Friday, October 19, 2007

Yarzheit - R' Meir Shapira

Today is the yarzheit of the founder of 'daf yomi', Rav Meir Shapira. Although the idea of daf yomi met with some opposition, with hindsight we can see the tremendous amount of Torah learning by people of all stripes that R' Shapira brought into the world. Although a simple idea, it needed the right person at the right time (and probably needed Artscroll to come out with the English translation before it really took off) to implement such a program.


Rabbi Meir Shapira of Lublin, the founding Rosh Yeshivas Chachmei Lublin and an esteemed luminary of his generation across the world of Jewish study, proposed a universal calendar for studying the entire Talmud Bavli (Babylonian Talmud) on the basis of a double page a day, for 2711 days, thus completing the cycle in about 7 years. He did so to foster Jewish learning, commitment and unity, and he launched the project at the First World Congress of Agudath Yisrael, in Vienna, on 11th September 1923 (5683), from where it spread to leading yeshivot and religious authorities.

This amazingly simple concept took off immediately in E. Europe and only post-war around the world – being officially adopted in the pre-state Yishuv in 1947, as well as in the USA, Canada and Great Britain - learning in yeshivot, informal groups, formal shiurim and hevrutot. The eleventh and current cycle ends on 21st Adar I, 5765 (1st-2nd March 2005) and there is a celebratory siyum in Tel Aviv on 1st March (Hebrew, Yiddish) and in Jerusalem on 2nd March (English, Russian).

Today, audio cassettes, online streamed, live, or downloadable video, audio with text classes/files, email lists, CDs, conference calls, discussion boards, Palm versions, ShasPod, and the like, make the Daf Yomi available to the widest ever audience worldwide in several languages - with the majority of such online resources being free of charge (donations are usually welcome!). You can naturally still attend real live shiurim, some of them also web-casted or web-published, but the convenience of access to online or offline shiurim in digital and recorded formats has revolutionized the Daf Yomi for commuters, students, and busy individuals worldwide. If you travel on the Inwood Long Island Railroad to Manhattan early enough in the morning, you can even follow a live lesson on wheels.


Rabbi Yehuda Meir Shapira was born in March 1887. His father was Rabbi Yaakov Shimshon of Schatz (Bukovina), son of Rabbi Yehuda Meir, son of Rabbi Dov of Tlost, son of Rabbi Yehuda Meir of Shpitovka, son of the famous tzaddik and friend of Besht (the founder of Chassidism), Rabbi Pinchus of Kuritz, a descendant of Rabbi Natan Shapira, author of Megalah Amukot of Cracow. In his youth, he caused a stir in the world of the Torah with his wisdom and great knowledge. This is confirmed by the great sage, Rabbi Shalom Mordechai Svedron of Berzan, in the ordination certificate he issued for the Rabbi Meir, in which he writes, “I saw a young man named Meir and I offered the blessing Yotzer Ha'meorot (creator of the lights).”

Rabbi Shapira had studied with his maternal grandfather, Rabbi Shmuel Yitzhak Schor of Munstritz, author of Minchat Shai, mastering all aspects of Torah and knowledge; soon he became known as a great scholar. A wealthy Galician Jew named Rabbi Yaakov David Breitman of Tarnopol gave him his daughter's hand in marriage.

He became totally dedicated to the study of Torah at his comfortable home in Tarnopol. In a short time the “genius of Schatz” became one of the leading lights of his generation. His home became a meeting place for rabbis and scholars who would direct their questions to him; his answers always hit the mark and were accepted favorably, which drew much attention to him. He was seen as a rising star in the world of Halacha, and he proceeded to publish his first book, Imrey Daat. Around that time he was offered the position of rabbi of the town of Galina in Galicia and he quickly accepted it, although his in-laws were against his becoming a servant of the community. In Galina he continued to learn Torah and tried to start a school for children and a yeshiva for young men. The neglected town became a center of Torah. His first yeshiva in Galina, which he headed, became a source of famous rabbis who followed in his footsteps.

But Rabbi Shapira's restless spirit would not let him remain in Galina. He became a public champion of Torah and faith, and in public gatherings he raised his voice against the neglect of young people and proclaimed himself spiritual father to the yeshiva students who, because of lack of attention, were condemned to waste away. He had labored successfully in Galina for ten years, but he started to feel that the place was too small for him; in 1922 he became rabbi in Sanok.

Public Leader and Delegate to the Sejm

In Sanok he also found much to do. Here, too, he did a great deal for the community, and his fame increased. Legends spread about his dynamic personality. He became a member of Agudath Israel and did a great deal for that movement. From Sanok he was often invited to appear on the podium on behalf of Poland's religious Jewry, as a speaker, he fired up the masses. He was chosen to head Agudath Israel and was elected delegate to the Polish Sejm (parliament).

On Adar 16, 1924, he was chosen rabbi of the great town of Piotrkow, which boasted many sages and writers, devoted Jews and Jewish scholars. In 1923 he had proposed at a great assembly of Agudath Israel in Vienna the study of a “daily page” of Talmud and the establishment of universal yeshiva; both proposals were received with loud applause.

When Rabbi Shapira became the rabbi of Piotrkow, he was only 37 years old; not since the days of the Gaon author of Brit Avraham, who had become rabbi of Piotrkow at a young age, had anyone been appointed so young to serve as a rabbi of a town that had known so many great rabbis and sages. He served as rabbi of the town whiles spending most of his time away because of his frequent trips on behalf of the Lublin Sages Yeshiva, which he had organized. But his leadership was felt in Piotrkow, as he was dedicated to his work in the community. This imprint was felt in all matters, great and small. His fiery sermons inspired people, and he became extremely popular; his speeches always drew an overflow crowd.

Head of the Lublin Sages Yeshiva

Rabbi Shapira's crowning achievement was the establishment of the Lublin Sages Yeshiva (Yeshivat Chochmei Lublin). He brought together exemplary people, old Chassidim, heads of Orthodox Jewry and public leaders who proceeded to establish the great yeshiva which was his life's dream. The Piotrkow community gave him a great deal of help. Many of its communal leaders supported him because of his great influence and their admiration for him. While serving as rabbi in Piotrkow, he was fortunate enough to see his dreams fulfilled, and even took part in the first conclusion of Talmudic study (siyum), which occurred on the 15th of Shvat, 1934. He was able to teach Torah to his students after the foundation was laid for the great building of the yeshiva, an event that was joyously celebrated at his home in Piotrkow. It took seven years to complete the building; he worked day and night raising funds for the cause. In his short life he was able to see this project completed.

In 1926, Rabbi Shapira published his responsa book Or Hameir, a second edition of which was published by his brother in New York in 1951. In Iyar, 1931 he became president of the rabbinical court in Lublin and moved to that city, having served in Piotrkow for six years. His many cares gave him no rest after he settled in Lublin, and he would often tell his friends that he missed his rabbinical position in Piotrkow. Because of his difficult work in Lublin he became prematurely old, and despite his young age his hair turned gray. He suddenly took ill and on the 7th of Heshvan, 1934, after living in Lublin for two and a half years, he departed this world at the age of 46 and eight months. Nearly one hundred thousand people attended his funeral, and religious Jewry in Poland and elsewhere went into deep mourning.

May His Soul Be Bound in the Bonds of Eternal Life

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