For almost seven and a half years straight, Orthodox Jews around the world have been reading their holy book, the Talmud, cover to cover. Day by day, they read the more than 2,000 pages, and last week, they all celebrated finishing the last page, in an event called Siyum HaShas.
Think of it as a book club — one that discusses just one page at a time and meets every day, all around the world, in some unusual places.
“This is the 7:53 leaving Inwood on the way to Penn Station, and we’re here every morning, says Chaim Reiss. For years, he’s spent his commute from Long Island to Manhattan in the last train car, listening to or leading a discussion of the Talmud.
In his group, Reiss was one of more than 10 Orthodox men and at least one woman who celebrated finishing the final page this past week. Some read hardcover books with Hebrew text, but Marc Engel read the book on his iPhone.
“It’s a photograph of every page of the Talmud — all several thousand pages,” he says. Technology has made it easier to carry around those several thousand pages, but actually reading them was still a massive undertaking.
Finishing the text, of course, called for a celebration, and in New Jersey on Wednesday, thousands flocked to the MetLife Stadium — which usually hosts the Jets and the Giants.
“It’s the Super Bowl,” another reader, Y.M. Siff, called it. In fact, with nearly 90,000 in the audience, the celebration actually topped the attendance of the last Super Bowl. The majority of people there were men dressed in the black robes and hats worn by the most traditional Orthodox Jews. They filled the stands and the field, and, when the opening prayers began, their voices filled the air.
During prayer, the hundreds of women in attendance disappeared behind plastic curtains. Women don’t generally study the Talmud in traditional Orthodox communities, but women like Zehava Miller were there in support of the men who do.
“All these people are coming together to show that in a lot of ways we have not changed,” she says. “The world has changed around us, but our core values remain the same.”
It’s important to note who wasn’t there on Wednesday: reform and conservative Jews, who make up the majority of Jews in America.
“For the most part, it’s not in our community. It’s people in the Orthodox community who are really doing this,” says Marc Katz, an assistant rabbi at a reform Congregation in Brooklyn. There, he says, no one he knows reads a page of Talmud each day.
But Katz is the exception. He’s been reading a page of Talmud a day for four years. He hopes that at the next Siyum HaShas, when the singing and dancing begins, he won’t be the only member of his congregation.