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Friday, September 4, 2015

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Marking the end of another 7-1/2 years of Talmud study

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On Aug. 2, tens of thousands of Jews around the world will complete the daf yomi cycle of studying the entire Babylonian Talmud. I will be among them. While the Talmud is the core text of rabbinic Judaism, for centuries, many learned Jews lived long and intellectually productive Jewish lives without actually studying every page of it. In the traditional yeshivah method of studying, a page can be studied for weeks. At that rate, it would take many lifetimes to complete the 5,200 plus pages (or more than 2,600 folios, a folio being the two sides of a page) of the Talmud.

At the World Congress of the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) organization Agudath Israel in 1923, Rabbi Meir Shapiro advanced the novel idea of encouraging Jews to study one folio (daf) of Talmud daily (yomi) on a fixed schedule. All studiers would be literally on the same page every day and would complete the Talmud in 7-1/2 years. In the first few cycles, few people were attracted, but since then, more and more Jews have been participating. Almost every Orthodox synagogue seems to have at least one daf yomi group nowadays. You can attend daf classes online by great Talmud scholars such as Rabbi Dov Linzer, a talented teacher who is head of the open Orthodox Yeshivat Chovevei Torah. Available in audio podcasts or video, live or archived or on YouTube, Rabbi Linzer teaches and interacts with a class of women and men in an Orthodox synagogue in the Bronx ( For those who (like me) prefer low-tech resources, we have been blessed in recent decades with excellent books that make the daf more comprehensible. (More on the newest resource, the Koren-Steinsaltz English Talmud, in an upcoming review.)

Completing the daf cycle makes me feel both accomplished and humble. The accomplishment is obvious – sticking with a project for 7-1/2 years is difficult, especially when it involves studying obscure texts that often deal with the minutiae of laws that are not part of today’s practice of Judaism (ritual impurity, animal sacrifices, etc.). The humility comes from realizing that there is so much more to learn before you can feel that you have mastered the Talmud. I am filled with admiration for the few rabbis and scholars who have. Of all the resources in print and on the Internet, the most crucial for me these last 7-1/2 years has been the Talmud commentary of Rashi (1040-1105), written almost 1,000 years ago. I never cease to be amazed at how Rashi figures out where the Talmudic text is going to puzzle a reader like me and then solves my puzzlement with a few terse words of commentary.

How worthwhile is the daf yomi enterprise? Jewish educators are split. Critics point out that Rabbi Shapiro presumed that those studying the daf yomi would already have advanced text skills. For them, he thought it worthwhile to cover pages quickly, thus reviewing the major and minor issues of the Talmud. But often today, less knowledgeable Jews make up the bulk of daf yomi participants. Many assemble in synagogues for a 45-minute group lecture each day. The group leaders race through the texts, but don’t teach skills. Sadly, it’s possible to attend daf yomi classes for 7-1/2 years and learn neither talmudic Aramaic nor how to figure out the talmudic text on your own. Were the classes structured differently – without the need of covering a folio a day – imagine what skills could be learned in 2,000 hours of instruction! (University language teachers claim that 300 hours of classroom instruction over a period of three or four years is enough to take a student from no knowledge of a language to near fluency.) Supporters of daf yomi counter that those who attend are attracted by the experience of being part of a group with a holy mission and are not concerned that the learning outcomes are limited.

To mark the completion of the Talmud (siyum ha-Shas), Agudath Israel is organizing events around the world on Aug. 1. The main event is at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey. Canadians can join in via satellite from Toronto’s Sony Centre for the Performing Arts. I’m told that it’s very moving to be part of these mass celebrations of Talmud learning. The Toronto event is advertised as reflecting the unity of the Jewish people. On a certain level, this is true, as the event will probably attract people from all branches of the often fractious haredi world. Speeches, judging from descriptions of past events, will be in Yiddish and English. Some modern Orthodox Jews will also attend. Women will be present, but they will be seated separately (in Toronto, in balconies), and none will speak. I’m told that at previous such events, rabbis praised women for encouraging and enabling their husbands and sons to study Talmud, but the idea of women themselves studying Talmud was not on the event’s radar. (When I was young, virtually no women studied Talmud. In the last three decades, more and more modern Orthodox women are pursuing intense Talmud study.)

The haredi flavour of a siyum ha-Shas is understandable, as the initiators and many of the learners are haredim. But a celebration of Jewish learning in 2012 that excludes women or turns them into silent spectators does not appeal to me. Recently, though, I learned that both in New York and in Israel, modern Orthodox organizations are making plans for additional siyum ha-Shas events with the active participation of both women and men. The event in New York (one of whose co-sponsors is Toronto’s Torah in Motion) takes place on the evening of Aug. 6, at Congregation Shearith Israel (the Spanish Portuguese Synagogue) and I will be one of the speakers. (See the event website Who knows? Maybe 7-1/2 years from now there will be an inclusive siyum ha-Shas in Canada, too!

And yes, I am hoping to begin the Talmud again on Aug. 3.

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