The Siyum HaShas is Judaism’s festival of completism, a global celebration of the end, and thus the subsequent beginning, of the seven-and-half-year-long Daf Yomi cycle of Talmud study. It is therefore nothing short of eerie that the New York edition of this very occasional mega-event fell the day after a four-night Phish run at Madison Square Garden, none of which overlapped with Shabbat. Die-hard phans cringe at missing a single note of these shows, spectacles no other earthly experience can match for them. Obviously I went to all four.
Minutes into the new decade, and about an hour-and-a-half after ma’ariv had wrapped up just off the lower concourse during the night’s first setbreak, Phish guitar player Trey Anastasio found himself and his gear marooned on a dangerously tilting suspended platform, 30 feet above a color-coded singing choir, his three other bandmates, and almost certain death; his whole world a narrow bridge until rescue could be arranged (which it was, once the show ended). After an anxious three-minute pause, band and choir decided to continue—they’d eventually figure out how to retrieve their guitarist once the job was complete. To my ears, the quavering in Trey’s voice during the opening lines of “Drift While You’re Sleeping” communicated absolute mortal terror, along with heroic insistence that the show had to go on, perhaps as some ultimate act of artistic integrity, or even love. By the end of “You Enjoy Myself,” his voice and guitar had achieved supernatural clarity. Consciously or not, Trey and friends had decided the important thing was not to fear.
When the band is really on, a Phish show at the Garden is too overwhelming to seem entirely real. By the end of that strange and almost metaphysically defiant final set, with Trey cheating death and scores of voices blasting the coda to “Tweezer” far below him, reality had reached a sort of absurd frenzy, stretched almost to the limits of what it could contain. The Siyum was in 12 hours, at MetLife Stadium over in Jersey. How much deeper could one possibly even go in a single day?
During ma’ariv, phans in the nearby beer lines might have spotted a tall middle-aged man in dark pants, a white button-up shirt, and almost face-length peyos twirling below a black kippa, never suspecting this individual had been to hundreds more Phish concerts than they had. Rabbi Shmuel Skaist lives in Monsey, has seen the band upwards of 250 times, and was the resident rabbi of the Gefilte Phish RV that provided Shabbat meals and other forms of spiritual succour to Jewish phans during the entire 1998 and 1999 summer tours and beyond—he was also probably the only rosh yeshiva in the entire arena, though definitely not the only rabbi. The Yeshiva of Newark head wouldn’t be at MetLife the next day but had attended Siyumei HaShas at the Garden back when it was merely an arena-sized happening. He’s probably more qualified than anyone on earth to ruminate on the higher meaning of the Phish-siyum coincidence, which we did by phone a week or so after meeting at MSG.
Rav Shmuel began playing the guitar as a teenager “against pretty much the wishes of every one of my rebbes and even my parents”—a formative rosh yeshiva in Queens broke this pattern, expressing interest in his music and songwriting despite its relatively non-religious themes. As a rabbi at a yeshiva in Israel Rav Shmuel would jam with his students and show interest in what they were listening to. Before a trip to the US in 1994, a student handed him Rift, a record that left the rabbi too exhilarated to sleep on the plane. He saw Phish live for the first time later that year, and felt blasts of intense improvisational funk and rock and reggae that sounded to him like “the ultimate musical creativity.”
Orthodox Jews, Rav Shmuel said, always run the danger of lapsing into routine, cycling through the same prayers, mitzvot, and holidays as if by rote. “The rabbis were pretty clear that’s not the goal. The goal is to constantly be creative … I find that Phish shows inspire me to seek that type of creativity, to constantly be trying to expand my relationship with the mitzvahs that I’m doing and find new ways to appreciate them within the boundaries and to find new ways of actually performing them.”
Phish provided one such opportunity at their Coventry festival in August of 2004, the beginning of an indefinite and potentially permanent hiatus for the band that ended in 2009. Torrential rains had created an unholy traffic jam the Friday the three-day campout was set to begin. With darkness encroaching, the Shabbos-observant drivers of the Gefilte Phish RV had no choice but to entrust the gridlocked vehicle and its various Judaism-related contents to whatever Phish-bound stranger would take it, and then walk some 20 miles to the festival site as the sabbath arrived. Rav Shmuel, who was already in Coventry, found the vehicle in the event’s vast parking lot that Shabbat morning—along with a note on the dashboard that served as a guestbook for the surprisingly long list of people who had seen the roving Shabbos tent handed off to them over the previous night. “A whole series of complete strangers, none of whom had any knowledge of what this was really all about, had driven the RV and parked it without touching anything, and we had our Shabbat.”
Nine hours after Trey’s dramatic rescue I was on the train to Jersey. Like Phish, the Siyum was a portal to some higher and better realm, despite taking place at the same stadium where Mark Sanchez’s eternally infamous Thanksgiving Day Butt-Fumble of 2012 occurred. January 1st is a secular holiday of self-improvement, and while the Siyum is nearly as religious as its gets it is a similar exhortation to self-betterment, maybe even an assault on one’s sense of inertia. You have the power to elevate yourself, the roll-call of gedolim standing at the 50-yard-line and extolling the importance of Torah study urged, and in elevating yourself you will elevate all of us too. Right before the kaddish honoring the conclusion of the Talmud, rabbi Shlomo Farhi introduced a man with ALS who had lost motion in his whole body, and who studied the entire Daf Yomi by using his eyes to turn pages on a computer screen and communicate with his study partners. “Today, Mendy has finished Shas. If he made it, what is our excuse?”
The speeches, almost all of which were delivered in English and by American rabbis, were totally free of ego or grandstanding. Israel flickered onscreen every once in a while—there were brief blessings for the safety of Israel soldiers, and shots of celebrations at an IDF base and in Jerusalem, but these were blink-and-you-miss it moments in a five-hour event that had a refreshing lack of political or nationalist content. As Rabbi Avi Shafran, a spokesperson for Agudath Israel of America put it, the Siyum was “a celebration of the Torah itself.” Jay Schottenstein, patron of the Artscroll Talmud and thus one of the people most responsible for Daf Yomi’s dramatic rise in popularity, noted to me how “exceptional” it was “for 90,000 Jews to show up for one purpose—for Torah.” The growth of the Siyum attested to an “eruption of learning,” he added. A half-hour later, Schottenstein was at mid-field leading that climactic kaddish just after the hadran, the prayer said once a section of the Talmud is completed.
MetLife didn’t feel like a concert or a party—this was my only trip to a sports stadium in which no one seemed to be drunk or angry or agitated. It was shul, except with 90,000 people, which of course made it totally unlike shul. And it was a concert, in a way, with the hadran and kaddish kicking off an ecstatic half-hour of music and dancing, with with grandstands gently swaying under the weight of more Jews expressing a deeper happiness than I had ever seen in a single place and at a single time. But the crowd was moved out of appreciation for their achievement and their community and their God rather than any aesthetic pleasure, making it totally unlike most concerts.
The Siyum was full of wondrous incongruities. The visage of the late rabbi Meir Shapiro, the Luvliner Rav and founder of Daf Yomi in the early 1920s, stared out from giant screens near the Pepsi Gate, which would usually have car ads on them during game days but now said: “Daf Yomi is like a paper bridge that the Yid strides over to cross the infinite sea of suffering, a bridge that is stronger than the strongest bridge of solid steel.” Lines from the Mishnah appeared on four enormous jumbotrons as Rabbi Nosson Scherman, general editor of ArtScroll, taught the corpus’s final sentences to a group of children, along with the other 90-odd thousand people on hand. Football is a modern gladiatorial spectacle—the rabbis took a notably dim view of the ancient variety—and MetLife a dystopian fortress of excess, a forbiddingly chrome-clad monolith that might make sense as a military command center in a movie where extraterrestrials have kicked all the humans out of Manhattan. But at times the event felt sublimely distant from the vulgarity of this or any other physical setting, as when Yitzhak Meir Helfgot delivered a soul-quaking, disembodying kel ma’ale rachamim in memory of the 6 million Jewish victims of the Holocaust, 1.5 million of them children, shortly after the hadron.
A few hundred people in Lublin celebrated the first siyum in the 30s; here were tens of thousands more, not so long after the destruction of Europe’s Jews, Lublin’s included. Roughly 50 Holocaust survivors were in attendence—at the next Siyum, on June 7th, 2027, that number might be zero. One of the survivors at MetLife on New Year’s was 94-year-old Rabbi Salomon Carlebach, son of the last Chief Rabbi of Hamburg and someone who spent four years in nine different concentration camps before his 21st birthday. “He told me that when he walked into the stadium and saw it full he burst into tears and couldn’t stop crying,” his daughter, Columbia University professor Elisheva Carlebach, wrote by email. “ He said, ‘the last time I saw so many Yidden coming from all over, it was to lead them to their slaughter. That they came today to be marbeh kevod shamayim [to give honor to God] was overwhelming.’”
When he was in his late teens, before he became religious, and before he founded the groundbreaking Diaspora Yeshiva Band, Avraham Rosenblum was one of the roughly half-million people who attended Woodstock in August of 1969. While we gazed over grandstands stacked to the heavens with Jews who had schlepped to a parking lot in Jersey for a once-a-decade mass affirmation of the very core of the being, I inevitably asked him for a comparison of the two events. “This is less physical,” he said. “It’s more the heart and the mind that’s engaged here, not the body.”
A bit of very early 70s adventuring and soul-searching eventually led Rosenblum him to Israel. After a week-long run of his band opening for a major jazz act at the Village Gate in Manhattan, Rosenblum told his one other Jewish bandmate: “I don’t feel it, I don’t belong here. There’s something else waiting for me and I gotta go.” A few months later, on a visit to Jerusalem during an ulpan at a secular kibbutz, a pair of Danes who were drinking coffee with him at a cafe just inside the Jaffa Gate said they’d heard that “over on Mount Zion there are these American expats who think they found God. Wanna see the place? I said sure.” That place was the Diaspora Yeshiva. “I was there for 12 years.” Rosenblum never saw the Danish guys again. “It’s like they were angels.”
Like Rav Shmuel, Rosenblum did not see a contradiction between rock and Judaism. The Diaspora Yeshiva band was a pioneering outfit, a merging of psychedelic rock and the Baal Teshuva movement into a remarkable new category of Jewish music. As Rosenblum noted, King David, whose tomb is nextdoor to the Diaspora Yeshiva on Mount Zion, believed that music wasn’t a distraction from the spiritual but a means of simultaneously channeling and exploring it. According to tradition, Rosenblum said when we spoke again by phone later in the week, “King David at midnight would get the ruach hakodesh, which would come in a wind and actually play the strings of his harp for him. It was this really high stuff, yknow. You had to be King David to get the universe to play your harp for you.”
Rosenblum pointed to a line in the Psalms in which David seems to liken music to God’s laws (119:54). “Let the music be as high as everything else in your Torah is really what David was saying,” Rosenblum explained. Other Jewish texts complicate this picture, showing that it’s far from clear that God agrees with the Israelite poet-king. “The answer David got was a bit of a letdown. The ultimate answer was: not quite. The pure Torah learning is still higher than the Torah that’s expressed through music. It’s still one tiny little degree not-exactly the same.” This was another possible message of the only Phish New Year’s-Siyum HaShas double-header in all of Jewish history: Rock could get you nearly the entire way there—but only nearly.