Devoting hours of intense study every day to his regular course load, a 19-year-old boy from Toronto has accomplished in the astonishing time of three years what most adults spend their whole lives attempting. But ask Chabad-Lubavitch yeshiva student Shaya Zirkind what secret allowed him to learn the entire Talmud and he’s surprisingly down to earth in his answer: go to bed early, wake up refreshed, and take each day at a time.

“It actually took longer than three years,” Zirkind, a student at Tomchei Tmimim-Chovevei Torah, remarked on Friday, two days before the Brooklyn, N.Y., yeshiva would celebrate his accomplishment during a day of study billed as a spiritual preparation for the holiday of Shavuot one week later. “I first had to learn how to learn.”

In that respect, Zirkind, whose father is a ritual scribe and mother is an educator and international speaker, has been working toward the goal his entire life. The fact of the matter is that the Talmud is a complex compendium of Jewish legal decisions, historical material and extra-legal teachings whose style and language – most of it is written in Aramaic – makes mastering it difficult. Amounting to 2,711 double-sided pages of text when accompanied by its standard commentaries, it takes an individual learning one page a day seven years to complete.

“When I started, it certainly was a dream,” said Zirkind. “At first, I just sat down to learn the first masechta,” or section, which is known by the title of Berachot.

“Then I learned another, and another,” continued Zirkind, who studied the material along with the medieval commentaries authored by Rashi and the Tosafists. “It wasn’t until the last year that I realized that I might actually finish it.”

Chovevei Torah director Rabbi Mendel Blau said that his student has been an inspiration to his classmates, and that his story is beginning to inspire Jews around the globe. He noted that Zirkind saw his studies as a supplement to his regular yeshiva work, not as a replacement.

“He gets up early every day to pore over the material for an hour before the entire yeshiva meets to study Chasidic thought,” explained Blau, who is testing Zirkind daily on the material in four or five pages at a time. “All of his free time is spent studying the Talmud, and he can be seen in the study hall on vacation days with his books.

Shaya Zirkind, 19, formally finishes his study of the entire Talmud during a celebratory meal in Crown Heights.
Shaya Zirkind, 19, formally finishes his study of the entire Talmud during a celebratory meal in Crown Heights.

“We’ve had students that were on their way to completing this feat,” he added, “but this is the first time during my tenure that a student has completed the entire Talmud while still in yeshiva.”

Jewish congregations stretching from Florida to California and overseas marveled at the accomplishment during Sabbath morning services Saturday. Rabbi Chaim Mentz, director of Chabad of Bel Air, Calif., spoke about it from the pulpit and urged his congregants to internalize what it means for a Jewish person of any age – let alone a teenager – to devote his time to holy pursuits.

“This week, everybody is talking about a young kid making billions of dollars with Facebook,” said Mentz. “But here is a kid who is literally living what it means to be part of the People of the Book by keeping his face in the book. The Torah has become a part of this boy and his accomplishment should spur everyone to devote some time to studying something today they didn’t study yesterday.”

Zirkind, who on Sunday elucidated some of the Talmud’s contents during a speech derived from teachings of the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory, said that the message he wants to impart is that anyone can learn something.

“The only goal for me was to learn Torah,” he explained. “If you want to learn a section of Talmud, learn it. If you want to learn a Chasidic discourse, learn it. The point is to sanctify some time each day.”

Rabbi Mendel Blau directs the Chovevei Torah proram.
Rabbi Mendel Blau directs the Chovevei Torah proram.

Originally, Zirkind didn’t want to draw attention to what he did. Blau had to convince him to support the idea of Sunday’s celebration.

“I didn’t want to make a big deal,” said Zirkind. “But Rabbi Blau said that the reason to do so is to inspire people. It’s an inspiration to finish something, and everybody can relate to that.”

Blau pointed out that the Code of Jewish Law considers it obligatory to host a festive meal when finishing a tractate of Talmud; various commentaries add that the obligation falls equally on the one hosting the meal and the entire community.

Amazingly, while Zirkind acknowledged that there were of course days when he didn’t feel well, he doesn’t consider his daily study particularly difficult or the vacations he gave up as a sacrifice.

“There’s a story about Rabbi Mendel Futerfas,” he began, referring to a famed Chasidic mentor in Russia and, later, the Israeli village of Kfar Chabad. “He was on a train in Russia with another rabbi and they were going someplace to help other Jews. One person remarked how much self-sacrifice the journey required, but Reb Mendel said it actually was no sacrifice at all, because his entire being was wrapped up in helping Jews.

“In a sense, for me,” added Zirkind, “this wasn’t a sacrifice. Learning Torah was what I wanted to do the whole time.”