Shma rocks N.Y. arena as 20,000 end Talmud study

NEW YORK — The Shema sounded like thunder — or perhaps like the clarion call of a shofar.

As 20,000 people chanted the words that affirm God's singularity and power, the most elemental words in Jewish prayer rose up and seemed to linger at the top of Madison Square Garden.

The moment served as a powerful conclusion to an emotional gathering for the men and women attending the celebration marking the completion of the study of the entire Talmud — one page a day for 2,711 days in a row.

It is a practice called Daf Yomi, or daily page, which was initiated by Rabbi Meir Shapiro of Poland in 1923. The practice takes 7-1/2 years to complete.

Celebrating the end of a cycle of Talmud — which is a compilation of commentary and interpretation of the Torah — with thousands of others gives one "a spiritual uplift, a kickstart" to keep going, said Sammy Hamburger, who had come all the way from London to participate.

"It's literally the best part of the day. It beats anything else you can do," said the 34-year-old yeshiva student.

For Sunday's event, sponsored by Agudath Israel of America, another 6,000 people filled the theater next to the Garden. Some 18,000 more were at the Nassau Coliseum in nearby Long Island, which was booked when the first venue sold out within weeks of tickets going on sale.

All told, 70,000 people participated in the event, either in person or by satellite hookup in places as far away as Eugene, Ore.; South Bend, Ind.; and Sao Paulo, Brazil.

Orthodox Jewry was present in all its diversity.

There were Chassidic men born and raised in Brooklyn, who speak only Yiddish. They came wearing bekeshes, or long black coats, over their tzitzit, black knickers and stockinged legs.

Other men, dressed in dark suits and rakish fedoras, clearly moved comfortably in secular worlds.

Though the scene as a whole called to mind an earlier time and place, Joseph Kupferstein, for one, has no trouble fitting even the most modern technology into his tradition.

Kupferstein, an assistant vice president for the Wall Street brokerage giant Merrill Lynch, studies the Talmud for an hour each morning.

More than 200 men study Talmud in the middle of each workday on Wall Street, he said.

When he returns home, he logs onto his computer and discusses that day's page on the Internet, which was designed, he said, with God's purpose.

"The Internet was created so Jews can live anywhere and feel united," he said.

Multimedia tools for accessing the Daf Yomi — from CD-ROMs with thousands of pages of text and commentary packed onto one silver disk to telephone services that are accessed daily by subscribers the world over — have proliferated in the last few years.

And though it is only men who learn the Daf Yomi, some 6,000 women attended Sunday's celebration as well.

"My grandmother is a Holocaust survivor," said Shani Stein, 21, who lives with her parents and four siblings in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn and was sitting next to her grandmother at the siyum, or celebration of the completion of study.

"When she saw the men she started crying, pointed to the numbers on her arm and said, `The Nazis wanted to kill us, but look, we're dancing.' "

Indeed, the growing number of Orthodox men who study Talmud daily is a source of great pride for leaders of the haredi community, as the ultra-religious are known. Many spoke of it Sunday night as a triumph over the past and a "resurrection" of Torah life from the ashes of the Holocaust.

After the recitation of the Kaddish prayer, which praises and sanctifies God's name, Abish Brodt — a Brooklyn businessman who has recorded several albums of traditional Jewish songs and was one of 300 men on the dais — began singing the song that greets every happy occasion in a shul: "Siman Tov and Mazel Tov."

In moments, hundreds of men were on their feet, hand-in-hand and dancing in the narrow aisles between crowded rows of folding chairs set up on the floor of the arena.

The gathering also was described by many speakers as an antidote to another threat to Jewish survival: assimilation.

"The vanishing Jew is an awesome, frightening fact in contemporary America," said Rabbi Yaakov Perlow, the head of the Yeshiva of Novominsk in Brooklyn. "Those whose faith is uncontested by secularism, by materialism, remain in clal Yisrael," or the Jewish people.

Some of the men who participate in the daily learning, which often takes place early in the morning before work, or late at night after the day's work has been finished, do so because they find it a worthwhile intellectual exercise. For others, it is a way to try and earn merit in God's eyes and bring blessings back to the Jewish people.

Those who study Torah daily are said to be promised a place in the world to come.

But in this life, the siyum enjoyed its share of incongruities.

Black-hatted, long-bearded men ordered pre-packaged bags of kosher popcorn and corn chips under a colorful sign, hanging over the Garden concession stand, which boasted a pepperoni pizza in all its traif glory.

The booths on the perimeter of every floor, which usually house Garden employees hawking New York Rangers jerseys and New York Knicks souvenirs, this night found the non-Jewish staff vending leather-bound tractates of Talmud and gold-plated coins commemorating the event.

The experience was one that Yossi Gleiberman wanted to share with his children.

As 9-year-old Eli and 6-year-old Tzviki held on tightly to his hands, the 31-year-old Gleiberman spoke of what learning Daf Yomi has brought to his life.

He has learned Talmud in all of the 23 countries that his job as a watch importer has taken him to over the last few years, he said.

And while in some, like China and Japan, he has studied alone in the morning, in others, including Thailand and Denmark, he has hooked up with a group of men doing the same thing.

"You meet new people all over the world learning the same thing on the same day and it's almost like you're part of a big club," Gleiberman said.

"It's also great for my children to see me doing this," he added. "It inspires them, too."