As the Siyum HaShas approaches, I want to recall for readers something that came to light after the last siyum in 2005. I quote here the words of Rabbi Josh Spinner of the Beit Midrash ofBerlin, written in May 2005, concerning the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe that had then just opened inBerlin. The memorial consists of 2,711 concrete rectangular pillars, or stelae, with heights varying from less than a meter to four meters. Rabbi Spinner wrote:
I attended the opening of the Berlin Memorial yesterday, and asked the architect, Peter Eisenman, whether indeed the number 2,711 was incidental. He responded that it was not only incidental but accidental. The number of columns intended at the site was much higher, but was reduced due to various considerations. He was shocked and amazed when I told him that the number of pages in the Talmud is none other than precisely 2,711. He asked for verification. I rushed to the business center of a nearby hotel and printed out several articles about the recent Siyum Hashas and gave them to Eisenman.…
Some five kilometers away from the Berlin Memorial, in a corner of the Beis Midrash of our Yeshiva, late in the evening after night Seder (study session) and Maariv (evening services), a small group joined the new cycle of Daf Yomi a few weeks ago. This is the first Daf Yomi chabura in Berlin in…, well, we all know in at least how many years.
The numerical correspondence is, of course, astounding enough. But I also came across an essay by Roann Barris, aVirginiaprofessor of art history, in which Professor Barris notes several particular features of these stelae:
[T]he experience of this memorial, noted Eisenman, was one which would not be predictable or knowable. His description is accurate. Although the space of the memorial is not overwhelming in scale, the instability of the ground and unpredictability of the heights of the stelae interact to frustrate understanding of the space.… The stelae, which look relatively uniform in photographs, impress one with their variability up close. Perhaps even more disorienting is the fact that there are no written cues or symbols of any sort.
Substituting “dapim” for “stelae,” the parallels become quite uncanny. The bletter of Shas do, indeed, look relatively uniform to the uninitiated, but up close they are seen for what they really are: variable in the extreme. Learning Gemara can certainly be disorienting, and for the relative beginner, that has much to do with “the fact that there are no written cues or symbols of any sort,” making a cursory reading a confounding experience.
But, of course, the more advanced learner has his own challenges. Often, one lacks the basic information to navigate the sugya, creating the sensation that the very ground on which he walks through the daf is unstable. At other times, it isn’t so much a lack of background knowledge that disorients, but rather that the shakla v’tarya, the thread of hermeneutic give-and-take, can rise to such dizzying heights of complexity. Ultimately, it is the confluence of the Gemara’s brevity and its complexity that “interact to frustrate understanding.”
Every Siyum HaShas since the 1970s had been dedicated to the memory of the kedoshim of Churban Europa. That’s because, as Chazal teach, “we don’t make monuments for tzadikkim; their words are their memorial.” And so, the Berlin Memorial’s 2,711 pillars remain an astonishing reality, one that conveys some sense of consolation, a whisper from On High of “Imo Anochi b’tzarah.” But as memorials go, they don’t come close to even a solitary Jew sitting in an empty beis medrash, struggling with today’s daf.