They are celebrating the Siyum Hashas-Hebrew for "completion of the Talmud" of the Daf Yomi ("daily page") study cycle.
The celebration in Madison Square Garden is being sponsored by Agudath Israel of America, an organization representing the most fervently traditional portion of the Orthodox Jewish community. Live hookups are being arranged for an overflow crowd at New York's Javits Center, as well as the events organized by local Jewish groups across the country.
Another series of events, sponsored by a network of local kollels-seminaries where already-ordained rabbis continue their studies-is aimed at non-Orthodox Jews and is designed to dovetail with the main celebration. These celebrations, in cities including Phoenix and Atlanta, will be held under the umbrella of "Jewish Unity Live." They feature high-profile honorees such as Elie Wiesel and Hadassah Lieberman and Jewish entertainers such as Dudu Fischer and Andy Statman.
While most of the celebrants will be spectators, the accomplishment of the thousands of Talmud students participating in the study cycle is amazing. Starting back in 1997, they worked their way through Talmud, one page a day, for 2,711 days. If you imagine reading the "Encyclopedia Britannica" from cover to cover-several pages a day-you'll get a rough idea of what's involved in the regimen.
The Britannica analogy doesn't do the Daf Yomi justice, though, and not only because the Talmud, in Hebrew and Aramaic, lacks an index, alphabetical order, or even vowels. The road to the Siyum Hashas celebration stretches back not only to 6th-century Iraq-where the Talmud was compiled from centuries of rabbinic debates related to the Mishna, the 2nd-century work which was the first book of Jewish law-but, for Orthodox Jews, back another millennium and a half to Mount Sinai. It was there, Orthodox Jews believe, that God taught Moses the laws of the Mishna and the principles of the Talmud in an "Oral Torah" that was an inseparable component of the "Written Torah" known as the biblical Five Books of Moses.
Religiously, studying Talmud and participating in the 2000-year-old debate of the Talmudic rabbis and the subsequent commentaries of later generations whose words surround the Talmudic texts, is a way of engaging directly in the Oral Torah. It is possible to receive, and also contribute to, this treasure of divine wisdom.
So while the study of the Talmud (and its commentaries, and the commentaries' commentaries) has always been central to the rabbinical curriculum, Talmud study has remained a religious ideal too for those in other professions.
Talmud study was nothing new. The innovation was to have Jews throughout the world literally on the same page.
A page a day is a large commitment-particularly because a "page" of Talmud consists of two sides of a closely typeset print. Translated and explicated into English, it can become seven or eight pages.
A typical Daf Yomi class runs an hour, every morning or evening, before or after work, though not everyone who commits to the daily study routine takes part in a class. They might study with a partner, or on their own. One famous class for commuters takes place on a designated Long Island Railroad train. In Manhattan, you can even choose from half a dozen lunch-hour classes.
"It forces you to devote a certain amount of time to study every day," explains Dr. Joseph Fishkin, a 33-year-old opthamologist who lives in Teaneck, N.J., who celebrates his first complete Talmud cycle this year.
Fishkin admits that some days over the past seven years he skimmed through the material much faster than he would have liked, and on some days he missed altogether. He's looking forward this cycle to properly studying the pages that got short shrift during his time in medical school and his residency. While in the past he has attended daily classes, these days he tends to study on his own. Fishkin keeps track of the daily page with a program he has written for his Palm PDA that allows him to download the text to fellow students.
Technology has actually played a large role in the popularization of Daf Yomi study.
The original medium of the Talmud was human memory. For generations, Jews preserved the Talmud by committing it to memory and transmitting it to the next generation orally. When it was finally put to paper, its sheer size made it an expensive rarity prior to Gutenberg's printing press. Only with printing came fixed page numbers that make it possible to declare what page everyone studies.
In the 21st century, the technology of Talmud has exploded. Dial-A-Daf services where subscribers listen by phone to a recorded class on the day's page, once cutting-edge, have been supplemented by on-line resources (but not completely: Many strict Orthodox Jews shun unnecessary Internet use because of the temptation it poses. Agudath Israel sends e-mails to the press, but has no Web site). On the Web, you can find copies of any page of Talmud to print or download to a PDA on sites such as Dafyomi.org. CD-ROMs overlay the text with audio explanations. ShasPod.com is taking orders for a special iPod preloaded with seven years' worth of mp3 Talmud lessons.
The biggest innovation in Daf Yomi study this cycle, though-and one that may help turn many of this year's observers into full celebrants come 2012-is the completion of the first full American English-language Talmud translation in 73 mammoth volumes by the Artscroll publishing house. Unlike an earlier British translation, which hewed toward the literal to create an English work as elliptical and requiring close study as the original, the new translation interpolates explanatory phrases to create a text that is readable straight through. Rather than the traditional havrusa method of studying with a partner-working together to decode the intent of an obscure passage-or listening to a teacher, it is now possible to read straight through the book. The Oral Torah has been fixed in writing once more.
"I'm very devoted to the ArtScroll," concedes Fishkin. He is no stranger to the Talmud's Aramaic-he spent a year in an Israeli seminary after high school, and four years studying Talmud along with pre-medical courses at New York City's Yeshiva College. To properly study a page of Talmud, he says, takes several hours. With the translation, he can skip the guesswork involved in figuring out which unpunctuated lines are questions and which are answers, allowing him to focus more on the actual discussion.
A religious endeavor stemming from faith and commitment, the results of Daf Yomi study sometimes exceed rational expectations.
Fishkin tells of a friend who taught the Daf Yomi class he attended at the end of the previous cycle. The teacher had found a testicular lump, and was quite scared. "When he heard that they had scheduled the surgery for the first day of the new cycle, he figured it would be OK.
"When he went for the surgery, they found the lump had miraculously gone away by itself. The doctors didn't need to do anything. I'm sure it was because of the merit of his teaching."