A celebration 7 1/2 years in the making

When it comes to Jewish text study, Dan Fendel and Sheldon Schaffer are the equivalent of ultramarathon runners. The East Bay residents recently completed the Daf Yomi cycle — the arduous, lengthy task of reading the Talmud.

That is, the entire Talmud. All 73 volumes. All 2,711 pages. Over seven years and five months. Each day, a new page, each one crammed with microscopic lettering and commentaries from sages and scholars.

Daf Yomi is Hebrew for “a page a day, ” the traditional method of studying the Talmud for the past century. It’s a Herculean achievement of Jewish study, made all the more remarkable in this case. Fendel and Schaffer are not yeshiva-trained Hassids. Both belong to a Reform synagogue.

“It’s a real testament to the two of them,” said Rabbi Andrew Straus of Oakland’s Temple Sinai, to which both men belong, “to their commitment to ongoing study, and to developing their Jewish souls. We celebrate people who get their Ph.D. This is like getting a Jewish Ph.D.”

Dan Fendel (left) and Sheldon Schaffer study Talmud in the Temple Sinai library in Oakland.

Straus added that as far as he and many other area rabbis know, no one from the East Bay has ever completed the Daf Yomi program, at least not in recent years.

Straus and his colleagues are so thrilled, they’re throwing Fendel and Schaffer a party or, as it is properly known, a Siyum HaShas (Hebrew for “completion of the six” orders of the Talmud). The community-wide event will take place at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 2 at Sinai, with Oakland-area rabbis Mark Bloom, Michael Davies, David Cooper and Straus presenting insights into the Talmud.

Fendel and Schaffer will kick it off by reading the last couple of lines of Talmud, then talk about the Daf Yomi experience.

Congregations representing Renewal, Reform, Conservative and Orthodox communities in the East Bay are co-sponsors, and the public is invited.

Neither Fendel nor Schaffer is a Rashi-come-lately. They have engaged in Hebrew text study for years, including Talmud groups at Berkeley’s Lehrhaus Judaica and at Beth Jacob Congregation, an Orthodox synagogue in Oakland.

“I think it’s in my blood,” said Schaffer, 69, of his infatuation with Talmud. “The logic, the reasoning, the attention to detail, the humanity of it. So often there are stories of individuals and incidents that reflect a lot of compassion and humanity.”

For Schaffer, the attraction was “learning halacha [Jewish law] and getting into the arguments,” he said. “The intellectual discussion of the sages. You come to a point where you can see where the arguments are going.”

Though both men read passable biblical Hebrew, the Talmud of choice for them was the Schottenstein English edition.

Still, it wasn’t easy. Each page of Talmud includes the Mishna, or Oral Law, surrounded by the Gemara, a compilation of centuries of rabbinic discussion and argument. That’s a lot to digest.

“Talmud is very terse,” Sheldon said, “so the editors of the Schottenstein fill in a lot of words and make the sentences a lot more understandable. They include footnotes, some of them writings from the margins of the Talmud — Rashi and other sages — and some are editors’ comments.”

The Daf Yomi program is a relatively recent phenomenon (the first cycle began in 1923) made possible by improved global communications over the last century.

Dan Fendel during his 71⁄2-year quest to read the entire Talmud

The Jewish universe will mark the Siyum HaShas on Aug. 1, with an expected 90,000 happy Talmudists expected to fill MetLife Stadium in New Jersey (home of the NFL’s Giants and Jets). That event will be broadcast live to 14 countries.

Also celebrating will be Rabbi David Booth of Palo Alto’s Congregation Kol Emeth. He, too, completed the cycle and will celebrate with a siyum at his shul on Aug. 2.

Like other celebrants, Fendel and Schaffer had to work hard to get this far. They jumped into the Daf Yomi regimen some two years into the cycle, and had to do a lot of backtracking to get on schedule.

“Talmud is not the easiest thing in the world to get into,” said Fendel, who lives in Piedmont. “The first teacher I had used to say it doesn’t matter if you start in the middle. No matter where you start you’re always in the middle, because there are so many layers. You could be at page 1 of the first tractate and they make references to the 25th tractate.”

A former math professor at San Francisco State University, Fendel, 66, grew up in New York in a Conservative household where he was exposed to traditional Judaism. He traces his passion for Talmud to a year living in Israel back in the mid-1980s.

Since then he has studied with Rabbi Lawrence Kushner of San Francisco’s Congregation Emanu-El, attended one of the Union of Reform Judaism’s Kallah text immersion programs, and taken part in other Bay Area Talmud study groups. That’s how he got to know Schaffer.

A native of Phoenix, Schaffer surmises he was the only Sheldon in all of Arizona when he grew up there. He says his interest in Talmud may have started in his high school history class, when he was asked (no doubt due to his Jewish DNA)  to explain what the Talmud was all about.

“I did a terrible job,” the retired pharmaceuticals executive recalled. “Then in about 1998, a group at Temple Sinai decided to study Talmud. When the class started on [Tractate] Brachot, that really hooked me. I found learning the background of halacha really interesting.”

As for the siyum, Fendel and Schaffer give much of the credit to Beth Jacob Rabbi Judah Dardik, who insisted the two celebrate the milestone.

“He learned we were doing Daf Yomi,” Schaffer noted, “and he said ‘You must have a Siyum HaShas. For the honor of the Talmud, there must be a siyum.’ So we went to Rabbi Straus and the [Temple Sinai] ritual committee. They got excited about the project.”

Once the siyum is done, both Fendel and Schaffer have big plans when it comes to their Talmud study.

Says Schaffer, “The next day you start over.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a J. staff writer. He retired as news editor in 2020. Dan can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.