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12:11 pm
Sat August 4, 2012

Jewish 'Super Bowl' Praises Years Of Talmudic Study

Originally published on Sat August 4, 2012 4:30 pm

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," Y.M. Siff said. 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.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

GUY RAZ, HOST:

It's taken more than seven years, but this past week, thousands of Orthodox Jews finally reached their goal. They've been reading one page of the same book each day, the Talmud. Stan Alcorn went to one of the largest celebrations of the event. It's called Siyum Hashas, and he sent us this story.

STAN ALCORN, BYLINE: 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.

CHAIM REISS: This is the 7:53 leaving Inwood on the way to Penn Station, and we're here every morning.

ALCORN: For 18 years, this is how Chaim Reiss has spent his commute from Long Island to Manhattan: in the last train car, listening to or leading a discussion of the Talmud.

REISS: And luckily, this is not a quiet car.

ALCORN: Today, he's one of more than 10 orthodox men and at least one woman who are following along.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

ALCORN: Some have hardcover books with Aramaic text. Marc Engel takes a different approach.

MARC ENGEL: I'm reading on my iPhone. It's an iPhone 4S. And...

ALCORN: He's reading an image of a book displayed on a website.

ENGEL: It's a photograph of every page of the Talmud - all several thousand pages.

ALCORN: Technology has made it easier to carry around those several thousand pages. But actually reading them is still a massive undertaking. Tonight, the global book club is celebrating finishing the final page after reading a page a day for nearly seven and a half years.

Y.M. SIFF: It's the Super Bowl.

ALCORN: Y.M. Siff is on his way to the largest single celebration. It's taking place at the MetLife Stadium that usually hosts the Jets and the Giants.

SIFF: Seven and a half years, 2,744 pages of the Talmud are being studied. And today is the celebration, celebration, Super Bowl.

ALCORN: In fact, with nearly 90,000 attendants here, it tops the attendance of the last Super Bowl. The majority here are men dressed in the black suits and hats worn by the most traditional Orthodox Jews. They fill the stands and the field. And when the opening prayers begin, their voices fill the air.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Chanting in foreign language)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting in foreign language)

ALCORN: During prayer, the hundreds of women in attendance disappear behind plastic curtains. Women don't generally study the Talmud in traditional Orthodox communities, but women like Zehava Miller are here in support of the men who do.

ZEHAVA MILLER: And all these people are coming together to show that in a lot of ways we have not changed. The world has changed around us, but our core values remain the same.

ALCORN: It's important to note who's not here: reform and conservative Jews, who make up the majority of Jews in America. Marc Katz is an assistant rabbi at a reform congregation in Brooklyn, where no one he knows reads a page of Talmud each day.

MARK KATZ: For the most part, it's not in our community. It's people in the orthodox community who are really doing this.

ALCORN: But Katz is the exception. He's been reading a page of Talmud a day for four years, and he hopes that at the next Siyum Hashas, when the singing and dancing begins, he won't be the only member of his congregation.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Mazel Tov.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Mazel Tov.

(APPLAUSE)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing in foreign language)

ALCORN: For NPR News, I'm Stan Alcorn in New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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