Wednesday, August 1, 2012

In honour of the Siyum haShas

Here's an article which ran in the Allentown Morning Call 7 1/2 years ago, for the last Siyum haShas:

Celebration of spirituality
12 Lehigh Valley men will join 120,000 Jews finishing Talmud study.
February 27, 2005|By Ron Devlin Of The Morning Call

When Roberto Fischmann began studying the Talmud, he had daughters in high school, middle school and grade school.

Now, the eldest daughter is a researcher at Massachusetts General Hospital, another is studying electrical engineering at Duke University and the youngest is about to graduate from Moravian Academy in Bethlehem Township.

"I've been doing this so long," he said recently after a session in Congregation Sons of Israel in Allentown, "it seems like a lifetime."

Fischmann, 49, an Allentown businessman, is about to finish his 63-volume, 2,711-page undertaking.

Reading a page a day, it took 71/2 years to wade through the complex tracts of Jewish legal, ethical and philosophical teachings that date to the Revelation of the Torah on Mount Sinai.

On Tuesday, in a collective celebration, Fischmann and a dozen others from the west Allentown synagogue will join 120,000 Orthodox Jews in New York, New Jersey and around the world to read the final page of the Talmud.

The "Siyum HaShas," as the gathering is called, will fill Madison Square Garden and the Continental Airlines Arena in New Jersey. Similar gatherings will take place in 40 North American cities and in countries across the world, including China and Africa.

All are practitioners of Daf Yomi, a method of studying the Talmud that utilizes the page-a-day system. Allowing for time differences, Jews across the world read the same page on the same day, enhancing a sense of religious and spiritual unity.

"It's mostly Orthodox, but you will see a wide range of Jewish practice at the Siyum HaShas," said Rabbi Mordechai Torczyner of Congregation Sons of Israel. "Some will have beards and black clothes, others will not; some study the Talmud all day, others for an hour."

Of life and the Talmud

Six mornings a week, the Daf Yomi study group gathers in the library at Congregation Sons of Israel.

Rabbi Daniel Korobkin, now in Los Angeles, started the group in 1997. Two men, Fischmann and Henry Grossbard of Allentown, have been members since the beginning.

For Grossbard, 73, an industrial engineer, the morning sessions are an integral part of his daily routine.

Up at 6 a.m., he's at the synagogue by 6:45 a.m. for Daven, the morning prayer service. By 7:45 a.m., he's delving into the depths of the Talmud.

In its complex polemics, Grossbard finds the meaning of life.

"To me, this is our life," he said. "In order to understand and know it, you must study it."

Torczyner, who leads the sessions, explained that Jews originally handed down their traditions orally. Then, when the Romans banned teaching the Torah on penalty of death, they began writing them down.

By the 3rd century, there was a canonized text called the Mishnah. By the 6th century, it had grown into the Gemara.

"The Talmud combines them all," Torczyner said. "It contains ethics, philosophy, medicine, advice on living -- all facets of life."

In the Schottenstein Daf Yomi Edition, used by the Allentown group, the Talmud passage is in the center of the page, surrounded by commentary from rabbis across the ages. On a given issue, students can read the original text and the opinions of rabbis in 11th century France, 13th century Syria or 17th century Poland.

Fischmann compares the system to an Internet link, its passages allowing the student to go back and forth in history.

Roger Nagel of South Whitehall Township, a computer science professor at Lehigh University, finds the Talmud insightful and stimulating. Its ethics, he said, parallel those in courses he teaches.

The Talmud's tractates, or books, contain discussions on the courts, their powers and justice. It examines social classes, positions of power and the humanities.

Nagel has discovered not much has changed from ancient times to the present.

"You still have the good and the bad," he said.

Using a kind of inquiry method, the rabbis of the Talmud argue with one another rather than make pronouncements.

Jeff Blinder, who's been studying the Talmud for three years, describes the method as "conflict, then agreement."

A retired radiologist, Blinder is so committed he takes the Talmud with him when he volunteers at a hospital in Alaska. "I study the Talmud," he says with a chuckle, "with the only Jew in Ketchikan."

Blinder finds comfort in that, through Daf Yomi, he's reading the Talmud with Jews around the world.

"The amazing thing is that in London, France and South Africa -- across the entire world -- we're all reading the same page," he said. "The idea of an international community of Jews all doing the same thing on the same day is exciting."

Challenging, life-changing

Roberto Fischmann has a degree in engineering and a master's in business, as well as a law degree from the University of Virginia School of Law.

Yet, he finds the vastness of the Talmud intellectually challenging.

"I don't think I ever took a course where so many aspects were so challenging," said Fischmann. "Intellectually, it's hard to learn."

Persistence, though, pays off. Gradually, says Fischmann, the universal lesson emerges.

"What you eventually start learning is that, in every single aspect of life, you can find spiritual meaning," he says.

In a practical way, the daily exercise has changed the way Fischmann lives. He used to wake up worrying about his business. Now, he's rearranged his schedule to put the Talmud first, business second.

"It's been good for my health," he said. "I'm calmer, more peaceful."

Murray Schechter, 69, who taught mathematics at Lehigh University, has been studying the Talmud since he retired four years ago.

"I cannot explain the mechanism," said Schechter, whose snow-white hair and beard give him the look of a learned elder, "but the cumulative effect has changed my life."

Richard Greenberg, too, begins his day with prayer and the Talmud.

"You pray first, learn next," said Greenberg, 60, a retired real estate developer. "It provides structure to your life."

Sitting across the table from Schechter, Greenberg projects a quite different image. Instead of a yarmulke, he wears an Eagles baseball cap and uses sports analogy to explain his commitment.

The Talmud is exercise for the mind, Greenberg says, just as working out at the gym is exercise for the body.

"It's a spiritual elevator," said Greenberg, "no matter who you are."


  1. When we lived in Allentown (1983-1988), our friend Murray Schechter held a weekly study session at his house on Gemara Sanhedrin.

  2. i wish i could finish shas or one tosphot every seven years. I think finishing shas would be easier.