Last week, Yair Shahak was taking a taxi ride in Jerusalem and was recognised by the driver. Although he is not exactly a household name, Mr Shahak had just clinched the top prize in the International Bible Competition for Adults, which had been broadcast on Israeli TV earlier in the week.
But Mr Shahak had an even better claim to world Torah-knowledge domination than many viewers may have realised.
He had travelled to Jerusalem from New York with his wife, Yaelle Frohlich, who had also made the final.
And although the pair were technically competing against each other — among the 25 other finalists from around the world — “it didn’t feel like it”, said Ms Frohlich.
“We were rooting for each other, so I feel as though I share in his victory,” she said.
Ms Frohlich was eliminated in the preliminary round, but she was not overcome by any sense of rivalry.
“I chose to look at this experience as an amazing opportunity, which it was, and my appreciation as well as pride in Yair’s achievement far outweigh any personal disappointments.”
The competition is just like any other intellectual battle, except that in this case, the questions revolve around the Bible, and cover some of the most obscure passages of the Five Books of Moses, the Prophets and Writings(or Tanach, an acronym for Torah, Nevi’im and Ketuvim).
Ms Frohlich represented her native Canada, and Mr Shahak his native US. “There are certain things I really wish they’d asked,” Ms Frohlich said. “I’d memorised all the names of the spies Moses sent to see the land of Canaan.”
Mr Shahak’s expertise, on the other hand, is in remembering technical details and dates.
“I tend to remember the crazy details, and there were at least four questions that involved spitting back numbers,” he said.
The contest, which finished on December 28, involved a written test and several public rounds in front of a live audience (the final group of questions are called “Prime Minister’s Questions”).
Mr Shahak, who was one of the competition’s final eight contestants when it was last held in 2014, excelled at every stage this time. His tie for first place was with an Israeli contestant, Yafit Sliman, and the two have split the first- and second-place winnings, at NIS 40,000 and NIS 30,000 respectively.
Mr Shahak and Mr Frohlich, who are both 28, said that their love of the Bible was one of the first things they discussed after they met. “We had interesting conversations early on about it,” said Ms Frohlich, who is currently working on her PhD in Jewish History at New York University. “With us, there’s always something to talk about.”
Mr Shahak said he spent two years studying for a couple of hours a day, often poring over the texts with his wife. “We reviewed a lot of Jeremiah together, and a lot of the later prophets as well,” he said.
Mr Shahak, who is also a cantor and studies violin at the Aaron Copland School of Music in New York, grew up in a Charedi family in Brooklyn’s Borough Park neighbourhood. While schools in the Charedi community tend to focus on Mishnah, Gemara and Talmud, Mr Shahak said, he always had a love for Tanach, and often learned it on his own.
“The language that it employs — the different forms of biblical Hebrew — has always fascinated me. Also, the musical nature of the different books appeals to me. The variety of musical modes captured my heart from a very young age.”
Ms Frohlich, too, began studying Tanach on her own at around 12.
“It’s the edifice on which Judaism is based, and it contains ancient information about who we are and who we want to be. There’s so much diversity — fascinating stories, philosophy and prophetic visions... Tanach is not a monolithic book. It’s the book of books, and there’s always more to go back to. Once it grabs you, it doesn’t let go,” she said.