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Boycott: The Moderate Response to the Siyum haShas

by Rabbi Gidon Rothstein

The upcoming celebration of the completion of another cycle of Daf haYomi presents the paradox of a practice with great staying power despite the rigor of its demands and the minimal results it produces. Coming to grips with the Daf Yomi phenomenon leads us to realize that how we react to the Siyum haShas will reflect on our own dedication to furthering the stated goals of Judaism.

Daf Yomis attractions are not hard to uncover: it offers an opportunity, in a well-planned course, to achieve what seems like a great deal of Torah study. Give us an hour a day for seven years, the Daf Yomi call says, and we will give you Shas. Like a marathon, Daf Yomi is a task that requires little skill, just the willingness to show up with discipline and consistency.

Also like a marathon, we would err in minimizing the amount of effort it takes. While it may seem simple to set aside an hour a day for attending a i>Daf Yomi shiur, the attendees at such shiurim are most often people with other full-time responsibilities, such as jobs and family. Making this or that particular hour of the day sacrosanct - or finding substitute shiurim for those times when the usual one will just not work - is no mean feat, and deserves our respect and admiration.

The problem begins to become clear when we consider the religious yield of the practice, because there is so little of it. In an hour a day, the vast majority of those who attend such shiurim can do no more than watch the text whiz by, gleaning occasional nuggets of information that strike them as particularly interesting. Perhaps some small percentage of attendees can catch the text meaningfully at that speed on the first time around, and some even smaller percentage make the time to review what they have learned, but that is not the Daf Yomi experience in general.

My own experience has been that serious talmidei hakhamim do not study Daf Yomi, begging off with the excuse that they cannot see themselves keeping up that pace. Of course, notable exceptions exist, with many gedolim accomplishing at least that much or more. I recall a friend telling me of an ancestor who decided at some point in his life to only eat at seudot mitzvah. Rather than limit his eating, it just meant that between meals he would make sure to complete the study of a mesekhta. Rav Hirschprung, ztl, was reported to have finished Gittin every morning on the way home from shul. A friend told me of seeing R. Moshe Feinstein ztl complete Masekhet Shabbat over the course of a particular Shabbat when he was visiting Monsey.

These stories resonate precisely because they are so unusual, because the ability to master or even understand such a great deal of material in such a short period of time depends on innate talent combined with years of concerted and consistent effort.

Attendees at Daf Yomi shiurim tend to have neither. Daf Yomi instead appeals, with notable but few exceptions, to those who get so caught up in the romance of completing a great task in bite-sized pieces that they do not notice that the bites are too large for them to digest, who do not figure out that they end up with the appurtenances of accomplishment without the actuality.

No harm, no foul, I hear readers thinking. Why pick on people who are devoting such time and effort to studying Torah? Isnt there someplace else to point ones ire? Granted that these people might achieve more by choosing something else to learn - Rashi on that weeks parsha, for example, which is an actual codified fulfillment of a separate specific Rabbinic obligation. Why complain when they feel good about spending time in the study of Torah?

It is precisely those people whose energies we might succeed at channeling more positively. You cant coach height in basketball, and it is notoriously difficult to coach a willingness to work as hard and consistently at study of Torah as do these Jews. Convincing them to take up other books would benefit them, but also would benefit the rest of Jewish society, which often looks to them as the gold standard of dedication to Torah study.

Exchanging Daf Yomi for some more manageable task(a chapter of Nakh a day completes that corpus in two years, five daily mishnayot finishes Shas in five years, a chapter of Rambam a day completes the entire Mishneh Torah in three years, for example) can produce the same consistency, the same sense of accomplishment, but with a deeper clarity, a better understanding of what they are studying.

My call for understanding, incidentally, should not be confused with a preference for conceptual depth over breadth of knowledge. I am protesting acts of Torah study that lead to neither. Daf Yomi often (really, almost always) turns Torah study into another form of davening, where the only requirement is to sit down at a table for a certain period of time, listen passively as someone spoon feeds ideas, or read them out of an English Gemara, going by so fast it leaves no impression on the student.

Torah study becomes what Nevi'im decried in other contexts: a mitzvat anashim melumadah, a rote observance devoid of all internal impact. R. Yisroel Salanter is said to have encountered a Jew who told him he had been through all of Shas. His reply? Yes, but has it been through you?

True Torah study is the parsing of a way of life, understanding how the words of God in Tanakh are lived out through the halakhic system in order to fulfill the will of the Creator, to know better how to emulate Him, to be able to accomplish whatever our particular version of ta'amei ha-mitzvot tells us the Creator wishes us to accomplish.

Shifting the energies of current Daf Yomi Jews would also change the tenor of our community as a whole. A Jew today who becomes serious about including regular Torah study in his life will, I suspect, choose to join a Daf. If he (or she) keeps up with the group, his praiseworthy instincts will have been largely wasted, as we discussed above; if he finds the pace too much for him, hell probably give up on regular study altogether. The more we insist that Daf Yomi is for the rare few, the more likely that Jew will find other options, ones more appropriate to his current state of preparation.

The last piece of the Daf Yomi puzzle turns on how to communicate respect for the effort while still effectively altering the practice. The extremes - applauding the positive aspects of Daf Yomi, hoping that change will occur on its own over time, or speaking out loudly, firmly, and intemperately against it - will not work, nor do they convey the message we seek.

Usually, there is little that we can do other than to take opportunities in polite conversation to make known our preference for a meaningful Talmud Torah, one that actually accomplishes the goals of the mitzvah. With the excitement over the Siyum hashas, however, one more option comes our way.

While others around us rush to join in what they see as an opportunity to honor accomplishment in Torah study, we can, respectfully, disagree. When schools plan trips to attend the celebration, we can decline to be included. When others, in our presence, speak of how lovely and wonderful an event it will be, we can offer some analysis of the flaws spoken of here.

Staying away from communal Torah gatherings is and should be a difficult choice. But experience shows that a phenomenon such as Daf Yomi, enticing precisely because it relieves people of the obligation to take responsibility for growing in their knowledge of and understanding of Torah, will rule the day unless it is met with a reasoned and well - articulated opposition.

We usually boycott only that to which we object so strongly that we cannot stomach participating, that our presence would so necessarily imply approval, however limited, that we must remove ourselves from it. We should boycott the Siyum haShas not because it meets those criteria, but because it is the only way we have to shake our community out of its attachment to a practice that, as many admirable qualities as it has, is ultimately destructive for implementing study of Torah as a central value of the Jewish religion and of avodat Hashem.

We have limited energy in this life, and the energy that goes into the Daf is too precious to be wasted. Let us begin to oppose the Daf not to create mahloket, God forbid, but to move ourselves in the direction of a proper hagdalat Torah ve-haadaratah.

Rabbi Rothstein Replies to Critiques of his Essay. Click here (RTF download).

Rabbi Gidon Rothstein is currently the Rosh Kollel at the HAFTR Community Kollel in Cedarhurst, NY.

The opinions expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the thought of ATID. They are presented here out of a conviction that compelling ideas, frankly stated, are an important element in engaging the community of Jewish educators in critical thought about our holy work.

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