It was early January, following a murderous attack on the Jewish community in Monsey and a year that had seen a terrible rise in antisemitism world-wide, when I became aware of something else happening. All over the Jewish world parties (or Siyum’s) to mark the end of 13th cycle of Daf Yomi (learning a page of Talmud a day) where taking place. These expressions of Jewish unity and celebration of Jewish learning in the face of so much suffering evoked a deeply emotional response in me and I decided to do something I never thought in my wildest dreams I would do. On January 5th a day before the 14th cycle was to begin, I put a post on Facebook, publicly informing friends and family that I was going to participate in the upcoming Daf Yomi cycle and asking others to join me to help me on my way and to pull me up if I tried to duck out of it.
What happened following that post was remarkable. Over a hundred people from the UK, Israel, the US and other locations signed up to a Whatsapp group and within 24 hours we had all agreed ground rules and process. It was incredible to see the variety of people: from rabbis of all denominations to people that have never considered studying Talmud previously, of all ages and many different professions and walks of life – in short a beautiful mosaic of the Jewish world. And so a pluralistic virtual Beit Midrash came to life. Just like that.
What was particularly lovely for me, was that two of the key figures initially pulling it all together with me were Ben Crowne (of Limmud fame) and Rabbi Barry Kleinberg, both of whom I had gotten to know when they participated in the Council of Christians and Jews annual study tour to Israel and Palestine recently. After only two days I reached out to Barry to provide a short podcast for the group each day and he’s been inspiring us ever since!
As it happened I became ill with what might have been COVID-19 only a day after the group’s formation that swiftly went into pneumonia. Even with this, the one thing I did every day was to read the ‘Daf’ and remain in the group. It gave me strength and community.
But none of us could ever have known how this group would transform into an even deeper experience during lockdown. Barry’s son was about to be drafted into the IDF, another elderly member of the group found her herself in isolation, yet another was struggling with symptoms of COVID. So our discussions on the daf became interwoven with our experiences and two participants who go by the pen name of ‘Sugya Sistas’ began to reflect more and more how each daf mirrored aspects of our daily life. In tractate Shabbat we learn about private and public spaces and we reflected on our current limited access to public spaces and the separation that creates; we learnt about visiting the sick on Shabbat even where this detracts from the joy of Shabbat which reminded us that we weren’t even able to do this now; about the divine presence hovering above the sick which comforted us while our loved ones lay sick in isolation, and about whether we should celebrate day to day life or only miraculous events when exploring Chanukah in relation to Shabbat. Almost daily there was and is a message in the daf for us. Together we are adding our commentary to one of the most iconic and enduring pieces of Jewish literature. We are listening, engaging and supporting one another in the timeless way that Jewish people have always done in times of adversity, through our shared texts. Am Yisrael Chai!