American Orthodoxy

The Balabatish Daf Yomi Revolution

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Zev Eleff

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? 

In December 1972, Rabbi Samuel Fox of Anshe S’fard in Boston reported in the local Jewish press that a congregant had asked him “What is a Daf Yomi?” Rabbi Fox dutifully explained that it was a curriculum championed by Rabbi Meir Shapiro of Sanok, later the founder of the Chachmei Lublin Yeshiva. In 1923, Rabbi Shapiro had petitioned the Agudath Israel at a conference in Vienna to support a program of a folio-per-day Talmud study. The intent was to cover the 2,711 pages, front-and-back, of the Babylonian Talmud, the major text rehearsed in the traditional yeshivot. The purpose was to foster cooperative Jewish learning. “Since the cycle began on a certain day,” explained Rabbi Fox. “the effect was that Jews throughout the world could be studying the same leaf on the same day. This also led to a certain sense of unity to Jews all over the world who became united in the study of the Holy Talmud.”

That many American Orthodox Jews in the 1970s were unaware of Daf Yomi is understandable. The previous seven-and-a-half-year cycle of Talmud learning concluded in January 1968 without much fanfare in the United States. Below the radar, a thousand yeshiva students assembled for a Siyum ha-Shas—a rite marking the completion of study of the whole Babylonian Talmud—in the Bais Yaakov of Boro Bark. Elsewhere, the Agudath Israel sponsored some smaller events in Boston and Chicago, but these programs did not reach that far beyond the mostly immigrant groups of yeshiva-trained Daf Yomi participants. 

Back in Europe, Jewish newspapers like Warsaw’s Yiddishe Togeblatt had reported on the Siyum ha-Shas after the completion of the first cycle in 1931 and after the second in 1938. In both instances, the major celebrations had occurred in yeshiva settings—in Lublin, Yiddish reports varied from 2,000 to 20,000 attendees—and recognized the achievement in the context of yeshiva study and yeshiva students. Reading the Talmud is a challenging exercise, mastered after years of persistent preparation. Laypeople had been required for the 1938 convocation to fundraise for an additional sixth floor for the Lublin yeshiva. Daf Yomi had struggled during the Holocaust and its immediate aftermath, though rabbinic emigrés in Israel had arranged for convivial events in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem in the immediate postwar years. 

Daf Yomi was in its earliest stages a yeshiva-based custom. Its practitioners were faculty members, students, and cadres of alumni who utilized the curriculum to remain a part of their rabbinical brotherhoods. This depiction contrasts with the current image of Daf Yomi as a learning program for balabatim, laymen. The series of speeches and video presentations at the 2020 Siyum ha-Shas in New Jersey’s MetLife Stadium celebrated the unfettered commitment of laymen—a growing number of women learn the Daf but were not acknowledged at the event—who wake up early to study a complex page of Talmud and then proceed to work. These are the “learner-earners” who, it is claimed, represent an “ideal” of Orthodox Jewish life. How did the public discourse around Daf Yomi change?

The balabatish transformation took place, without detection, during the Daf cycle that stretched from the 1970s to 1980s. The Agudath Israel was eager to increase the visibility of the Siyum for the conclusion of the seventh Daf Yomi cycle in June 1975. To generate interest, the Agudah rented the Manhattan Center in Midtown Manhattan and filled the building with 5,000 women and men. The Agudath Israel arranged for a “rich and inspiring program,” led by members of its Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah, Council of Torah Sages. The Bluzhover Rebbe, Rabbi Yisrael Spira, had attended the 1923 Vienna conference and recollected the excitement over Rabbi Shapiro’s Daf Yomi proposal. He shared how the initiative animated European yeshivot

The overall messaging of the affair was one of restoration. For the rabbinic luminaries seated atop the dais, the 1975 Siyum ha-Shas symbolized something very important for the “Yeshiva World,” specifically the increasing numbers of young men engaged in full-time Torah study. Rabbi Shmuel Ehrenfeld, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, and Rabbi Mordechai Gifter all relayed sentiments to the Siyum-goers that simultaneously celebrated Talmud study and “mourned for those absent from the gathering.” 

Rabbi Gifter of Cleveland’s Telshe Yeshiva, for example, reportedly charged the young people in attendance with the “responsibility of preserving the glorious accomplishments of pre-World War II Europe.” Rabbi Gifter’s and others’ expectation was that the men who completed the Talmud cycle in the audience were associated with the growing American yeshivot, not laypeople working outside of these Talmud academies. 

The Agudah planned the 1982 Siyum with the same demographic in mind. To celebrate the eighth completion of the Daf Yomi cycle, the Agudath Israel rented Madison Square Garden’s Felt Forum. Located beneath the main arena in the Garden, the Felt Forum—now the Hulu Theater—was typically used for boxing matches and concerts. 

The Felt Forum could accommodate 5,000 participants. But the Agudah was confident that interest in the Siyum would exceed the previous 1975 event. After all, Rabbi Chaskel Besser and his Daf Yomi Commission estimated—probably somewhat optimistically—that the total Daf Yomi learners worldwide numbered 40,000 Orthodox Jews. The organizers decided to limit attendance to men, figuring that male yeshiva students and alumni would be the most interested in the Siyum Ha-Shas (most Siyum attendees arrive as spectators, not Daf Yomi practitioners). The Agudath Israel also reckoned that the program’s pageantry—sociologist Samuel Heilman called it a “cultural performance”—suited a particularly yeshiva-oriented audience. Once seated, the attendees watched, many awestruck, as a curtain that surrounded the stage parted to reveal a long series of tables in front of the Moetzes and other leading rabbis. These luminaries were well-known to the throngs in attendance. “What a sight,” explained one young man to a reporter. “What a panorama of greatness!”

Much of the messaging at the 1982 Siyum resembled the earlier iterations. The roshei yeshiva and hasidic rebbes trumpeted the need to increase Torah study, to rebuild the destroyed yeshivot of Eastern Europe. They admonished the thousands of yeshiva boys and alumni to redouble their commitment to diligent Talmud learning. One very prominent sage, Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky, offered that Daf Yomi ought to become a more integrated part of the everyday yeshiva curriculum. Floored by his experience at the previous Siyum in the Manhattan Center, Rabbi Kamenetsky told the crowd that he had decided to pursue the Daf cycle in addition to his other learning obligations. “Many yeshiva students feel that Daf Yomi does not apply to them,” said Reb Yaakov. “I would like to inform them that it is possible to learn through the entire Talmud, but one must work hard at it, and the earlier one begins, the better are his chances for success.”

Yet, the Agudah leaders may not have fully comprehended a social sea change, the democratization of Talmud learning in the United States. Rabbi Yitzchok Bider of Chicago claimed that the number of Daf Yomi classes in his neighborhood increased from one to five to accommodate the interest in the new cycle. None of the major reports on the 1982 Siyum mentioned the Torah Communication Network in Brooklyn’s “Dial-a-Daf” service. For a $12 monthly subscription, aspiring Daf Yomi students lacking the skills to read Judeo-Aramaic on their own could gain access to a 40-minute lecture on the scheduled page of Talmud. Moreover, by the 1980s, there existed a generation of American-educated yeshiva alumni equipped with those skills and eager to tackle the Daf. Most of these Orthodox Jews were not serving in the rabbinate or working in schools. They were laymen but nevertheless engaged in Rabbi Meir Shapiro’s daily Talmud curriculum. 

What is more, their wives also felt invested in Daf Yomi. At least one of these women, Libby Schwartz of Brooklyn, took exception to the narrowness of the Siyum’s scope. Schwartz wrote a stern letter to the editor of the Agudah monthly magazine to express her “disappointment to discover that this mass celebration was being limited to men only.” Further, she contended:

If there are men who spend time away from their homes and families learning Torah, then there are women who sit [at] home and take care of that home and of the children to ensure that the men can learn. Whether the limud of the daf takes place early in the morning (when it is then the sole job of the woman to dress, feed, and send all the children off to school) or whether the learning is in the evening (when it is then the sole job of the woman to do homework and send all the children off to bed) a tremendous share of that learning goes to the woman. 

Schwartz argued that to “exclude women from such an event is a tremendous affront” and hoped that the “Agudah will realize their mistake.” In response, the editor, Rabbi Nisson Wolpin, reassured Schwartz that the Agudath Israel had already reserved Madison Square Garden’s capacious main arena for the next Siyum scheduled for April 1990 and confirmed that a “special section is being set aside for women.” The Agudah’s recalculation signaled a widening of the Daf Yomi movement to laypeople—men and women.

The festivities following the finishing of the next cycle betokened this awareness. The 1990 Siyum ha-Shas boasted 20,000 participants assembled in Madison Square Garden’s much larger arena, a reflection of the widened reach and involvement of Daf Yomi. Accordingly, the coverage of the event in the New York Times focused on the labors of laymen and, per Libby Schwartz’s recommendation, mentioned that women were invited because of the “sacrifices they had made to enable their husbands to study.” The Agudah’s reporting also highlighted the efforts of laypeople. It highlighted businessmen and professionals who credited Dial-a-Daf and Soncino Press’s English translation of the Talmud with the needed educational support to complete Daf Yomi.

The success of the 1990 Siyum inspired more creative methods for laypeople to gain access to Talmud learning. For example, a group formed a class in the rear car of the 7:51 a.m. Long Island Rail Road route from Far Rockaway to Penn Station. Throughout the United States, Orthodox congregations added Daf Yomi classes.

Most crucially, ArtScroll, the flagship imprint of Mesorah Publications, launched its Schottenstein Edition of the Talmud in 1990. The Schottenstein Talmud featured a translation that was much more user-friendly than the Soncino alternative. Its English was more readable and its interlinear format more accessible. The pricey fifteen-year translation project required $21 million in fundraising (about $250,000 per volume) and was meant for interested laypeople, not yeshiva students since, commenting on the latter group, “they’ll never study on their own if they use a crutch,” explained ArtScroll editor Rabbi Nosson Scherman. ArtScroll completed the Schottenstein Talmud in 2004. Koren Publishers started printing its English-edition of the Steinsaltz Edition of the Babylonian Talmud in 2012.

The 1997 Siyum ha-Shas doubled down on the laity. Once again, the Agudath Israel secured the use of Madison Square Garden. The Siyum tallied an attendance of 26,000, evidence of Daf Yomi’s “explosion in the last 10 to 20 years.” Agudah President Rabbi Moshe Sherer credited the spike to the proliferation of learning resources on the Internet and the wider distribution of audio recordings on cassettes and compact disks. 

The Novominsker Rebbe, Rabbi Yaakov Perlow, suggested that another factor in the rising numbers at the Siyum was the so-called Ba’al Teshuvah movement, the “thousands,” announced Rabbi Perlow at the Siyum, “who have returned to their roots and the truth of Torah Judaism.” These people were aided by ArtScroll and other new resources. One self-described Ba’al Teshuvah at the 2005 Siyum ha-Shas at Madison Square Garden was consistent with Rabbi Perlow’s hypothesis. This individual was grateful for the Daf Yomi movement and that the complement of learning aids could support “people like me.”

In 2012, the Agudath Israel moved the Siyum ha-Shas to MetLife Stadium and hosted about 90,000 women and men. The 2020 MetLife incarnation and other local programs featured multilayered messaging, the production of various iterations of Daf Yomi discourse. Speeches and video presentations echoed the rebuilding of Orthodox Judaism since World War II and publicly recognized the fleeting number of Holocaust survivors. The events feted yeshiva heads and touted their students. But most messages heralded the labors of laymen and laywomen to fit Daf Yomi into their family’s daily routines and the new resources to support this balabatish Talmud revolution.