Rav Belsky’s Daf Yomi

One of the many shiurim that our rosh yeshivah, Rav Yisroel Belsky zt”l, gave in Yeshiva Torah Vodaas was his daily Daf Yomi shiur, which took place during the lunch-time break from 1:15 p.m. till Mincha at 1:50 p.m. He gave this shiur for close to half a century and it was very precious and important to him. I had the zechus to be a part of the shiur for the past thirty-three years and would like to share some memories of and insights into the greatness of Rav Belsky.

The eighth Siyum Hashas of Daf Yomi took place in November, 1982. It was the last Siyum attended by Rav Yaakov Kamenetzky zt”l. In his keynote address, Rav Yaakov revealed that although he had completed Shas many times, this was the first time that he had done so with the cycle of Daf Yomi. He even expressed the wish that “If Hashem will grant me years, I hope to complete the next cycle with Tosafos.” (This was not to be, as he passed away midway through the next cycle.)

Rav Yaakov added that he didn’t see why bnei Torah and kollel yungeleit could not devote a half hour to an hour a day to learn Daf Yomi. That would help them become familiar with the length and breadth of Shas, and not be limited to the yeshiva masechtos commonly studied.

I remember thinking that this would be something worth considering, although I was amazed by the suggestion that the Daf could be covered in a half-hour a day. Nevertheless, two months into the next cycle, after the completion of Maseches Brachos, I became a father for the first time. The kollel had learned Maseches Shabbos that previous year, and so, to mark this great milestone in my life as well as to review what I had studied, I decided to join the Daf Yomi and began to attend Rav Belsky’s daily lunchtime shiur.

Rav Belsky was then a young man in his mid-40s. His involvement in the myriad needs of Klal Yisroel that occupied so much of his time later in life had not yet begun. He had the time and menuchas hanefesh to prepare for this shiur, and it was fascinating to see how much Torah knowledge could be compressed into those thirty minutes.

During the summer months, he served as rov and manhig ruchani of Camp Agudah and the head of its Masmidim program. The Daf Yomi shiur continued unabated every night at 10 p.m., camp time. There, in the rarefied atmosphere of the Catskill Mountains, and with no pressure to complete the Daf in thirty minutes, the shiur took on a broader and deeper format.

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With the passing of the Torah giants of the previous generation, like Rav Moshe Feinstein zt”l and Rav Yaakov Kamenetzky zt”l, Rav Belsky assumed more and more responsibilities for the klal, in addition to his main position as a rosh yeshiva in the Torah Vodaas bais medrash. Although he “barely had a minute to breathe,” as he often said, the lunch-time Daf Yomi was sacrosanct and it continued daily.

There was a small group of talmidim, myself included, who faithfully attended every day. Most of us spent either first or second seder learning the Daf before or after Rav Belsky’s shiur. It was truly amazing to observe how Rav Belsky skillfully navigated the great Sea of Talmud. It made no difference if it was the relatively familiar masechtos of Moed, the more lomdishe yeshivishe masechtos of Noshim and Nezikin, or the difficult, intricate masechtos of Kodshim. The Gemara was so fluent to Rav Belsky, as if he had just learned it.

He had the incomparable skill of being able to condense a lengthy sugya (which would normally entail a dozen shiurim) into one precise synopsis. The many Gemaros that required scientific knowledge of the cosmos and astronomy were clearly explained. When an unfamiliar Gemara word was reached, Rav Belsky often discussed the etymology of it. He showed us how many ancient Greek and Aramaic words were still in usage in the English language, albeit in slightly different format and pronunciation.

Dikduk was his specialty, and instead of quickly glossing over such Gemaros, he explained the rules in a simplified manner that made it understandable. He knew Novi verbatim – even the ones rarely studied, and if a posuk from a haftarah was quoted, he sang the words with the trop (cantillations). He was an expert in history and brought to life the many stories told in Shas about the various Tana’im and Amora’im and explained the backdrop and the overall picture of that period.

There are many Gemaros that discuss ancient methods of agriculture, farm life and botany, and we were thrilled to hear clear definitions of what tools were used and how they worked. Rav Belsky constructed a number of models and drew detailed pictures of how these long-extinct tools functioned. It was remarkable to understand the evolution of crude hand utensils of fifteen centuries ago into the modern tools that we are all familiar with today.

Rav Belsky taught us that nothing in Shas is irrelevant. The techniques and methodology may have changed dramatically, but the Chachmei HaTalmud had not composed an antiquated book. Everything Shas contains could be applied somehow to present-day living.

Rav Belsky was a master in understanding the many facets of the Mishkan, the Bais Hamidkosh and the various korbanos offered there. The halachos were on his fingertips, down to the smallest details. How could a Jew believe that the arrival of Moshiach was imminent and not be prepared to supervise, teach (and, if he is a kohein, perform) the service of the Bais Hamikdosh?

Rav Belsky was a renowned expert in another sorely neglected part of Torah, Seder Taharos. The rules and guidelines of purity and impurity were on the tip of his tongue, although most are not in effect in our time. The complicated rules, as well as the many exceptions to the rules, were made much more understandable and easier to remember due to his crystal-clear explanations.

When the Daf reached the parts of Maseches Chullin and elsewhere that discuss the anatomy of livestock and the various illnesses and fatal defects that would make an animal a treifah and unfit for consumption, he did not only explain the science of the topic. He would bring in his little black medical pouch containing his collection of razor-sharp scalpels and scissors and perform a dissection of a ben pekua (full-term fetus) baby calf on his classroom desk. He would remove his rabbinic frock, roll up his sleeves, don a plastic apron and disposable gloves, and give us a “tour” of the anatomy of a kosher animal. He also showed us which parts of the cheilev (forbidden fats) had to be traibered (removed) and how to traiber properly. These “shows” would take place once or twice a year, usually in coordination with his Yoreh Deah semichah shiur. They would attract dozens of talmidim who stood by for an hour or longer in amazement at the incomparable, vast knowledge of Rav Belsky.

The many stories recorded in Shas presented fertile ground for Rav Belsky’s skills as a darshan (master orator). With a constant eye on the clock, he would relate snippets of some of his famous drashos and insights derived from the wisdom of the sages. He spiced these insights with stories from his own life, and incidents about his own great rabbeim and the rabbonim he was close to. Counted among them were Rav Moshe, Rav Yaakov, Rav Reuven Grozovsky, Rav Gedalya Schorr, Rav Eliezer Silver, Rav Yaakov Teitelbaum (his predecessor as manhig ruchani at Camp Agudah), Rav Yisroel Chaim Kaplan (the mashgiach of Bais Medrash Elyon) and, of course, his zaide, Rav Binyomin Wilhelm, the founder of Torah Vodaas.

When the Gemara discussed topics of food production and the like, he would share anecdotes of his decades-long experience in kashrus supervision, including his positions at the Chof-K and, for the past three decades, at the OU.

He related how he had supervised the building of one of the first machine matzah bakeries in post-Communist Russia. When the Gemara dealt with wine production, he would explain the intricacies of present-day wine-making and the problems and solutions to making it kosher.

The many Gemaros discussing the guidelines of dinei Torah and the court system brought out remarks on how to properly establish a bais din and how to avoid some of the major issues that plague this institution today.

For just about a third of a century, I had the zechus to be part of Rav Belsky’s Daf Yomi shiur. The memories abound and the sense of loss is so great. Who can replace such a person who knew so much, loved to teach, and will always serve as an inspiration of the heights a Jew can attain in the endless pursuit of Torah knowledge?