There’s a competitive, never-give-up attitude that comes from completing 26.2-mile marathons year after year. Jeff Brown and Anthony Shapiro have the added distinction of being part of the 100-plus marathon club. They’ve completed more than 110 marathons each.
So, when they learned they both were completing a different type of marathon undertaking – reading a page of Talmud every day for 7 ½ years – the competitive juices kicked in.
“There was no way I was going to let Jeff Brown finish first,” Shapiro, of Johns Creek, said of the Daf Yomi (page a day) feat. To this, study partner Brown, of East Cobb, shot back, “And vice versa.”
Both men recently reached the finish line together. They completed the central text of 2,711 double-sided pages in 2,711 days. Earlier this month, they marked the accomplishment with a Siyum HaShas (completion of the Talmud) at their respective synagogues, where they are active members and leaders: Brown at Congregation Etz Chaim Jan. 6 and Shapiro at Chabad of North Fulton Jan. 11.
Those celebrations followed one at MetLife Stadium in the New York area Jan. 1 attended by nearly 100,000 Jews. About 350,000 Jews globally are believed to have participated in the 13th cycle of the Daf Yomi movement – mostly Orthodox men. The movement dates back to 1923, created as a way to unify Jews in the growing diaspora.
Of his congregant’s accomplishment, Rabbi Daniel Dorsch said, “Jeff’s remarkable achievement proves that the wisdom of the Talmud is today accessible to all Jews willing to dedicate themselves toward its study, regardless of their affiliation.” Brown is a former Etz Chaim vice president of fundraising, and previously, of religion.
Shapiro’s rabbi, Hirshy Minkowicz, said, “Our community is absolutely honored and proud to be part of this experience with our gabbai [Torah service manager] and leader making a Siyum (completion) on the entire Talmud as part of the Daf Yomi program.”
Shapiro and Brown met in 2015 on the course of the Jerusalem Marathon. “He was speeding past me,” Shapiro said of Brown. They didn’t see each other again until several months later at another marathon in Manitowoc, Wisc., where they learned that they were both participating in Daf Yomi.
Brown decided to take on the daunting task after returning from an Etz Chaim congregational trip to Israel with his family, where he also celebrated his eldest daughter’s bat mitzvah. “I came back and wanted to deepen my understanding of Judaism … to see how I can prolong the wonderful feeling I had when I was there.”
The 12th Siyum was gaining a lot of attention at the time, he said, adding that he was also inspired by Matisyahu’s song, “Jerusalem.”
For Shapiro, the journey began with a chance encounter at a bar mitzvah with his rabbi’s brother-in-law, who was looking for a particular volume of the Talmud for his Daf Yomi studies. Shapiro had four, one of which happened to be the volume needed. “I had been gifted it seven years before. … It was divine intervention. I learned a page with him, and I decided the next day” to continue the effort.
Although Shapiro started out 150 to 160 pages behind at that point, “I knew I’d have seven years to catch up,” he said.
Brown listened every morning for 45 minutes to a podcast of the shiur, which translates and explains each page, while “unloading the dishwasher, making the coffee and taking the dog for a walk around the block,” he said.
For the first 3 1/2 years, Shapiro studied from the text about an hour a day with Hebrew-to-English translations. When he learned how Brown was studying, he switched his routine by reading a page one day and the next day, listening to the same podcast as Brown on the commute to work.
The study buddies especially enjoy comparing notes. “When we are inspired by something interesting, we get together to discuss,” typically through text messages, Brown said.
It’s what pushed Shapiro along, he said, knowing that Brown was also reading the same pages and listening to the same shiur. He compared the process to training for and running a marathon. “It’s step by step. This is page by page.”
While Shapiro is part of a more traditional congregation, he’s only the second person to complete the Daf Yomi in his synagogue. There were six or seven who started together, but he was the only who finished, he said.
For Brown, the accomplishment stressed for him “the continuity of the Jewish people. I felt much closer to my ancestors. … I feel like we were all having conversations together” by studying what rabbis studied thousands of years ago.
Shapiro said he was in awe of the brilliant, analytical minds he learned from that debated and dissected the Torah. “Just to know we are still learning what they were talking about 3,000 and 4,000 years ago … it’s the reason we are such a strong nation.”
Minkowicz shared similar sentiments. “I don’t know of another cause in Judaism that has been able to pull together a gathering of over 100,000 Jews for one event in the same week that 25,000 Jews gathered to march in solidarity by crossing the Brooklyn Bridge united as one following the machete terrorist attack in Monsey, N.Y. There were over 100,000 that gathered to celebrate Jewish solidarity through the study of Torah”