Three decades ago, Rabbi Mendy Cohen decided to study Torah. Seven years ago, he decided to read the entire Talmud — 2,711 pages to be exact. Last week, he turned the last page, and it was time to party.
That day a siyyum celebration was held to mark Cohen’s accomplishment.
Cohen, who with his wife, Dinie, founded Chabad of Greater Sacramento in 1994, studied with a group of three to eight students every evening. The daily learning culminated in his completion of the Babylonian Talmud.
Inspired by his student Harry Weiss, Cohen said, “Harry was the amazing driving force, and his tenacity drove me to this study.” He also noted that Weiss has completed the entire Talmud — an undertaking known as daf yomi (page of the day) — several times. With daf yomi, individuals don’t simply read, but study a page of Torah each day along with its commentary, or Gemara. The process takes seven years to complete.
In talking about the accomplishment, Cohen shared a story from 30 years ago involving the late Lubavitcher Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, known to his followers as “the Rebbe.”
“I was 18 years old, and I was at the Rebbe’s farbrengen [gathering],” he recalled. “As is customary, I lifted up a small cup of wine to wish the Rebbe l’chaim. The Rebbe acknowledged the person on my right and the person on my left, but not me. I stood up as tall as I could, but again, the Rebbe nodded to the people around me, but not me. I felt that I needed to do something, so I put down my head and thought for a moment. On the spot, I decided to learn the entire tractate of Ketubot, which we were studying in yeshivah at that time.”
When Cohen lifted his head, the Rebbe turned to him and wished him l’chaim velivrachah (life and blessings). “This is what got me started,” Cohen said, “and this is what keeps me motivated and focused.”
Of note at siyyum was that keynote speaker Rabbi Joel Zeff traveled all the way from his new home in Israel to support his colleague and friend. Zeff is a Sacramento native and former rabbi of Kenesset Israel Torah Center in that city.
The siyyum also honored Rick Brodovsky for completing his study of the Tanach, or Hebrew Bible. Motivated to study when he was hospitalized, Brodovsky read the 24 books of the Tanach and the five books of the Torah, an “amazing journey,” Cohen noted. When he introduced him, Cohen said, “Rick always says, ‘The one thing I got from the Tanach is a love of God for the Jewish people.’”
The opening remarks at the siyyum came from Cohen’s uncle, Rabbi Naftoli Estulin, who studied Torah in a basement in his native Russia, always fearful of being caught by the KGB.
“With the Jewish people, the main thing is action,” Estulin said. Directing his comments toward his nephew, he added, “I always knew you were a scholar and a chesed [a loving and kind person]. You made Sacramento and the area around Sacramento come together.”
Cohen and Brodovsky reportedly were recognized for their achievements with resolutions from the state Assembly, prompting the rabbi to joke, “At the end of the Torah, it says, ‘Go build a temple.’ The government of California says, ‘Keep on studying.’”