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The Secret of the Jews
by Rabbi Avi Shafran

The air was electric in Jewish communities across the continent and around the world for weeks before it happened.

"It" was the Daf Yomi Siyum HaShas, which occurs but once every 7 years and took place on March 1, for the eleventh time since the Talmud-study program it celebrates was introduced. This most recent Siyum HaShas ("Completion of the Talmud") brought together more Jews than any other event in contemporary times - indeed, in recent history. The number of participants in North America alone was estimated at 120,000.

The Siyum HaShas lauds the accomplishment of the tens of thousands who have completed the study of the entire Babylonian Talmud through the Daf Yomi ("Page-per-Day") program conceived by Rabbi Meir Shapiro, a yeshiva dean in pre-war Lublin, Poland. It was in 1923 at the First International Congress of the Agudath Israel World Movement that he presented his plan for a challenging and unified study of the Talmud, and the Siyum HaShas celebration has long been organized and sponsored by Agudath Israel of America, the organization I am privileged to serve.

Although the men, women and children who attended the Siyum HaShas were paying tribute to those who completed the Daf Yomi program, the event might more properly seen as a celebration of Torah study itself, of the Jewish ideal of laboring over, and internalizing, the texts and wisdom of our religious tradition.

It is in fact, in its deepest sense, a celebration of the secret of Jewish perseverance, something, ironically, that was well understood by some of our worst enemies.

The Nazis, for instance, considered the Jews a race, but at least some of them also recognized what empowers and preserves our people.

Writing in 1930, Alfred Rosenberg, Hitler's chief ideologue, identified "the honorless character of the Jew" as "embodied in the Talmud and in Shulchan-Aruch [the Code of Jewish Law]."

Perhaps even more telling is a 1940 directive issued by the German Highest Security Office. It prohibits Jewish emigration from occupied Poland on the ground that an influx of "Rabbiner, Talmud-lehrer" - "rabbis, teachers of Talmud" - and in fact "jeder orthodoxe Ostjude" - "every Eastern European Orthodox Jew" - could foster "geistige Erneuerung" - "spiritual renewal" - among American Jewry.

That fear, thank G-d, proved well-founded indeed; Torah-committed Jewish immigrants, although they arrived for the most part only after the Second World War, helped rejuvenate Jewish life on these and other shores, rebuilding Jewish communal and educational institutions and fostering traditional Jewish observance in new lands. The scope and enthusiasm of the Siyum HaShas was undeniable evidence of that.

Those Nazis knew that Jewish religious life and Torah-study were the greatest threats to the ultimate success of their genocidal plan, that our people's preservation and future depend on our fealty to the essence of our past.

And so the Siyum HaShas, ostensibly the marking of a program's end (and re-beginning), was also something else: a declaration of victory, a defiant mass-embrace of what some of our more perspicacious enemies tried, and failed, to stifle. The singing and dancing and prayers that filled Madison Square Garden, the Continental Airlines Arena and the Javits Center in the New York area; and the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, the Rosemont Theatre in Chicago, the Ricoh Centre in Toronto and dozens of other venues across the continent, reflected a deep and joyful commitment to the fullness of our religious heritage, to what some of the darkest forces in the world have tried, and failed, to eradicate.

On March 2, Daf Yomi students returned to the first page of the Talmud. Other Jews continued their Torah-studies too; for some it was the Bible and its commentaries; for others, works on Jewish law, whether about kashrut, proper speech, the Sabbath or any other realm of Torah. All were inspired anew to drink in and be nurtured by the mother's milk of the Jewish people.

Each and every one of us Jews can be - should be - part of that essential effort and priceless privilege.


Rabbi Avi Shafran serves as director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.



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