Hadran Alach – “We will return to you”
Siyyum HaShas was marked in January through communal and mega-events all over the world, as well as Hadran’s historic first siyyum for women at Jerusalem’s Convention Center. The significance of concluding a seven-and-a-half-year cycle of study covering all six orders of the Talmud also resonated intensely throughout the entire Ohr Torah Stone network as five of the network’s students celebrated their first siyyum – a 17-year-old girl, a 17-year-old-boy, a hesder student and a married couple preparing for shlichut.
A historic first took place at OTS’s Neveh Channah High School for girls as 17-year-old Hila Schlakman became the youngest girl ever to complete the entire seven-and-a-half-year cycle of the Babylonian Talmud’s 2,711 pages.
In a number of interviews, the high school senior displayed tremendous knowledge and devotion as she eloquently explained concepts like Shas, Talmud and daf yomi, and fielded difficult questions ranging from the relevance of studying ancient tomes in modern times to her feelings as a teenaged girl studying a male-centric work that could be interpreted as misogynistic.
“Hila’s achievement by every account is tremendous, and her discipline, dedication and commitment to the daf yomi on top of her high school career and youth group activities is exceptional. She stands as a role model to her peers and to our entire community, and her ability to convey her love of Torah to mainstream media was nothing less than a Kiddush Hashem,” said OTS President and Rosh HaYeshiva Rabbi Kenneth Brander.
“With the celebration of the completion of each chapter of each tractate, we recite a ‘Hadran’ prayer, indicating our desire to return to the chapter to further develop our understanding of our law and those who came before us,” noted Rabbi Brander. “Hila will undoubtedly continue her own learning, but she has also inspired countless others to do so, as well.”
“The Torah is reflected in you”
Neveh Channah headmaster Rabbi Dr. Ronen Ben David also referred to the Hadran prayer in his remarks at a seudat mitzva (the celebratory meal following the fulfillment of a mitzva) that Neveh Channah hosted for Schlakman in the presence of her family, the faculty, and the entire student body.
“In a few minutes you’ll make your siyyum on the final masechet of the order – which in your case is also on the entire Shas,” he said. “In the siyyum text we say the words ‘hadran alach – we’ll return to you, but we also say ‘hadrach alan,’ – which means that something in the glory and light of the Torah is shining back on us,” Ben David explained. “There’s something so beautiful about the fact that you are so completely and utterly embarrassed about this public honor,” he joked, referring to Hila’s modesty, maturity and lack of pretension. “It adds something almost magical to your achievement. You didn’t do this for any reason other than true love of learning and despite everything, you have remained sweet and pure and wonderful. That is ‘hadrach alan,'” he said. “The values of the Torah are reflected in you.”
Before making her siyyum, Schlakman also shared a few words. “I didn’t begin to study the daf yomi in order to express an opinion or take a stand,” she said. “For me, it was just a time that I devoted to learning Torah with my little brother and my father, and then with my sister and my grandfather, both of whom joined at a later stage. Gradually, the learning became an important and meaningful part of my daily life – and I think that’s exactly what daf yomi is supposed to be. Learning is always integrated in my life, not necessarily because I strive to make it my vocation, but because it’s part and parcel of my life as a Jewish woman, whether I end up being a doctor, an engineer, a teacher, or anything else. I think that is part of the beauty, that the Torah is always part of our life.
“Through this experience,” continued Hila, “I came to understand more about the foundation of our religion and some of the ideas on which our everyday halakha is based. I learned to respect those who came before me, and at the same time to develop ideas and thoughts that suit me and our times,” she said. “I learned to wrestle with profound and complex issues and to seek a deeper meaning, an additional layer, even in matters that seem irrelevant or dull. I learned from our sages that a true leader is not afraid to admit his shortcomings and try to improve, that it’s okay to make mistakes or admit that I don’t know. That it is important to stand firm on what I believe in, but at the same time, that the real challenge is to listen to others and learn from them.”
Schlakman’s siyyum at Neveh Channah nearly didn’t take place “because of Hila’s modesty,” revealed her Talmud teacher, Rabbi Rafi Ostroff. “How did we convince her? On your behalf. For all of you students sitting here who can also learn from her example of steady determination. And yes, each one of you can also conquer that summit.”
Leaders and Role Models
This cycle of daf yomi study was also completed by four other students currently studying in the OTS network. Eleventh-grader Yehonatan Gershoni made his siyyum in front of his friends and the faculty of Neveh Shmuel Yeshiva, and Netanel Levi, a fifth-year student at the Robert M. Beren Machanaim Hesder Yeshiva, likewise finished his last tractate amidst his peers and his teachers.
Meanwhile, in OTS’s Straus-Amiel emissary-training program, a joint siyyum was hosted for Tehila and Yehoshua Shadiel – two individuals who started learning the daf yomi on their own seven-and-a-half years ago, but completed it as a married couple and the parents of two young children.
“I decided to start learning daf yomi while a student at Bar Ilan,” related Tehila. “I was learning in the university’s midrasha about the importance of the Oral Law and something that Rav Yochanan said in tractate Gittin really struck me, that ‘God made a covenant with the Jewish people only for the sake of the matters that were transmitted orally.’ I understood that it’s the Oral Law that connects us to God, and I wanted to be part of that covenant.”
Though Tehila, 29, had never before studied Talmud, she embarked upon the daily ritual, which eventually became such an intrinsic part of her life that it serves as a reference point for major life cycle events and milestones. “Yehoshua and I met at the end of tractate Eruvin,” she said. “When we got engaged, we celebrated with a joint siyyum of tractate Pesachim, and our children’s births were likewise marked with a siyyum.”
“Although we learned separately, knowing that the other spouse is also doing daf yomi gives greater motivation to continue, especially when it’s difficult – and with a growing family, it was sometimes very difficult,” shared Tehila. “The fact that there is a framework and a pace to keep up with means that you cannot stop. Now it’s a steady part of my daily routine which would be lacking if I were to stop,” she said.
“The fact that both of us are engaged in it also adds a deeper facet to our relationship,” said Yitzchak. “Where many couples speak at the end of the day about life matters, our daily discourse also includes what we learned that day. That extra common ground provides a very strong feeling.”
The Shadiels are being trained at OTS to serve as diaspora emissaries. Yitzchak points out that the Talmud is rife with discussion, arguments and opinions, and says that “this complexity helps one understand Am Yisrael in general, and perhaps will also help us in our perspective when we go abroad and become acquainted with approaches that we haven’t been familiar with until now.”
Tehila added, “Of course, when we go abroad, our learning will contribute to the mission. Not only the practical information that I attain, but the idea of empowering other women and giving them tools they can use to enhance their relationship with Hashem. That is what I hope to convey to others – how much Torah study can add to their lives.”
“The mother of the seminaries”
Another thing for which this particular cycle of daf yomi will be remembered is the fact that its conclusion was marked by the very first Siyyum HaShas event for women, Hadran, which took place on January 5th at Binyanei HaUma, the Jerusalem Convention Center.
Among the 3,300 participants were students from Midreshet Lindenbaum, which bears the nickname “eim hamidrashot” – the mother of the seminaries – in recognition of its pioneering role in flinging open the doors of the beit midrash for Israeli women. Midreshet Lindenbaum was proud to be one of the event’s sponsors, at which Rabbanit Devorah Evron, director of OTS’s Susi Bradfield Women’s Institute of Halakhic Leadership (WIHL) was one of the nine women to make a personal siyyum Shas onstage, and second year WIHL fellow, Moriah Taasan-Michaeli, was one of the evening’s speakers. Rabbi Ohad Teharlev, director of Midreshet Lindenbaum’s Israeli programs, was responsible for producing the day of learning that took place prior to the event, at which women from all over the world had the opportunity to learn from incredible scholars.
Midreshet Lindenbaum student Joy Cheskin of Palo Alto, CA articulately captured some of the overwhelming feelings of the day: “For much of modern Jewish history, Talmud study for women was unthinkable. Even a few decades ago, women’s Talmud learning opportunities were still rare,” she recounted. “But last Sunday, we joined thousands of Jewish women at a major Jerusalem pavilion for the first women’s Siyyum HaShas celebration. We are humbled by the incredible advancements made in the past years in Jewish learning and immensely grateful to women of previous generations, whom we can thank for the incredible opportunities we now have to study high-level Gemara at Midreshet Lindenbaum and elsewhere.”
Indeed, the enthusiasm and exhilaration at Hadran were palpable – and contagious. “Energized by the siyyum,” continued Cheskin, “we renewed our commitment and dedication to our learning, whether by joining the next daf yomi cycle, picking up a new learning project, or committing to deepened engagement in our classes.”
The Gift of Inspiring Others
As Hila Schlakman’s Neveh Channah siyyum drew to a close, school principal Rabbi Nechemia Krakover revealed, “When we first talked to Hila about having this siyyum and seudat mitzva she was embarrassed, but I told her, ‘Hila, you’re not the issue. Torah is the issue. The goal is not to embarrass you, but to provide inspiration to your schoolmates.’ So we have decided that as a school we are going to undertake to complete a tractate, together, by the time Purim comes. This will be a gift inspired by Hila as well as in her honor,” Krakover announced.
“In fact,” said Rabbi Brander, “we understand that several of Hila, Yonatan, Netanel, Tehila and Yehoshua’s peers have been inspired to start the new daf yomi cycle. We are so proud and privileged as an educational network to have so many students displaying this kind of desire, discipline and dedication. May they continue to grow in their Torah learning and serve as exemplary role models of Jewish scholarship and values as they mature into the leaders of tomorrow.”
Related articles that appeared in English
- “Orthodox Women Seek Bigger Role as Jews End Talmud Cycle” – Associated Press article, including interview with OTS President and Rosh HaYeshiva Rabbi Dr. Kenneth Brander
- “A Revolution in Jewish Learning, with Women Driving Change” New York Times article including interview with Rabbanit Devorah Evron, director of OTS’s Susi Bradfield Women’s Institute of Halakhic Leadership
- “Hila Schlakman finishes daily Talmud learning cycle, may be youngest woman yet” – Jewish News Syndicate
- “At 17, I’m the youngest woman to complete the Shas” – Oped by Hila Schlakman