Play by play at the Siyum HaShas

By Uriel Heilman, JTA

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — With more than 90,000 people packed into MetLife Stadium for the 12th Daf Yomi Siyum HaShas, JTA was there calling the play by play.

6:18 p.m.: On the way to the siyum. Mob scene at Penn Station, with lines stretching around corners at the ticket windows and machines. Not your usual stadium crowd.

6:41: Transferring trains at Secaucus amid tight security. Two black-hatted, peyos-bouncing, tzitzis-flapping Chasids get pulled aside by a K-9 officer who searches their black plastic bags. I get waved right through. Was it their beard style that aroused suspicion?

6:45: On the train, women and men self-segregate. Do I hear mincha minyan, anyone?

6:57: Pulling into MetLife Stadium (a.k.a. Giants Stadium). Instead of tailgaters in the parking lot it’s full of Hatzolah ambulances. Are they on the job or just here for the party?

6:59: One minute to kickoff – err, the daf.

7:03: A drizzle continues to fall. According to Jewish tradition, it’s a sign of blessing.

7:13: In typical Jewish fashion, the event will be off to a late start (30 minutes). There’s so much black in the seats you’d think the Raiders were in town.

7:33: Mincha begins (nusach sfard). This is probably the quietest the stadium has ever been. Those in the women’s sections are asked to pull curtains erected by the organizers to obstruct the men’s view. No more rain.

7:49: Chazarat Hashatz continues, courtesy Rabbi Yaakov Levovitz, rosh yeshiva of Yeshivat Givat Shaul in Jerusalem.

7:50: Big question: Will there be tachnun (a penitential prayer omitted in celebratory days), or is this simcha enough cause to skip it?

7:51: No tachnun! (Of course, this IS mincha k’tana)

7:55: Tehilim (Psalms) for the sick, for those in Israel, for those unjustly imprisoned. Abraham Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, stands behind the chazan, shukling and grinning.

8:00: Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel of Agudath Israel of America takes the mic, introduces Elly Kleinman, Aguda’s chairman of the 12th Siyum HaShas. Offers a shortened “Shehecheyanu.”

8:02: First mention of the Holocaust (“Auschwitz,” “Nazis,” “ghetto,” “gas chambers”).

8:06: Attendance: 92,000+, says Kleinman. The largest siyum in history. Last time, in March 2005, the celebration was at the much-smaller Madison Square Garden, with overflow crowds at Continental Airlines Arena and the Javits Center, for a total crowd of 50,000. Also: Far larger than the mass celebrations this week in Israel. Does Babylonia (the Diaspora) still trump Jerusalem when it comes to the Talmud?

8:10: Kleinman: What happens the day after the Siyum? “We turn the page.” Clever.

8:11: A nod to diversity: This celebration is for all Jews, not just those with black hats, says the speaker, but also those with velvet yarmulkes, knit yarmulkes and even — gasp! — baseball caps.

8:12: The JumboTron screens a tribute video about Jerome Schottenstein (z”l), of the ArtScroll Schottenstein Talmud family, to whom the Siyum is dedicated.

8:16: Shlomo Yehuda Rechnitz, emcee: “Fortunate is the person who sees, who experiences, this great gathering… Try to visualize the singing and dancing that’s going on right now in Shamayim (heaven) watching tens of thousands celebrating the masechtos (tractates) they worked on so dilligently.”

8:19: Another mention of the 6 million.

8:20: Hitler mention: On this day in 1936, the Olympic Games began at a stadium of similar size in Berlin, Rechnitz notes, drawing a contrast.

8:22: First real Torah discourse of the night, on differences between Esau and Jacob.

8:24: Rechnitz alludes to imprisoned Jews in “Postville, Bolivia or North Carolina.” Read: AgriProcessers chief Aaron Rubashkin, New York businessman Jacob Ostreicher and convicted spy Jonathan Pollard.

8:34: I stop in the bathroom for a pit stop (too much Golden Fluff Mineral Water — based in Lakewood, N.J., of course), but I don’t have to miss any of the action because there are flat-screens above the urinals broadcasting the proceedings from the dais. Wait a minute: Isn’t this a halachic problem!? (UPDATE: Later in the evening, the TVs in the bathroom are muted.)

8:35: Musical interlude. The white-bearded rabbi onstage is quite a contrast from the last musician I heard at this spot a couple of years back: Bruce Springsteen. The Boss of the World vs. the Boss.

8:41: Rabbi Yaakov Perlow, the Novominsker rebbe, begins the first Yiddish speech of the night. Last time, 7 and 1/2 years ago, it was mostly Yiddish. Is this progress or regress? Depends on your perspective.

8:44: “The Torah knows no barriers of language,” Perlow says, shifting to English.

8:50: A video of the story of Daf Yomi through the years. First public Siyum Hashas in America: 1975. Two thousand people showed up at Manhattan Center.

9:00 Big cheer as video narrator declares this the biggest Siyum HaShas ever. “A great American palace of sport has been transformed into a sanctuary of the spirit!” and “May it hasten the arrival of Moshiach tzidkeinu” — the messiah.

9:01: First decorum announcement: Stop walking through the aisles. Now I feel Iike I’m in shul.

9:06: Walking around the stadium, the N.J. State Troopers seem to be in a good mood. This must be an easy crowd for them. No scent of weed wafting through the air to track down, no fights in the stands, no flashing in the upper deck, no wilding on the ramps. Heck, there’s no alcohol here. What are they going to make a l’chaim on when they finish this thing?

9:18: Longest Yiddish speech of the night (20 minutes and counting) just ended. For simultaneous translation, a call-in number for area code 712 (Iowa) was provided. Who speaks Yiddish in Iowa? Oh, right, those ex-Agri employees stuck in Postville.

9:35: More Yiddish. Oy vey.

9:39: At the beverage stand, they’re selling kosher water, regular water and soft drinks. For once, the kosher option is cheaper (it’s also smaller). At the food stands, no pastrami, no cheesesteaks, no hot dogs (even kosher ones). What is there? Danish, cookie, chocolate babka, potato chips.

9:43: Breakaway Maariv minyan in section 134.

9:50: The actual siyum ceremony starts after a long Yiddish discourse by Rabbi Kotler.

9:57: Mazel tov! We completed Shas! (Well, some of us, anyway). Wild dancing begins. Rock the house!

10:11: Danding ends and another speech begins. Wait, there’s more? I’m outta here.

10:49: Train pulls out of MetLife Stadium stop. Maariv minyan begins two minutes later.