The Disney Concert Hall was the site of one of the largest Torah celebration in modern history in Los Angeles. On Tuesday, March 2, 3,000 Jews celebrated the Daf Hayomi Siyum, the culmination of the study of the entire Talmud.
The 11th Siyum Hashas spanned the globe, stretching from Oakland to Hong Kong and from Sydney to Johannesburg, connecting 66 cities and 120,000 people via a live satellite television hookup.
Rabbis from New York City, Toronto, Chicago and elsewhere spoke of commitment, dedication and Torah.
Hovering over the assembly was the presence of the man who inspired the Daf Yomi, Rabbi Meir Shapiro of Lublin, Poland. In 1923, Shapiro formed Agudath Israel, in order to increase Torah commitment among Jews worldwide. The organization decided that everyone would learn the same page (daf) of the Talmud every day (yomi). To learn the entire Talmud, a 63-volume work covering 2,711 pages, takes seven and a half years.
At Disney Hall last week, the mix of people spanned much of religious Los Angeles, from men in traditional knee-length coats and black hats, to those in business suits and yarmulkes, as well as teenagers and children and women, who sat in a separate section.
Not all celebrants were rabbis and yeshiva students.
"They are ordinary guys -- businessmen, college students and retirees. They dedicate their time to completion of the daf," said Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, chairman of Jewish law and ethics at Loyola Law School.
"The Siyum experience is awesome, he said. "Thousands of Jews put aside their differences and are momentarily in contact with what unites them -- Torah."
Joseph Bock, a Brentwood electronics engineer, was raised in an ultra-Orthodox home. His father and grandparents emigrated from Poland before the Holocaust. When they moved to New York's Lower East Side, they brought with them the inspiration from their rabbi in Poland, and Bock's father studied Talmud every day.
"Even though I am not fully observant now, I am superexcited about the Siyum," Bock said, his voice trembling. "I wish my father was alive to see this."
There are three options in studying the Daf Yomi -- study with a partner, group or alone.
Antony Gordon, director and stage manager for the celebration, estimated slightly less than 10 percent of the people attending the event actually completed the Daf Yomi study program.
For 21 years, Shana K. Kramer said she pushed her husband out the door to get to his study group. "My contribution is to get my husband to his daf on time," she said. She also had the responsibility of purchasing the tickets, which she bought a year in advance.
Rabbi Shelaim Furst of North Hollywood said he doesn't learn the Daf Yomi.
"It's too much to retain one daf a day," he said.
Instead, he studies Gemara and teaches it to his Yeshiva Toras Emes students.
Shimshon Tabrikian, a software engineer, had never attended a Daf Yomi Siyum before. But he was excited by the prospect of being able to daven Mincha, the afternoon service, with thousands of Jews in the Disney Concert Hall. Tabrikian, who studies Torah daily to "know the laws of Hashem," said he was excited to see so many observant Jews loyal to Jewish tradition.
Another attendee, Yerachmiel Loebel, a Holocaust survivor, was extremely moved by the ceremony. "I spent the last two years of World War II at the Yeshiva of Montreux, Switzerland, with 50 other students," he said, referring to the only yeshiva left in Europe.
Loebel, a school liaison at Vista Del Mar Child and Family Care Services, said he felt a strong responsibility to transmit Torah and Talmud to what remained of world Jewry.
"In 1943, only a handful of us studied Torah," he said, looking around the packed concert hall. "All these people learning Torah -- it's a miracle."
For many, the meaninfullness came from the multiple generations who attended the ceremony.
"If only one person studies Torah in a family, it affects the entire family," Adlerstein said.
Gordon, who grew up in South Africa in a traditional Orthodox family, agreed. "Children learn from what they see. When they see the study of Torah as a priority, it serves as the best lesson of what their main concerns should be."
Tabrikian said that learning elevates the whole family, guiding them through life's ups and downs.
"When you learn Torah, it gives you the right perspective of life and provides guidelines." he said.
"Once I learned the Talmud Baba Metzia, which says that a man shall respect his wife more than himself. From that time on, I've been more careful in the way I behave."
Kramer added, "Torah study changes a person. It brings godliness and Judaism front and center to our lives."
That was evident in the speeches from the various cities. Rabbi Yaakov Perlow, head of Agudath Israel of America, spoke from New York's Madison Square Garden. He made the plea for everyone to add an "eighth hour" to weekly Daf Yomi study sessions.
Rabbi Chaim Stein, head of Telz Yeshiva in Cleveland, read the last daf in Yiddish. His long, white beard shook and his eyes pooled with tears as he uttered the final words of the Talmud. As he spoke, the video screen flashed live pictures of students studying in the Lublin yeshiva founded by Shapiro.
Abish Brodt in New York sang, and Jews around the world danced. Although there wasn't much room in the concert hall's aisles, men and boys jumped to their feet and danced through the aisles, as women clapped to the staccato beat.
Bock looked at the screen above the stage and saw his cousin, Rabbi Yankey Luban, dancing in a New Jersey arena.
Rabbi Osher Weiss, head of a yeshiva in Jerusalem, explained from the Los Angeles podium the reason for the joy of the event.
"Finishing but one volume of Talmud is by itself an occasion for celebration," he said. "It is so much more, finishing the whole Talmud.
"Tonight we stand united with the thousands of our brethren and hundreds of congregations spanning six continents. The love of Torah is the secret of the Jewish community."
"Torah is our life," he continued. "Torah is our sustenance. Torah should not be taken for granted. We have to toil at it. This is why one has to appreciate the gift of Daf Yomi that Meir Shapiro gave us."
Freelance writer Michael L. Thal lives in Sherman Oaks, He wrote "The Light: An Alien Abduction" (Adventure Book, 2001) and The Legend of Koolura (Adventure Book, 2001). His Web site is www.authorsden.com/michaellthal.