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Dramatic End to a Daunting Daily Ritual


Every morning for nearly 7 1/2 years, before heading to his job at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, before logging onto his computer and assembling commands for the spaceship Cassini, Fred Rosenblatt has opened the Talmud and steeped himself in the lessons of the ancients.

He has followed along as Rabbi Avrohom Stulberger, principal of Valley Torah High School, has intoned the words of Rashi and the Tosafot. He has fought off sleep at 6:45 a.m. to discuss such issues as when husbands and wives may have sex and why Jews must refrain from eating meat and dairy products together.

With his shirt rumpled and reference books strewn across a table, he has gathered with other laymen on workdays and weekends alike to engage in "Daf Yomi"--literally, the study of a page a day.

Today, Rosenblatt's spiritual journey--all 2,711 days of it--comes to a close as he and thousands of other Orthodox Jews across the globe complete the latest cycle of their reading of the Talmud, the classic compendium of Jewish laws and commentaries that dates back 1,500 years.

An anticipated 100,000 celebrants, including Hasidim in black frocks and others in knitted yarmulkes, will herald the feat at packed ceremonies from the Hollywood Palladium to the Yad Eliyahu Stadium in Tel Aviv, an unprecedented number that Orthodox leaders say shows growing interest in their movement.

Hooked up by satellite, they will recite the Talmud's last words. And then they will begin all over again.

For many, the "Siyum Ha-Shas"--or Completion of the Talmud--harbors added significance this year because it falls just three days before the start of Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year that begins the 10-day High Holy Days, the holiest season of the year. And although some view the timing as a fluke of the calendar, the convergence nonetheless is inspiring many Talmudic students as they prepare for another odyssey of nearly 7 1/2 years.

"In the grand scheme of things, nothing is random," said Rosenblatt, 48, a systems analyst at JPL in Pasadena, who studies the Talmud at Emek Hebrew Academy in North Hollywood. "We need all the inspiration we can get in this world."

It was precisely that sentiment, in the anti-Semitic world of prewar Eastern Europe, that prompted Rabbi Meir Shapiro of Lublin, Poland, to propose a daily regimen of Talmud study before an international gathering of Jewish leaders in Vienna in 1923.

Like so much of the wisdom in the Talmud, his notion was prophetic--to keep Talmud study, and in turn Jewish tradition, alive in the modern era. Indeed, Daf Yomi survived the Holocaust and is now completing its 10th cycle.

Orthodox leaders credit Daf Yomi with opening the serpentine world of the Talmud to an increasingly broad audience and with fostering a new connection to Judaism for those seeking greater spirituality.

"The commitment to Torah study is a testimony that 800 years of European Jewry has not been erased and has been transplanted," said Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, director of the Jewish Studies Institute at Yeshiva of Los Angeles. "To have thousands of Jews reaffirming their love of the Book is quite an accomplishment."

A guidebook to daily living for the faithful, the Talmud consists of interpretations of the Torah, the Jewish Bible, and dictates virtually every aspect of Jewish life--from the Sabbath to business matters, from marriage to divorce.

Written largely in Aramaic, a Semitic language that uses Hebrew characters, it includes Judaism's early oral tradition that was handed down from Mt. Sinai as well as later commentaries from Rabbinic sages such as Rashi, who lived in 11th century France, and the Tosafot, a group of commentators who lived in France and Germany from the 11th to the 13th centuries.

At the end of the 20th century, in its last round of Daf Yomi before the new millennium, the Talmud's 63 tractates have been studied by more than 10,000 Jewish men worldwide, according to organizers, double the number that completed the arduous endeavor seven years ago and more than any in the nine previous cycles.

But whether the ranks of full-time adherents to Orthodox Judaism are similarly growing, as Orthodox leaders contend, is a matter of dispute being argued in true Talmudic fashion.

Although Orthodox Jews account for just 6% to 10% of the United States' 5.9 million Jews, their birthrate--an average 4.2 children per family--is nearly three times higher than those of their Reform and Conservative counterparts, Orthodox leaders report. They also say a steady stream of Jews returning to observant practices is adding to their numbers.

"Just look at neighborhoods where there is Orthodox growth, and you see a demand for housing. It's because people are having more kids," Adlerstein said. "We're mushrooming."

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