American Orthodoxy

From Madison Square Garden to MetLife Stadium: Transformations in Daf Yomi Siyumim

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Elli Fischer

EDITORS’ NOTE: In the coming days, we look forward to featuring reflections on the recent Daf Yomi celebrations. First Elli Fischer looked back at 30 years of Daf Yomi celebrations. Second, Sara Tillinger Wolkenfeld offered a reflection on the role of imagination in bringing about the recent women’s Siyyum ha-Shas. Third, Zev Eleff offered a historical overview of the daf yomi revolution. Finally, Channa Lockshin Bob wonders: What do we want the next Women’s Siyum ha-Shas to look like? 

Over the past week, the whole world has been treated to celebration after celebration of the enduring love between the Jewish people and the book that shaped it more than any other, the Talmud Bavli. It has been a tremendous source of pride and inspiration for me, and I, an avowed Daf Yomi outsider, am finding it harder and harder to resist its temptations.

However, until I finally cave, this resistance has allowed me to observe the Daf Yomi phenomenon and its Siyumim every 7.4 years with a certain critical distance, and to notice certain important changes in the production of the main Siyum in the U.S. and in the culture of Daf Yomi over the past 30 years.

The most obvious change is the scale. As late as 1968, the “main event” in the U.S. was held at the Bais Yaakov of Boro Park, with an estimated attendance as low as 300. Half a century and seven Daf Yomi cycles later, this population squared itself, as some 90,000 people filled MetLife Stadium on January 1, 2020.[1] I attended my first Siyum at Madison Square Garden in 1990. There was astonishment that a Siyum could fill a 20,000-seat arena to capacity, especially since in 1982 the audience of 5,000 did not sell out the Felt Forum.

Yet many of the transformations have been subtle, flying beneath the radar. This account is impressionistic, guided mainly by memory.

My father started learning Daf Yomi in the late 1980s, toward the end of the ninth cycle, figuring – in true Fischer fashion – that the last tractates are some of the most arcane and challenging, so it would be best to get them out of the way first. There were not many Modern Orthodox laypeople studying Daf Yomi at the time – he attended a class in Yiddish at a Hasidic shtibl. Not long after he started – and not long after I became bar mitzvah – we went to the Siyum at Madison Square Garden.

On balance, it was a miserable experience. The awkward self-consciousness of the early teens was exacerbated by the fact that I was wearing one of very few knit yarmulkes in a sea of black. The vast majority of the speeches were in Yiddish, which was incomprehensible to me, and there was a simultaneous translation into Yeshivish English, which was not much better. The concession stands were closed, and I was hungry. The women were confined to a small part of the upper concourse, behind thick white curtains. My father was very amused when we walked up a ramp with the throngs, and there was some sort of construction or leak on the right side, so an Agudath Israel usher had the task of standing there with a megaphone and instructing everyone to “move to the left.”

My most vivid memory of the day is of the traffic to get onto the Holland Tunnel to head back to Baltimore. In all, we probably spent ten hours in the car that day, which could have been nice, except that at the last minute, a member of his Daf Yomi group needed a ride both ways. This leads to my second most vivid memory of the day: this extra passenger’s postnasal drip, head cold, or something. So instead of riding shotgun and bonding with my father, I was in the uncomfortable back seat of my father’s old Buick, listening to some guy try to dislodge a stubborn bit of mucus from a sinus.

At the time, I probably convinced myself that I had a blast. There are some positive memories – the recitation of Shema in unison, the silence as the crowd of 20,000 began the Amidah prayer – but they are all very serious. Making the event enjoyable, it seems, was simply not a priority of the producers.

The Siyum at the end of the next cycle had a lot more music and even some dancing. There were two large New York venues: Madison Square Garden again, and Nassau Coliseum. It was clear that MSG was primary: it was a more storied location, its speeches were mainly in Yiddish, and its list of VIPs was more prestigious.

Yeshiva University President and Rosh HaYeshiva Norman Lamm was seated at a secondary dais at the secondary venue. He had recently likened yeshivot that teach no secular subjects to a Talmudic sage who studied Torah for thirteen years in a cave, concluding that YU’s mission was for its students to eventually leave the cave. This speech became known as the “cave man” speech[2] and was aken as a grave insult by leading roshei yeshiva, most notably Rabbi Elya Svei of the Yeshiva of Philadelphia, one of the most powerful figures in the American yeshiva community. I and many other YU students at the time attended the event at the Coliseum. We acutely felt the slap that Rabbi Svei had administered, and I recall trying to defend Rabbi Lamm from charges of heresy at and around the time of the Siyum. It certainly cast a pall over the celebration for us.

Along with YU, the women were also relegated mainly to the Coliseum, though a sizable chunk of the Coliseum was converted into a women’s section, and it was not only the uppermost concourse that was reserved for them. One of the Nassau speakers, Rabbi Yissocher Frand of Ner Israel Rabbinical College in Baltimore, praised the women who enable and encourage their husbands to attend Daf Yomi classes, even at the most inconvenient times. Every time he mentioned the word “women,” he received a loud ovation from the back third of the Coliseum. After four or five such ovations, the avuncular smile that was pasted to Rabbi Frand’s face as he watched yeshiva students dance on the Coliseum floor had been replaced by an unambiguously peeved expression. To the best of my knowledge, he was the first speaker at the main Daf Yomi Siyum to acknowledge the presence and role of women in the endeavor, certainly to devote an entire speech to it.

It was at this event that I realized that in addition to being a unifying force – having the entire Jewish people on the same page, connected by the same words, etc. – Daf Yomi and its Siyum were projects of Agudath Israel and reflected its values. It came to me as Rabbi Abish Brodt was singing, “Ve-ye’asu kulam agudah ehat la’asot retzonekha be-levav shalem,” a line from the High Holiday liturgy that means, “They will all be made into one band to do Your will wholeheartedly.” This rendition of an ancient prayer for unity repeatedly emphasized the word “agudah” over and over again. The dissonance between partisanship and unity was palpable.

Nevertheless, the uneasy accommodation of two groups – YU and women – signaled that Agudath Israel was straining to maintain its imprimatur on a flagship project and cultural phenomenon that was spreading beyond the community it represented. And this was just the beginning. ArtScroll was making Talmud accessible to new audiences, the Internet was making it possible to download lectures onto portable devices, and a generation of Modern Orthodox laypeople – mostly men, some women – who had spent formative years rigorously studying Talmud was coming of age.

I have not attended the main Daf Yomi Siyum since the late 1990s, but I have watched the phenomenon spread. By the time the next Daf Yomi cycle completed in 2005 (with simultaneous Siyumim at three New York-area arenas), I had become friendly with Conservative Jews who were studying Daf Yomi, and a group from Alon Shevut had a Daf Yomi class by and for women. When the new cycle started, I was an OU-JLIC educator at the University of Maryland, and we started a Daf Yomi class for college students. Upon completion of the first tractate, Berakhot, a group of about a dozen students – men and women, Orthodox and Conservative, straight and queer – got up in front of their peers and made a Siyum. The class foundered during the extended summer break and eventually died when the Fall 2005 midterms coincided with some of the thorniest passages of Eruvin. In hindsight, the steadiness of Daf Yomi and the peaks and valleys of university schedules are not well-suited to one another. And yet, a dozen students completed Berakhot, and a Daf Yomi class survived a semester and a half.

The 2012 Siyum marked its graduation from indoor arenas to an open-air stadium with seating for 100,000, but as it grew, it diversified. During the most recent cycle, Tablet Magazine literary critic Adam Kirsch began studying “the daf” and writing a weekly column on it. Ilana Kurshan published an award-winning memoir, If All the Seas were Ink, which weaves insights from Daf Yomi into the events of her life. Erica Brown has been tweeting Daf Yomi insights. In London, artist Jacqueline Nicholls studied and then drew each daily daf. Daf Yomi has become, as Kurshan’s promotional material describes it, “the world’s largest book club,” a broad cultural phenomenon, and a vehicle for creative expression, an abstract communal center for a world in which people are increasingly “bowling alone.” It even borrowed from the culture of marathon runners, as decals with the number “2,711” (the number of pages in the Talmud) adorn the cars of some Daf Yomi learners.

On New Year’s Day, 2020, I tuned into the livestream of the latest Daf Yomi Siyum at MetLife Stadium. The production values were first rate, with lots of music and dancing (Rabbi Abish Brodt remains the featured vocalist) and lots of high-energy “sideline reporters” to highlight personal interest stories, like the man who studies Daf Yomi despite having ALS. The tome used for the Siyum was a “Survivors’ Talmud,” printed by the U.S. Army and the JDC in the American Zone of postwar Germany, symbolizing how, despite everything, Jews have not forsaken the Torah. On social media, people were posting pictures of tailgating parties and a wise guy who dressed as Waldo. In all, it seemed like a truly meaningful experience and an absolute blast.

Most of the speakers acknowledged wives’ roles in enabling their husbands to study Daf Yomi. YU rebbeim were featured prominently – as were Sephardic rabbis and rabbis from Hasidic groups unaffiliated with Agudath Israel. Promotional material listed OU and YU websites as repositories of Daf Yomi podcasts. The large stadium screens showed live feeds of other Siyumim around the world – including one from an IDF base. One recitation of Kaddish was dedicated to fallen Israeli soldiers. Another was recited by Jay Schottenstein, wearing the same sort of knit kippah that I felt so out of place wearing 30 years ago.

Such gestures may seem inconsequential, and, to be sure, it was still an Agudath Israel production. It reflects the successes and sensibilities of the American “black hat” laity. Women were acknowledged as enablers, but no women were pictured, nor was there any acknowledgment of women who themselves completed Daf Yomi. YU and the OU were featured, but other Orthodox institutions, and certainly non-Orthodox institutions, were not acknowledged.

Yet considering the trajectory of the Siyum over the past 30 years, Agudath Israel is clearly trying to make the event more inclusive and more enjoyable, and with a great deal of success. Whether this is a concession to demographic and economic realities or a true inclusion of those who were outside the Agudah tent a generation ago is a fair question, but largely beside the point. The Agudah’s production, the MetLife Siyum, remains the main event.

However, this cycle, a large number of smaller Siyumim have cropped up all over the world, with no affiliation with Agudah. In Israel, the night after the MetLife Siyum, there was a Siyum produced by religious Zionist organizations. Its attendance was in the thousands, and it featured several women. In the U.S., at least three Siyumim highlighted the accomplishments of women. Institutions that do not affiliate with Orthodoxy made their own Siyumim as well.

On Sunday, January 5, a Siyum at the Jerusalem International Convention Center by and for women took place before a sell-out crowd of 3,300 – not much smaller than the attendance at the Felt Forum in 1982. My wife, who sat in the small, obscured women’s section of the MSG Siyum in 1997, stood on the stage and recited the “hadran,” the valedictory text of the Siyum, representing the women’s seminary where she teaches and trains teachers. She has started learning Daf Yomi. My daughters were there, too; the younger one is motivated to study Daf Yomi someday but is currently more invested in completing all of Mishnah before she becomes a bat mitzvah. And when they think back to this Siyum in 20 or 30 years, perhaps they will remember how historic it was, or how small it seems compared to the women’s Siyumim of the sixteenth and seventeenth cycles. Or perhaps they will remember the words of the emcee, Racheli Sprecher Frankel, thanking the husbands who encouraged and enabled their wives’ commitment to studying Daf Yomi.

[1] This relates to the largest of the American Siyumim. The main Siyum of the second Daf Yomi cycle was held on June 27, 1938, in Lublin, Poland, with an attendance of 10,000 according to a local Yiddish newspaper, a mere few months before Kristallnacht and the beginning of the Holocaust. No American Siyum (and perhaps no single Siyum anywhere) would eclipse the scope of the Lublin Siyum until 1990. For more on the history of Daf Yomi, see Zev Eleff’s Lehrhaus article.

[2] An earlier version of this essay claimed that Rabbi Lamm used the term “cave men.” In the published version of this speech, and in an earlier exposition of this theme, the term “cave man” or similar does not appear. Whether or not he used it in the speech as an impromptu witticism will only be clarified when a recording becomes available. I thank Menachem Butler for pointing out that the term “cave man” does not appear in any published account of the speech.

Elli Fischer is an independent writer, translator, and editor. He is editor of Rabbi Eliezer Melamed’s Peninei Halakha series in English and cofounder of HaMapah, an project that applies quantitative analysis to rabbinic literature. He is a founding editor of The Lehrhaus, and his writing has appeared in numerous Jewish publications. Among the issues he writes about are religion and politics in Israel; the interplay between legal and nonlegal elements of the Talmud; Jewish religious culture; and Central European Jewish History. Previously, he was the JLIC rabbi and campus educator at the University of Maryland. He holds degrees from Yeshiva University, rabbinical ordination from Israel’s Chief Rabbinate, and is working toward a doctorate in Jewish History at Tel Aviv University. Originally from Baltimore, he currently resides in Modiin, Israel, with his wife and four children.