Tens of thousands gather worldwide thanks to Rav Meir of Poland
August 7, 2012 | Peter Miller - Correspondent
More than 90,000 people packed MetLife Stadium in New Jersey for the Siyum HaShas, celebrating the completion of the Daf Yomi page-a-day Talmud study cycle, Aug. 1, 2012. (Photo: Yisroel Golding/Siyumphotos)
TORONTO – For the more than 90,000 people who gathered at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey and the more than 3,000 attending Toronto’s Sony Centre for the 12th Siyum Hashas (Completion of the six orders [of the Talmud]), Daf Yomi (a page or folio a day) is a familiar concept that has become part of both their lives and that of their families. But when the idea was first introduced by Rabbi Meir Shapiro, the Rav of Sanok, Poland, in the early 1920s, the notion of Jews all over the world learning the same daf, every single day, seemed unimaginable.
In fact, even the idea that typical Jews, not just devoted yeshiva students, would study the entire Talmud, not just the more commonly known mesechtas (tachtates) was an extremely novel concept and exceeded even Rav Meir’s original expectations.
His idea was met with doubt and skepticism, but undaunted, he persevered, presenting his plan to different audiences, tailoring his approach for the people he was addressing. In 1927, Rav Meir, on a fundraising trip to Toronto, broached the idea to the local rabbinate and met with unequivocal support.
To the idealistic young bochurim, he suggested that just like Tefila B’tzibur (Praying with a group/minyan) takes on a much stronger voice than davening alone, so too would a widespread Daf Yomi have a greater impact in the heavenly realms. To the chassidic audience, he explained that the snake, which through it’s actions in Gan Eden brought misfortune to the world, has a gestational period of approximately seven years. How appropriate it would be to counteract the aveira (sin) brought about by the snake, with a learning project that would also span a period of about seven years. Rav Meir also stressed the unique achdus (unity) that would be created by Klal Yisroel if Jews worldwide could share their learning, giving them a common interest and a common bond.
It was at the first Knessiya Gedola (gathering of the great sages) held by Agudas Yisroel in Vienna in August 1923 that the concept of Daf Yomi became a reality, as Rav Meir, who was also the president of Agudath Israel of Poland, had the opportunity to address leaders of the Torah world, including the Chofetz Chaim, Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzensky, the Chortkover Rebbe, Rav Shlomo Zalman Breuer, Rav Elchonon Wasserman and the Gerrer Rebbe, exhorting them to support a universal Daf Yomi program, which would not only reinforce Torah learning worldwide but would also be a unique tool that would unite Hakadosh Baruch Hu (The Holy One, blessed is He) the Torah and the Jewish people.
Rav Meir’s idea was greeted by the 600 delegates present at the Knessiya with a standing ovation, later described by the Bluzhever Rebbe in the Artscroll book, Five Great Leaders, as similar to Ma’amad Har Sinai (the revelations at Mount Sinai) and by the Chofetz Chaim as something that “would hasten the coming of Mashiach.”
The first Daf Yomi cycle began on Rosh Hashanah of 5684, Sept. 11, 1923. The Gerrer Rebbe was just one of the tens of thousands in Europe, Israel and America who took upon himself to learn Daf Yomi and his many followers hastened to follow his lead.
One Jewish newspaper ran a report detailing the phenomenon that was sweeping through the Jewish community.
“It is amazing. On the first day of Rosh Hashanah, they began with the study of the first daf (aolio) in Berachos (Tractate Blessings)…. Even people, who until now, felt that their jobs did not allow time for Torah study, have joined daily shiurim to study the daf…. The degree to which the study of Daf Yomi has spread is evident from the fact that one cannot find a single volume of Masechta Berachos in any sefarim (book) store! In fact, they have even begun buying up volumes of Masechta Shabbos out of concern that none will be available when the Daf Yomi begins that masechta. Multitudes of G-d-fearing Jews have joined the gaonim (those of profound learning) and tzaddikim (saintly people) of the generation in accepting with great love the study of Daf Yomi. It is to be hoped that the study of Daf Yomi will, with time, spread more and more….”
According to the Feldheim book, A Blaze in the Darkening Gloom, Rav Meir received a letter from a sister who lived some distance away and was completely unaware of his grand plan for all of Klal Yisroel after the first Daf Yomi cycle began.
In the letter his sister wrote, “On the night of Rosh Hashanah, I had a dream: I saw you in Heaven, dear brother, surrounded by a great mass of angels with striking figures, all radiant as the light of the firmament; and you, my brother, were standing in their midst, your face alight like the sun in its full strength; and they were all smiling to you, as they thanked you and rejoiced with you very, very greatly…. Please dearest brother: let me know what the dream means….”
The first Siyum Hashas, attended by tens of thousands, took place on Tu B’Shvat 5691 (Feb. 2, 1931), with the main event held at the newly constructed Yeshivas Chachmei Lublin and smaller siyumim held elsewhere in Europe, Jerusalem as well as in Baltimore and Philadelphia. Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld said the Hadran (Special Kaddish) at the siyum in Jerusalem, with Rav Meir himself making the siyum on Maseches Niddah in Lublin, reciting the Hadran with both tears and joy, followed by singing and dancing that lasted through the night.
Rav Meir died just two years into the next daf cycle at the age of 46 and, as the Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivas Chachmei Lublin, the founder of the Daf Yomi, a member of Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah (the committee of Torah giants/sages), the Vaad HaChinuch (the education authority) and the Polish parliament, as well as chairman of a committee that was part of the Polish Ministry of Religious Affairs, his death was mourned by Jews and non-Jews alike.
By the time of the second Siyum Hashas in 1938, the number of participants in the Daf Yomi program had grown to over half a million. As Nazi domination spread throughout Eastern Europe, Daf Yomi was also threatened with annihilation, with public gathering places and places of worship closed, ostensibly to prevent the spread of diseases.
Survivor Yosef Fuchsman told the Jewish Observer of the dedication of a group of Daf Yomi participants.
“One group refused to give up on meeting to study Torah; it was a Daf Yomi group. On the seventh of Cheshvan, the yahrtzeit of Rav Meir Shapiro, these ‘Daf Yomi’niks’ as they were called, made up their minds that come what may, the daf would be studied in public. So the group met in ‘Yegiche’s Kloiz,’ learned the daf, and after Mincha said Kaddish for the neshamah of the gaon of Lublin, Rav Meir Shapiro. Suddenly a contingent of eight militia men broke in and started swinging their clubs. Some of the Jews fled for their lives but 15 Slonimer Chassidim were determined to stick it out and refused to leave the kloiz; they still had to review the day’s daf. Blood flowed, clothes were ripped and a few of the men were forcibly evicted. The dedication of these Jews to the study of Daf Yomi remains a living inspiration to us, the survivors.”
Rav Meir’s kever miraculously survived the desecration of the Nazis in Lublin and in 1958, his remains were moved to Har Hamenuchos (a Jerusalem Cemetry). The Zichron Meir section of Bnei Brak, which is home to several major yeshivos, was named in his memory. Aside from the immeasurable legacy that he left behind in Torah learning, Rav Meir authored both the Ohr HaMeir and Imrei Da’as and many of his vortlach (original Torah thoughts) have been included in many seforim.
Starting with the seventh Siyum Hashas, which took place in 1975, the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah decided that all siyumim would be dedicated in memory of the six million who perished in World War II. As quoted in Five Great Leaders, the Bluzhever Rebbe, a survivor of the Holocaust, addressed the crowd at the seventh Siyum saying, “I can personally testify that those who perished bore their suffering with love. For many, their greatest concern was not the tragedy of their own death, but who would say Kaddish after them and who would learn a perek of Mihsnayos in their memory. Truly, there is no greater remembrance, no greater memorial for them, than the dedication to their memory of the learning of Daf Yomi.”
As the number of participants in each Daf Yomi cycle has grown, so too has the magnitude of each subsequent siyum. At each siyum a banner emblazoned with a portrait of Rav Meir has been draped across the dais and his spirit continues to inspire Jews worldwide to take it upon themselves to do the unthinkable – taking on a daily commitment to learn more than 2,700 pages of Gemara. Daf Yomi participants continue to be inspired by Rav Meir, nearly 100 years after he first presented his idea to the Knessiya Gedola, with shiurim taking place daily in the United States Senate, on Wall Street, on every El Al flight and even on the 7:51 and 8:15 Long Island Railroad trains headed from Far Rockaway to Manhattan, where commuters in the last car can enjoy a Daf Yomi shiur. Torontonians, with shorter commutes, are often seen learning the day’s daf on the buses and subways of our great city.
What began as a plan to foster achdus within Klal Yisroel has grown to a project whose scope is likely beyond anything that could have ever been imagined by Rav Meir as tens of thousands of people took part in the celebrations around the world, not only in Toronto and New York, but with the simulcasts in various locations including Israel, Chile, Johannesburg, Venezuela, London, Mexico City, Costa Rica, Beijing, Montreal, Vancouver, Panama, Melbourne and even Rav Meir’s very own makom Torah, Yeshivas Chochmei Lublin in Poland.