Religious Life

Sweet Words – A Weekly Letter From Rabbi Davis – January 17, 2020

Shalom Chaverim,

A little over a week ago, there was a remarkable event in the Jewish world- Siyum Hashas. Hundreds of thousands of Jews gathered around the world in synagogues, yeshivot, social halls, even sports stadiums to celebrate concluding their study of Talmud.

The tradition began about a hundred years ago to promote Talmud study by encouraging students to study one page of Talmud per day. It’s called Daf Yomi which literally means Daily Page (of Talmud). With 2711 pages, it takes seven and a half years to complete the cycle. This was the largest Siyum (Completion-Celebration) ever. And this Siyum included another first: a large- scale Siyum by and for women.

I have a friend who traveled to Jerusalem for the gathering of over 3000 women. She herself completed the study cycle and said, “seeing the joy for learning and the depth of learning was beautiful, moving and completely inspiring.”

In this week’s Talmud reading cycle, the issue under discussion is prayer: “What blessing does one recite over the study of Torah? Rabbi Yochanan blesses: “God, sweeten the words of Your Torah in our mouths and in the mouths of Your people. And may we and our grandchildren be among those who occupy themselves with Torah” (Berachot 11b).

Strikingly, this is the only mitzvah we call on to be sweet. We don’t say that about Shabbat, lulav, tefillin or any number of other commandments. Why? I have a few thoughts. One, precisely because Talmud study is so hard, we pray that the learner also tastes its sweetness. Second, we will only succeed in passing down Torah and Jewish tradition to future generations if it is sweet in our mouths. Finally, when we absorb the sweetness, will we be inclined to “occupy ourselves with Torah,” that is, to live the lessons of Torah.

With all the attention it received, the next Siyum promises to be even larger. You see, this wasn’t just the conclusion of learning. It was a new beginning. Like Torah study, study of Talmud is on-going and never ending. In the words of renowned philosopher, Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo: “While Western civilization reveals a preoccupation with “getting matters over with”, Judaism is dedicated to infinite beginnings. It is a protest against a culture which is dedicated to the necessity to end. Finishing gives reason for simple thankfulness but having the opportunity to begin all over again is the greatest of all excitements and requires an inaugural party.”

Rabbi Alexander Davis