The rows of light-blue seats were filled to capacity on Monday night in Heichal Nokia (Nokia Stadium, also known as Yad Eliyahu Stadium), Tel Aviv’s premier sports arena. But instead of the usual rowdy crowd of sports fans clad in the team colors and singing their team’s theme song, I found myself staring at a huge, diverse group of Israel’s foremost Torah scholars, here to celebrate what many consider to be the Torah Jew’s dream-come-true: the Siyum HaShas. This event takes place only once in seven-and-a-half years, celebrating the completion of the Talmud, and tens of thousands of Jews, young and old, look forward to it. This siyum was one of several that were organized by the Dirshu organization. Of course, this event holds special significance for those special individuals – and there are many of them – who have actually merited to cross the finish line, having learned the entire Talmud from beginning to end.
From the opening moments of this event until the closing remarks of the final speaker – from the first, touching Kaddish, recited by a six-year-old child who had lost his father (who would have been among the most honored participants in this siyum) just six weeks earlier, and the thunderously inspirational sound of thirteen-thousand voices calling out, “Amen, yehei Shemeh rabba,” to the sweetness and purity in the eyes of the boys’ choir directed by Rabbi Chaim Banet, the atmosphere was charged with an incredible sense of intense meaning. The air was electric, as a sense of genuine achdus, tremendous togetherness, and feelings of pride at what was accomplished, touched every person in the audience. And everything was tinged with confidence in the awareness that this was only the beginning – because the next cycle of Shas – the study of the entire Talmud – was about to begin, with so many more Jews joining the program.
Tuesday night’s magnificent event served as the grand opening – the keynote event in a chain of Torah celebrations taking place this week, all under the banner of the Dirshu revolution. Dirshu was founded by and runs under the auspices of Rav Dovid Hofstedter, Dirshu’s Nasi, president and director. The organization sponsors a worldwide network of talmidei chachamim studying many areas of Torah, keeping to a strict daily (with no exceptions) schedule, and being tested on all the material learned.
Kollel Shas Yidden
I met a hero there that night, who was with me at the grand event. His name is Rav Moshe Isaac Samet, and he has the outward appearance of a typical Yerushalmi Jew. A tall man – about six foot four (193 cm), he stands with noble bearing. Behind the unassuming guise of a simple Jew clad in a long Yerushalmi frock-coat hides a jewel of the Jewish nation – for this modest young man took a comprehensive test last Friday on the entire Shas – a four-hour test covering thousands of pages of Talmud.
“How does one accomplish such a feat?”
“I learn in ‘Kollel Shas Yidden’.”
I’d never heard of that kollel. He explained.
“Years ago, a group of us in Beit Shemesh began committing to the monthly Dirshu tests on Shas, thirty blatt at a time. It went well in the beginning, but as time passed we realized that there was no way we would be able to sustain the momentum of keeping up with the regular review of such quantities without a structured environment. Dirshu was encouraging us in our studies through Shas, and the ongoing tests held us accountable for our learning, but we needed more.
“I wrote a letter to Reb Avrohom Eisen in Boro Park, explaining our unique situation: Twenty kollel men in Beit Shemesh wanted nothing more than to finish Shas and take every test, including cumulative tests every six months covering all the material learned from the very beginning of the cycle (each of these progressive test could include hundreds and even thousands of pages of Talmud), but we needed a kollel to create a structure for our study. Reb Avrohom Eisen responded with alacrity. Thus was born “Kollel Shas Yidden” – a kollel for Jews who were aspiring to gain fluency in Shas – the entire Talmud.
“Our Sages tell us that ‘a thousand children enter a Torah study hall, yet only one exits a Gadol,’”Rav Samet told me with a smile. “Dirshu allows Klal Yisrael to filter out the ‘one’ from the ‘thousand.’ The high level of accountability of the Dirshu tests, the continuous, ongoing pressure, and the constant involvement in high-caliber learning, means that every single member of the Kollel Shas Yidden is the ‘one out of a thousand.’ These are the future Gedolim of Klal Yisrael.”
Remembering the Gadol Hador
Rabbi Shlomo Rozenstein, the MC of the Monday-night gala event, opened with a warm shalom aleichem to the crowd in the name of Dirshu, welcoming the thousands of dedicated Torah scholars filling the hall. He declared that it has always been the dream every Torah scholar to finish Shas and to become totally fluent in halachah. In the past this goal seemed inaccessible to most, but today,through the numerous Dirshu programs available to the global Torah community, it has now become eminently possible for that dream to turn into reality.
In closing, Rabbi Rozenstein told the story of Rabbi Yaakov Betzalel Glasner, z”l, the thirty-one-year-old member of Dirshu who had taken ninety-one tests before he passed away recently. Rabbi Glasner was the father of the six-year-old boy whose heartrending Kaddish at the beginning of the event touched everyone in the hall.
Rabbi Yosef Efrati, a close disciple of Rav Elyashiv, zt”l, began his speech with a question:
“How does one speak when standing before one who has passed away?
“Obviously, we discuss the topics pertaining to one who passed away. The Ri Migash, one of the foremost Torah scholars of medieval times, added that it is fitting to discuss topics and concepts that the person who passed away would have said.
“Rav Elyashiv!” Rabbi Efrati cried out his name. (Rabbi Efrati’s expression reflected that he was still mourning the recent loss of his teacher and mentor.) “Rav Elyashiv would have been overjoyed to be here tonight. He would have said, ‘The entire Babylonian Talmud has just entered the hall!’ And I think he would have added an additional, vital detail: He would have stressed the tremendous gratitude that is owed to Rav Dovid Hofstedter, the Nasi of Dirshu, who rose up in our generation and greatly strengthened Torah study and scholarship among the Jewish nation!”
Siyum HaShas, a “Yoma Tava”
Rabbi Dovid Cohen, the Rosh Yeshivah of Chevron Yeshivah, began by quoting the Gemara in tractate Shabbos. “The Gemara quotes Abaye, who said that whenever someone finishes a tractate in Shas, that day is called ‘a Yoma Tava – a holiday!’ Today is a Yoma Tava for all of us – for all of the thousands who have completed Shas!”
He paraphrased the Malbim on Sefer Yeshayahu: “After thousands of years of galus, so much bitter suffering … how can we, the Jewish nation still hold on?
“Ruchi asher alecha, udvarai asher samti beficha…. lo yamushu… – we’ve been holding on to the Torah for generations. Upholding the Torah sustains us and gives us with the strength to carry on.
“Dirshu’s Yoma Tava is Klal Yisrael’s Yoma Tava! People have managed to find time that they never knew they had to devote to extensive study of Talmud and other areas of Torah study. Dirshu has transformed our lives!”
From Mourning to Rejoicing
Rabbi Moshe Mordechai Chadash, the Rosh Yeshivah of Yeshivas Ohr Elchonon, declared, “Tonight’s event is the epitome of honoring the Torah. Just eleven days ago, a different event took place: the funeral of Rav Elyashiv, zt”l. That was during the Nine Days, which culminate with Tishah B’Av. And then, suddenly, we have entered a time of simchah.
“When Rabbi Akiva’s son Rabi Shimon passed away, Rabi Akiva looked at the tremendous crowd of people who had come to accompany his son to his final resting place, and he asked, ‘Why did everyone come here today? Did they come for me? No; they came to pay their respects to Torah scholarship. Why did the thousands of women and children join me on my son’s final journey?’ Again he answered his own question: ‘In order to honor the Torah.’
“Rabi Akiva blessed the crowd, and his next words are legendary: ‘You all have comforted me,” he said.
“What comforted Rabbi Akiva?” Rabbi Chadash asked. “That his son had been a conduit, a channel for increasing the Torah’s honor in the world!
“Today’s event, too, is a great source of honor for the Torah – and it didn’t start here. It began with the thousands who toil endlessly, studying Torah day and night. This gathering is in their merit!
The Nasi Speaks
Next, Rav Dovid Hofstedter took his place at the podium. As he was about to begin, spontaneous singing broke out throughout the hall!
“Chaim v’shalom yosifu lach,” they sang; “May you live long, prosperous years. Rav Dovid, may you live long!”
The love was sincere and palpable, and Rabbi Hofstedter spoke words that came straight from his soul.
“It’s a great joy to stand here at such a tremendous gathering. What joy fills our hearts today! The tests taken, the endless learning, the diligence, the thousands who have completed Shas … so many people tested on the entire Shas! These are ‘Shas Yidden – Jews of the Talmud’! Thank G-d, we are returning to the glory of our past.… It’s you Shas Yidden who have succeeded!
“Rabbosai,” he thundered, “how did we merit such siyatta diShmaya, such Heavenly assistance to be able to be tested on all of Shas? To be taking tests on Mishnah Berurah in far-flung locations around the world, while living in times characterized by so many great life-challenges? Wherein lies our merit?
“The Torah, in Parashas Ki Sisa, relates Moshe Rabbeinu’s words: ‘Re’eh karasi beshem Betzalel ben Uri ben Chur – Behold – see! I have called the name of Betzalel the son of Uri the son of Chur.’
“As slaves in Egypt, the Jews knew nothing of the workings of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle. Yet G-d specifically chose Betzalel, a thirteen-year-old youth, to build the Mishkan.
“King Solomon tells us in Sefer Mishlei that a chacham lev, one whois ‘wise of heart,’ is someone who has obtained and developed the inner desire to serve Hashem. That is the person to whom G-d grants His wisdom – someone who truly has a burning desire to spread G-d’s greatness throughout the world.
“Betzalel was chosen because he desired – because he was able to see the truth! Because he ‘saw’ what was truly important in our shallow, illusion-filled world!
“Our generation,” Rabbi Hofstedter continued in a soft, introspective voice, “has ‘seen’ the emptiness of the Western dream. We’ve seen the hatred that emanated from the most cultured of societies. Our generation has rejected all that nonsense and chosen the Torah.
“And in return, we’ve been granted incredible siyatta diShmaya – Heavenly assistance.
“That’s the secret.”
Rabbi Hofstedter’s words were followed with spirited song that literally shook the floor.
I have been at many events in my life, but there was something otherworldly happening at Yad Eliyahu tonight, and the crowd was on a high – a spiritual high. I was deeply touched; we all were.
When a modicum of quiet had returned to Yad Eliyahu, a Dirshu video was shown. Footage of Dirshu participants from around the world, interviews with the leading Gedolim of the Jewish world, and personal testimonies to Dirshu’s impact everywhere, kept the crowd spellbound.
Then Rabbi Aharon Feldman, Rosh Yeshivah of Ner Israel in Baltimore, related: “A secular journalist called me with a question. ‘Rabbi,’ he asked, ‘what makes 90,000 people come together for the Siyum HaShas? What’s the secret of the big appeal?’
“The Talmud Yerushalmi tells of a king who possessed one key to his treasure houses. Fearing its loss, he decided to tie a chain to the key so it wouldn’t get lost.
“The key is the Jewish nation and the chain is the Torah, which keeps us from wandering blindly about. Is it any wonder that we’re celebrating our possession of the eternal Key that keeps us connected to G-d?”
Vibrant singing followed as our esteemed and venerable Gedolei Hador, our generation’s Torah leaders, were ushered into the stadium.
Rabbi Aharon Leib Steinman read the final words of the Talmud to a hushed crowd, all of whom strained to hear his every word.
Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, shlita, recited Kaddish. The roar of that “Amen, yehei Shemeh rabba” was something to hear.
Then the many Gedolim on the huge, multitiered dais joined hands and danced, their eyes closed tight in the ecstasy of the moment.
Rabbi Moshe Shaul Klein related a poignant thought in the name of his rebbi, Rabbi Wosner. “My rebbe has quoted this passage from the Mabit many times,” he began.
“Hashem made a covenant with the Jewish people regarding the Oral Torah. Why not regarding the Torah Shebiksav, the Written Torah?
Because the Written Torah is written by a sofer, a scribe, on parchment. But what about the Oral Torah? The Oral Torah is meant to be inscribed on our hearts, on our very flesh. We are the parchment for the Oral Torah!
Wisdom From Rav Wosner
Rabbi Wosner, senior Torah leader of Bnei Brak, then inspired the crowd with his words: “Tens of thousands of Jews merited to complete the study of Shas this time around. The new beginning, the study of the tractate Brachos, is already on the horizon.”
He then asked two questions: Why is the recitation of Krias Shema the opening topic of Shas? And why does the tractate Brachos begin with a discussion of the evening Shema and not the Shema recited in the morning?
He explained that we have a mitzvah to love G-d. But how do we fulfill that?
“The only way to fulfill the mitzvah of loving G-d,” the Midrash Tanchuma writes, “is by studying the Oral Torah.”
“Shema is the ultimate foundation for loving G-d,” Rabbi Wosner said, “for it discusses in depth our obligation to love G-d.
But why begin with the nighttime Shema?
Rabbi Wosner quoted a passage from the Mechilta.
Moshe Rabbeinu studied with G-d in Heaven. When they learned the Oral Torah, he knew it was nighttime, and when they studied the Written Torah he knew that day had come to the world.
Shas begins with Shema, because its precepts are the foundation of the Torah.
And it begins with the Shema of nighttime, because that Shema is the foundation of the Oral Torah.”
As The Evening Draws to a Close…
The Seret-Vizhnitz Rebbe then delivered words of inspirationand gave the crowd a brachah, and Rabbi Chizkiyahu Mishkovsky, mashgiach of Orchos Torah in Bnei Brak, related how Rabbi Nosson Tzvi Finkel, zt”l, was in America a year ago at a Siyum HaShas. He was terribly weak at the time and couldn’t talk. His students begged him, “Rebbe, give us a few words. Please!”
Rabbi Finkel acquiesced.
“The most beautiful words that a Jew can say,” he told the assembled, with tears in his eyes, “are ‘Hadran alach Talmud Bavli’ [the words said at every siyum]”
The Rebbe then introduced his own teacher and mentor, Rabbi Aharon Yehuda Leib Steinman, shlita, who spoke about the greatness of Torah for a few short minutes in his trademark style, leaving the crowd hungry for more.
Rabbi Chaim Tzvi Shapiro, Rosh Yeshivah of the Yeshivah of Belz, spoke briefly and then introduced his rebbe, the Belzer Rebbe, who delivered divrei brachah.
The singing and dancing that followed were breathtaking – spirited and spiritual.
It was a night to savor, to cherish and to relive forever after …. a Dirshu night!