Each and every day, Orthodox Jews around the world pause from their worldly pursuits to study a page from the Talmud, the collection of Jewish law and tradition.
At that pace, it takes 7 1/2 years to study the 2,711 pages of the Talmud.
Yesterday, Orthodox Jews who participate in a study program called Daf Yomi -- Hebrew for "page a day" -- completed that seemingly Herculean task and gathered for celebrations in 13 cities around the world, including Baltimore.
More than 2,000 people gathered at the Baltimore Convention Center last night, where they watched a satellite hookup of a program that was televised live from Madison Square Garden and the Nassau Coliseum in New York. Other celebrations took place in Albany, N.Y.; Chicago; Montreal; London; Antwerp, Belgium; Strasbourg, France; Buenos Aires, Argentina; Caracas, Venezuela; Johannesburg, South Africa; Melbourne, Australia, and Jerusalem.
"It's a happy event," said Larry Ribakow, a systems analyst from Pikesville who completed the cycle. "Seven years ago I started and I figured I'd give it a shot, see how it goes. It was something I wanted to do ever since I was young. After three years, I knew I was on a roll."
Although Ribakow said he had a feeling of achievement, he has not completed his study of the Talmud: "I'm not going to stop."
The Daf Yomi program was started in 1923 by Rabbi Meir Shapiro, a young rabbinical leader from Lublin, Poland, to bring a uniformity to the study of the Talmud. Those who participate in Daf Yomi study one "daf" or two-sided page of the Talmud each day for about an hour. Yesterday marked the 10th time since 1923 that the cycle of reading the entire Talmud has been completed.
The Talmud is a collection of Jewish law and tradition, comprising the Mishna and the Gemara. The written Torah consists of the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures. But there was also an oral Torah, which included detailed interpretations of the written Torah and Rabbinic decrees.
About the year 200, the Rabbi Judah the Patriarch decided that the discussions of the oral law that had been taking place for the preceding 400 years needed to be written down, resulting in the Mishna. Commentaries on the Mishna were collected over the next several hundred years in the Gemara, the second part of the Talmud.
The Daf Yomi program is flexible. Some students study by themselves. They can get guidance through tape-recorded classes, by using the Internet, or by calling Dial-A-Daf and listening to a recorded lesson. The computer-assisted system provides the lessons in English, Yiddish and Hebrew.
Many attend classes, where an instructor can guide them through the often complicated passages. Every morning at 6: 10 a.m., about two dozen people gather at the Machzikei Torah Congregation in Northwest Baltimore, where Jerry Hershkowitz, an accountant by trade, leads them through the Daf Yomi.
"Everyone is awake," Hershkowitz said. "You have to be a practicing Orthodox Jew to understand the motivation to bring us there. The only thing I can say is our entire activity during the day becomes focused. We participate in the world, but it gives focus to our lives and helps us participate in one of the most important mitzvah in our lives, which is the study of the Torah."
Henry Lowenthal, who moved to Baltimore in February after retiring from his job as chief financial officer for American Greetings Co., completed his third cycle of Daf Yomi yesterday. In his retirement, he can study at his leisure. But even when he was a high-powered executive, which involved constant business travel, he managed to do his Daf.
"Almost anywhere in the world I traveled, I could find a group studying the same folio I was working on that day," he said.
"I've even been on an overseas flight when I've found another person studying the same folio of the Talmud. We just went to the back of the plane and found two empty seats and studied together."
The Talmud covers not just religious topics, such as guidelines of how to observe the Sabbath and keep Kosher, but touches on a myriad of topics.
"By studying the entire Talmud you see that it covers every aspect of life, whether it's the sciences, math, astrology, astronomy, social sciences, family relations," Hershkowitz said.
Even though he's read the entire Talmud three times, Lowenthal still finds fresh insights. "There's so much more that I've learned this time than the first and second times I went through it," he said.
Pub Date: 9/29/97