live our lives, and marvel at the achievement of heroic figures like baseball and football teams and their players. We revel when the Giants win the Super Bowl. It was a great game and my family and I, at least the guys, all football fanatics, joined in the happy hoopla to celebrate the victory. Nevertheless, despite such occasional bursts of happiness and joy, there must be more to existence than actions of the above. What are we really trying to accomplish and our ultimate aspirations and connections? It cannot be merely following the ludicrous adventures of the wacky Khardashian Family, Hollywood superstars, or the Housewives of Far Rockaway. Why not? We’re at least as interesting as the other bunches. The point is that despite our daily culturally induced activities, there are things out there that rightly command attention and whose engagement yields rewards that cannot be easily measured, but adds greatness to our baseline existence.

Started in 1923 the idea for an international program of Talmud study toward its completion, was an idea presented by a Rabbi Meir Shapiro, of Lublin, Poland at a religious Jewish congress meeting. Rabbi Shapiro envisioned an order of the Talmud to be studied in synchrony by Jews around the world. The goal would be a continuing enlightening spiritual experience to its participants. Moreover, it would unite Jews around the world. A Jewish traveler could find himself in any Jewish community in the world, open up his Talmud and find himself engaged and learning the same page where he is currently holding at home. There uniform order of study would allow Jews to be anywhere else in the world and have a common thread and topic of discussion with all others so involved. Every seven and a half years, all Jewish students around the world would then celebrate the Talmud’s completions simultaneously. As the years transpired the celebrations around the world grew in scope and participation. The first Siyum took place in Israel and Poland in 1931 with only a handful of attendees. Seven and a half years ago it packed Madison Square Garden. And August 1 of this year, the 12th Siyum drew nearly 100,000 personalities filling Met Life Stadium. Exactly 75 years earlier on August 1, 1936, Adolf Hitler opened his Berlin stadium with a capacity of 100,000 to host the malevolent Nazi Olympics. While they have been dispatched to the waste of historical trash, the Talmud and its adherent students study constantly and congregate to maintain the spiritual intellectual genius and teachings of Jewish learning. History has taught us that evil always perishes and dies while good continues to live on.

One of the greatest Jewish scholars of our age, Rabbi Joseph Soloveichik, wrote his brilliant masterpiece treatise, “The Lonely Man of Faith,” in 1965. Extremely deep and learned students and scholars read it again and again gleaning more and more meaning and elevation on each occasion. The text discusses the inherent paradox of man. The Rav, as he was generally known, philosophically tries to rationalize the apparent difficulties man engages in as he considers the capacity of his inherent capabilities to excel in all human endeavor as science, technology, and law, while recognizing his relationship to his creator, and how a man can live in both worlds as a contributor to the advancement of humanity and complete his spiritual obligations to the almighty. The analysis reflects greatly on the true meaning of our lives. The Rav explains that such a man is a lonely person as few in our over secular and culturally driven world ponder such a hefty topic. On the other hand, those devotees to the Daf Yomi are the modern day legacy of what the Rav was trying to teach. Thousands and thousands of Jews are firmly entrenched in both worlds and reaping the benefits of both a deeply fulfilling earthly life and spiritual existence at the same time.

Having attended the last Siyum on August 1, I decided that I should thrust my efforts into this mission. It is comforting to know that I am not alone. I have become one of a minion of budding students who are making the attempt to live the creator’s perfect model of the man who can appreciate, even to a small degree, what it means to approach and have knowledge of our creator and his mandate to follow his example in laws and ethical behaviors toward our fellow man, while being a participant in the growth of human endeavor.

The Daf is so much more than just a page. It is the burning caldron that forges a people to survive among all odds and enemies. It unleashes the minds razor ability to cut thought the mysterious of the most profound knowledge and construct defenses and assaults against all physical and intellectual attacks. It is the source of the highest forms of courage and connects us with an unbreakable chain of attachment that those who adhere to it are forever protected becoming part of a legacy that can never be shattered. We should all strive to reach for such lofty goals.

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