The Siyum HaShas “Shockingly Has Nothing to Do with the Talmud Bavli”

The Event Shockingly Has Nothing to Do with the Talmud Bavli. I kind of knew to expect this—forgive me if what follows sounds hopelessly naïve—but I was struck by how the event had no educational character. If I had been on the planning committee, there would have been all kinds of things that would have brought you in to the actual stuff that was studied. I would have had a unique color coding and iconography for each massekhet, and the divrei Torah would have shared a highlight from each and every tractate. There would be live voting by hashtag as to your favorite massekhet, with results constantly updating. (Think B/D/4 races on the big screen at Yankee Stadium.) Great scholars of the academy would highlight the best of research into the Talmud Bavli that happened over the last 7.5 years. Inspirational speakers would share the 5 most important messages they learned from the Talmud. Someone would offer a vision of what the Talmud can offer the world. And even the many folks who didn’t finish Daf Yomi who were there (you’re lookin’ at one) would leave with a deeper sense of what this work is about, what is magical about it and why it has made it this long.

Instead, we got lots of talk about discipline, overcoming illness, supportive families (mainly wives and children) and live time with the contemporary greats of the Agudah’s rabbinic leadership. These are all appropriate and even inspiring in their own way, but they really have nothing to do with the Talmud Bavli per se. The same event could be organized around almost any other massive learning project. And this really reveals how the Siyum HaShas is actually about the Jewish people, about a moment that is post-Holocaust and assimilation-fearful. I was sort of startled to feel that the mystical lure of Daf Yomi to those who have never studied Talmud is essentially the same as the internal commitment of most who do it in a community broadly committed to it: it offers itself as a strategy for getting 100,000 Jews to be in a stadium and on the page. It is a Torah-based version of the Kululam moments in Israel that similarly enchant people: “Look how many Jews came together with serious commitment to do something Jewish together!” “Is that the secret to the Jewish future?” “Should I be doing Daf Yomi in order to mount a winning horse?”

That doesn’t feel great as someone who loves the Talmud Bavli for what it is, not just for the commitment it might create. But it is folly to ignore that dimension.

Rabbi Ethan Tucker, Facebook post (2 January 2020) []