Talmud celebration in NJ both serious and joyous

In a sports stadium transformed into what was called the world's largest synagogue, tens of thousands of people celebrated the completion of the reading of the Talmud, the book of Jewish laws and traditions.

The program at MetLife Stadium on Wednesday night combined a festive atmosphere of singing and dancing with more the serious pursuits of prayer and reflection; it was dedicated to the victims of the Holocaust.

"Tonight is a night of inspiration and opportunity," Rabbi Elly Kleimnan told the gathering.

Rabbis from around the world addressed the audience during the five-hour program, and speeches and prayers in Hebrew and English were streamed by audio and video throughout the stadium's concourses.

The celebration, called Siyum HaShas, marks the completion of the Daf Yomi, or daily reading and study of one page of the 2,711-page book. The cycle takes about seven and a half years to finish.

Organizers marked the start of the 13th cycle of study and reading. The event was organized by Agudath Israel of America, an Orthodox Jewish organization. It started celebrating the cycle of study in Europe in 1923.

Thousands of folding chairs and white plastic flooring transformed the stadium's playing field. A dais was built for about 500 rabbis.

A massive mechitzah, or divider that separates men and women during prayers, encircled the upper deck of the stadium, where women were seated. Its curtains were drawn during prayers and opened when they were over.

Women in the upper deck prayed from prayer books, listened intently to speeches and took cell phone videos of the gathering. Men rushed around the stadium's hallways and field when not praying.

A little more than midway through the celebration, the rabbis sang Siman Tov and Mazel Tov, a song of celebration. Attendees danced, swayed in the stands and formed large circles on the field. Rabbis on the dais draped their arms around one another and sang into microphones while rocking from side to side.

The celebration was the largest celebration to date, officials said, with more than 90,000 tickets sold and simulcasts taking place at more than 100 locations worldwide.

It cost about $4 million, said Rabbi Yosef C. Golding, executive director of the Rofeh Cholim Cancer Society in Brooklyn, N.Y., who was in charge of logistics. Most of the money was raised from sales of tickets, which ranged from $18 to $1,000.

The program helped unite thousands of people worldwide who are studying the same page each day, said Rabbi Gedaliah Weinberger, chairman of the Daf Yomi Commission at Agudath Israel.

"In a certain sense it helps unite everyone, because you have these many thousands of people, tens of thousands of people, who are each studying the same page at any given day," Rabbi Weinberger said. "Someone could be from a different city, a different school, a different country. They have a lot to talk about. That was part of the original intent."

Col. Rick Fuentes, superintendent of the New Jersey State Police, said about 600 state police and members of 71 agencies worked at the event.

Fuentes said troopers completed an eight-hour course where they were familiarized with the stadium and learned about the customs of the Jewish community.