Yair Shahak: First Place International Chidon HaTanakh Winner

Date: January 3, 2017 12:06 pm
Author: Yael Eisenberg

Three of the following four clues (translated freely by the author) are referring to a biblical character:

  1. Clean turban (tznif tahor)

  2. Cake baked on coals and a jug of water (Ugat retzafim vetzapachat mayim)

  3. Wadi Cherith (Nachal Krit)

  4. A hairy man with a leather belt tied around his waist (Ish ba’al sear ve’ezor or azur be’motnav)

Can you figure out (a) who the character is, and (b) which of the four hints does not refer to this character? The answer appears at the end of this article.

Did you find this question challenging? You may find it interesting that this question, and many similar ones, were presented to Tanakh experts from across the globe this past week. These individuals were competing in the annual Chidon HaTanakh for Adults, hoping to win the title of Chatan/Kalat HaTanakh.

Chidon HaTanakh has a long, proud history. The contest was initiated in 1958 by [Prime Minister] David Ben Gurion, who hoped to add a spiritual dimension to Israel’s 10th anniversary of its independence. This was an Israeli National Chidon for Adults, in which Amos Chacham z”l, who later became a contributor to the Da’at Mikrah series, won first place. The following year, Chacham continued on to the international stage, after which he became first international ‘Chatan HaTanakh’. In 1963, the famous International Chidon HaTanakh LeNoar (Bible Contest for Youth) was established, and continues until this day, taking place annually on Yom HaAtzmaut (Israeli Independence Day).

While the Youth Chidon flourished, the Adult Chidon underwent a 30-year hiatus, from 1981-2010. The Adult Chidon was finally reestablished in Chanukah of 2010 by Prime Minister Netanyahu, former Israeli President Yitzhak Navon z”l, and former Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar. Since then, the Adult Chidon has taken place annually on the fifth night of Chanuka- in a two year cycle. The first part [odd years] is a National Israeli Chidon, deciding which two candidates will represent Israel the following [even] year in the International Adult Chidon.

Last Wednesday, December 28, the International Chidon HaTanakh (Bible Contest) for Adults took place in Jerusalem, where 16 finalists from 14 countries including Israel, USA, Ecuador, Austria and Switzerland competed for the coveted title of Chatan/Kalat HaTanakh. The Adult Chidon began traditionally with Education Minister Naftali Bennett lighting the menorah in honor of the fifth night of Chanukah. This year, though, instead of introducing the event in Hebrew as he usually does with some comments on the blend of Chanukah, Israel and Tanakh, Bennett included several remarks in English in anticipation of the imminent speech by United States Secretary of State John Kerry.  Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who usually attends the opening of the competition, was absent this year.

The contest resulted in a tie for first place: Yafit Slimon from Israel and Yair Shahak from USA were both crowned as Kalat/Chatan HaTanakh, respectively. Shahak, YC ’10, BRGS ’10, BSJM ’15, has been a full time Instructor of Hebrew in Yeshiva College (2010-2015). His placing first in the USA National Chidon for Adults last summer qualified him for the International competition.

Yair Shahak, first place winner of 2016 Adult Chidon, second from left

Yair Shahak, first place winner of 2016 Adult Chidon, second from left

Shahak was raised in Boro Park and was educated in Chareidi institutions until 12th grade. As a boy, he studied Tanakh outside of the school setting. Shahak describes Tanakh as the fusion of his love for languages and music. He won first place in the USA Adult Chidon as soon as he qualified in 2014, but was not among the top four finalists in that year’s International Chidon. He decided to try again, and began preparing almost immediately after the 2014 International Chidon.

Shahak reported that last Wednesday he felt both more relaxed and more nervous than he did his first time competing.  His exceptional performance on the preliminary exam this time around created greater expectations. As a cantor and violinist, stage fright was not an issue for Shahak; rather, he said his hope was that “everything goes well and that my brain transfers the correct answer to my lips at the right time”.

In addition to the competition itself, this year’s 27 contestants – who arrived from 20 countries worldwide – participated in a 5 day ‘prep camp’ organized by the Israeli Ministry of Education. The camp included various hikes, tours of Biblical sites, lectures, and Tanakh-related games, all of which helped the international contestants bond over Tanakh and Israel and created meaningful memories for them. Shahak added, “it’s wonderful to see so many people from all over the world with strong devotion and love for Tanakh.”

At the beginning of prep camp, all of the contestants took a written exam in their native language (or in Hebrew) which determined the top 16 contestants who would be competing on stage. Shahak’s wife, Yaelle Frohlich, a Stern and Revel alumna who represented Canada, took the written test but did not become a finalist.  The 16 finalists entered the competition with the score they had earned on this exam.

On December 28th Shahak arrived on stage with a perfect score of 50 points on the written exam, closely followed by the two Israeli contestants who had scored 49 points each. The first stage of the competition included questions similar to the question posed at the beginning of this article.  Contestants were given four hints (three of which pertained to a specific character in Tanakh) and were asked to name the character referenced in the three hints, and to identify the three relevant hints.

Based on their performance, eight contestants (from Israel, USA, Canada, France, South Africa, and Argentina) advanced to the next stage. The points were then reset for the second phase of the competition, wherein the contestants were to answer ten questions in a single minute. In this phase, contestants were paired by countries. Each pair answered the same ten questions, and their scores were compared. The higher scoring contestant of each pair then continued to the next round. While the other American contestant, Nosson Wahl, showed remarkable knowledge and answered nine out of ten questions correctly, Shahak once again earned a perfect score, enabling him to represent the USA in the third stage.

The third stage involved a written test and included four contestants– from Israel, USA, Canada, and France. Shahak and Slimon (from Israel) both earned perfect scores, resulting in their tying for first place, with the French and Canadian contestants winning second and third place, respectively.

Rabbi Ezra Frazer, a former colleague of Shahak’s who won fifth place in the 1995 International Youth Chidon and second place in the 2012 International Adult Chidon, said that “all of Yair’s former colleagues in the Hebrew program are aware of his complete mastery of Tanakh and the drive and focus that he applies to everything he does… I was also aware of the element of luck when you get to the later rounds of a Chidon.  The early stages filter out the weaker contestants and leave you with a group of people all of whom know Tanakh well.  So when you ask those people a handful of hard questions under pressure, anything can happen.  In the International Chidon for Adults, the second round – where contestants must answer 10 questions in 60 seconds – people who know the material cold can still blurt out an incorrect answer as they watch the clock run out.  I personally felt very conflicted while watching the competition this year, because I obviously know Yair Shahak well, but Nosson Wahl (who was the other American – along with me – in the 2012 Chidon for Adults) is also my friend.  So I was happy to see both of them perform outstandingly well.” Rabbi Frazer, who is currently pursuing a PhD in Tanakh at Revel, is a Hebrew Instructor in YU. He organized a Chidon viewing party on campus last Wednesday.  

Chani Grossman, a junior at Stern majoring in Judaic studies, attended the Chidon viewing party. “It was amazing to watch so many people who knew so much Tanakh beal peh (by heart),” said Grossman, “but also who were so celebrated for it, in a major event on Israeli television. It was also amazing to see a representative of YU winning- both from the usual “hometown pride” feeling and seeing it as an expression of the tremendous amount of Torah and scholarship at YU.”

Yeshiva University students and alumni have a long track record of excelling in the International Chidon, and even winning first place (which is extremely unusual for non-Israeli contestants). In 2013, Yishai Eisenberg, then a freshman at MTA and currently a sophomore at Yeshiva College, became the third American to win first place in the history of the International Youth Chidon. The second American to do so, in 1988, was Rabbi Jeremy Wieder, current Rosh Yeshiva in YU and then a freshman in Yeshiva College. Shahak participated in Rabbi Wieder’s shiur during most of his undergraduate/graduate years, which “intensified [his] love for Tanakh from many aspects”. One of Shahak’s college majors was Bible, and after guest lecturing at many campuses (including Ivy League schools), he claims that “YU’s Jewish Studies Department is second to none.” He particularly remembers Dr. Shalom Holtz’s Jeremiah course and Dr. Aaron Koller’s Amos and Hosea course as pivotal experiences in his method of Tanakh study.

When asked for the key to success in Chidon, Shahak said that he feels it’s “…devotion, it really needs to be a labor of love. Start studying Tanakh from a young age, and really connect to it. There are things in Tanakh which will speak to anyone: there are laws, stories, theological debates, different ways to serve God, multifaceted language (and linguistic differences between the different books), poetry, celebrating life, contemplating death–find a core element that speaks to you, turn your study from a ‘chore’ into a daily routine that you cannot wait to tackle, and above all, remember that, regardless of the outcome in the competition, the real ‘victory’ here is the study of our core text, the heart and soul of our religion.”

**

The USA Adult Chidon is sponsored by the World Zionist Organization, and occurs every two years. One must be 24 years old to qualify for the Adult Chidon. For more information about the Adult Chidon, see the general Chidon website: http://edu.gov.il/noar/BibleContest/adults/Pages/AGG/AGG.aspx

For more information about the USA Youth Chidon, see: https://chidonusa.wordpress.com/

To watch the 2016 International Adult Chidon: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q6sxWYpYe00&t=333s

Answer to the question at the beginning of this article: the second, third, and fourth hints are referring to Elijah/Eliyahu the Prophet. The first hint: clean turban – tznif tahor – appears in Zecharya 3:5.

 

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This post was written by Yael Eisenberg

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