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Rabbi Gidon Rothstein
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Daf Yomi and the Siyum HaShas: Two Worthy Practices

By Rabbi Aaron Ross

Gidon Rothstein’s critique of the Daf Yomi program certainly does not come as a shock. Rabbi Rothstein’s more general critique of the current Torah curriculum (if such a thing can be said to exist) has been made fairly clear in his article in the recent ATID volume, Wisdom From All My Teachers. While I tend to agree with his more global contentions that we are not making the maximum use of our time for Torah learning, either in school or beyond, it seems that his attack on Daf Yomi misses the mark, and that his call to boycott the Siyum HaShas is the wrong way for him to make a otherwise salient point.

In terms of Daf Yomi, Rabbi Rothstein begins his critique by making certain claims about what Daf Yomi is all about. He speaks of the “minimal results [that] it produces,” and that it promises to “give you Shas.” By defining the terms in this manner, Rabbi Rothstein enables himself to make the claim, which is often although not always true, that the time spent learning Daf Yomi could be better spent learning just about anything else. I would suggest that this characterization of Daf Yomi fails to take note of a few essential features of the program:

First, there is what I call the “Journal Dinner” aspect. Why do shuls and schools spend tens of thousands of dollars to hold annual dinners in order to raise money? Why not simply ask people for their checks, and save the cost of the dinner itself? The common answer is that some people will not give as much if all they are doing is filling out an ad blank in their homes. However, knowing that their money will be part of something bigger and more tangible, namely a fancy dinner with a journal highlighting the names of the donors, encourages many people to give more.

To some degree, Daf Yomi works off of a similar principal. Like it or not, Gemara has assumed the role as “the” book to learn, and one who spends time learning Tanakh or Mishnah does not necessarily feel that he is involved in ”real” learning. This being the case, there are many people whose time spent learning Daf Yomi would not necessarily be channeled into the learning of any other book. Rabbi Rothstein denigrates the fact that people merely need to show up in order to do the Daf. But consider the degree to which people are willing to do just that--there are shiurim at 5:30 in the morning, on 7am trains, and on Shabbat afternoons--all times when people with full-time jobs and full-time families might otherwise be sleeping. The fact that the goal is as big as it is certainly serves as a motivation to some to simply show up.

Rabbi Rothstein also notes that most gedolim do not and did not learn Daf Yomi. However, Rabbi Meir Shapiro was not aiming for the gedolim-- he was aiming for the proverbial (or, today, literal) “two Jews who meet on a train”--the professionals and businessmen whose goal would not be to rise to the level of gadol ha-dor, but rather would be to push themselves to make Torah study a critical component of each day.

Second, I would contest Rabbi Rothstein’s contention that the output should be judged simply in terms of material covered. I have always been a proponent of the fact that Daf Yomi is an excellent instiller of certain middot. Hazal tell us that the pasuk of "et ha-keves ha-echad ta’aseh ba-boker" is a klal gadol ba-Torah. Why is this so? A common explanation is that the Korban Tamid was the epitome of consistency in religious observance and practice. Every day, twice a day, regardless of the occasion, two sheep had to be brought in the Mikdash. Similarly, while a Siyum HaShas happens once in a shemitta (not even), the mere fact that people will set aside an hour of every single day for over seven years for the study of Torah is not something to be brushed aside, and certainly not something to be protested. People skip havrutot all the time when events arise in their lives, but a person who does Daf Yomi seriously does not let 24 hours pass without devoting time to the Daf. Even if that learning does not “yield” tremendous insight, that devotion is certainly an end in and of itself.

Going a step further, Rabbi Rothstein assumes that those people whose Daf Yomi study is composed of listening to the Daf whiz by also are content to remain at that level forever. However, just as more people get involved in learning Daf Yomi with each cycle, so too do more people raise their level of learning as time goes on. Nothing is as effective in making a person realize how little he knows than encountering how much there is to know, and Daf Yomi brings one into direct contact with the breadth of the wisdom of Hazal. Rabbi Domb mentioned just a few of the resources that exist to help those who are learning Daf --many of those resources plumb the depths of a given sugya and offer a bit more insight into those words that are whizzing by. Even the oft-denigrated Artscroll offers fabulous notes which allow those who use it to get more of a taste of what they are learning (let’s not debate the Artscroll Shas here--that could be a future Op-Jed topic).

While Rabbi Rothstein sees the Siyum HaShas and the study of Daf Yomi as one and the same, and certainly that is true to a great extent, I feel that the two can be taken separately--one can feel that Daf Yomi is not a desired approach to Torah study while still taking part in the Siyum.

First of all, as Rabbi Rothstein himself notes, the Siyum HaShas is a tremendous celebration of Torah learning, for the mesaymim and non-mesaymim alike.

Second, I would contend that more people will learn Daf Yomi on March 2nd than on any other day in the history of the project. While many of those who begin may not make it out of BrakhotM, the fact is that attending the siyum serves as an inspiration to many to renew their personal commitments to learning. While most people will turn that inspiration towards Gemara, it may be used as well in the service of Mishnah, Tanakh, or perhaps a slower approach to Shas (Amud Yomi shiurim are starting to pop up).

Finally, there is the part of the siyum that most people remember--the davening. Rabbi Rothstein may spend his evening at home or with others learning something that he will hopefully remember, but 50,000 Jews in the New York area will experience a davening the likes of which they will never, ever forget.

This last point captures what I feel is the main flaw in the call for a boycott. Rabbi Rothstein’s position is based on his concern for the intellectual growth and development of Klal Yisrael. However, we have to remember that rachmana liba ba’i--Hashem wants our hearts as well. While Rabbi Rothstein may make a dent in his fight for the minds of the Jewish people, he will miss out witnessing a beautiful expression of our collective soul.

Rabbi Aaron Ross is on the faculty of Yavneh Academy in Paramus, NJ, and is a doctoral candidate at the Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education.

The opinions expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the thought of ATID. They are presented here out of a conviction that compelling ideas, frankly stated, are an important element in engaging the community of Jewish educators in critical thought about our holy work.

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