Daf Yomi is trending.
Since the new cycle began in January, it seems like everybody is “doing the daf.” The rush of interest at the start of this cycle, as evidenced even just on social media, was overwhelming. So many people taking it on, so many people comparing resources and discussing what they’ve learned, so many people newly rejuvenated in their efforts as they near the completion of Berachot this weekend.
And it’s not only Daf Yomi. I don’t have statistics, but anecdotal observations suggest an explosion in recent years of initiatives to get people learning A Something a Day. Maybe it’s a couple of mishnayot, or a chapter of Tanach, or a paragraph or two of Rambam’s Mishneh Torah… None of these ideas are new, but it seems like more and more people are taking it on, and sticking with it. Whether it’s the sense of unity that comes from joining Jews across the world in a shared endeavor, the value of making Torah study an integral part of our days, the motivation that can come from making a quantifiable commitment – there are a lot of reasons these initiatives have taken off to such a degree.
And for those like me, who aren’t making those commitments – also for lots of reasons – there’s still a lot to love about Daf Yomi.
The very name highlights important ideas about Torah study – the notion of learning by daf (page), and the goal of making it yomi (daily) – that can be of great value even for those who aren’t attempting a full page each day.
First, the yomi side.
Obviously, a large part of the value of these yomi initiatives is that they get people learning Torah every day. Imagine what we might accomplish if we expand on that and we realize we can have our “yomi” even without the “daf” – or the chapter, or whichever.
Daily Torah study doesn’t have to be limited to those who feel they can commit to completing a particular unit each day. If one can’t commit to studying an entire chapter of the Bible, does that mean it’s not worth looking at one verse? If one finds the cursory study necessary to cover broad content too limiting, maybe another approach to daily study could be to skim through a particular text until something catches one’s attention, and then explore commentaries and related texts on that point. And the exploration can progress in large or small chunks, day by day, following each person’s interest and availability.
Many of us would like to somehow bring engagement with our ancient texts into our daily lives, and we don’t have to be limited by the scary idea of a whole page or chapter. If a quantitative goal doesn’t work for some of us, an amorphous daily goal might.
And second – the idea, even if not the measure, of the daf.
As a teacher and lover of Jewish text study, the idea I would really like to see spread as a result Daf Yomi’s newfound trendiness is that of the daf – not as a quantity, but as a process.
I’m reminded in this context of the following exchange from The West Wing. The episode, entitled “Galileo,” centered largely on a spaceship that encountered some problems, and featured an animated exchange in which Mallory gave Sam a hard time about the costs and benefits of the space program.
We went to the moon. Do we really have to go to Mars?
‘Cause it’s next. For we came out of the cave, and we looked over the hill,
and we saw fire. And we crossed the ocean, and we pioneered the West, and we took to the sky. The history of man is hung on the timeline of exploration, and this is what’s next.
(script excerpt from here)
‘Cause it’s next. That line has been reverberating in my mind ever since the newest cycle of Daf Yomi began.
The daf is powerful because it’s next, and we are its explorers.
Working largely in adult education these days, I’m often tremendously frustrated by the task of choosing topics and writing course descriptions. Adults, even those who theoretically want to grow in their Jewish learning, are busy and hard to pin down; often, getting people to show up depends on coming up with catchy ways to frame Torah or pithy attention-getting titles. Would-be educators constantly have to justify “Why should we learn this? Why is this worth my time?” It’s a question that comes up in schools all the time too, of course, not just from the students but in setting class goals: Why are we teaching this comment in Rashi, or this chapter of Tanach? Don’t get me wrong; I see the value of this approach to curriculum design, and even its necessity. But I also chafe at it. It would be so nice to be able to learn, and teach, the chapter or the commentary just because it’s there. Because it’s Torah and because it’s next.
That’s what Daf Yomi gives us. A random page of Talmud may or may not contain earth-shattering revelations or juicy social commentary or inspiring words of mussar or whatever else draws a particular person to come to a course. We won’t know until we learn it. It might not lend itself to pithy, catchy titles. And so? We can leap into the unknown, and learn it anyway. We can learn it because it’s next, because it comes after the previous page. We can learn it because it leads to the next page, and the next, and who knows what we might discover on any of them?
We don’t have to be stuck on the idea of the “page” as a quantitative goal, but it’s highly valuable as a framework for learning. We can learn page by page, without waiting to be sold on an exciting topic.
If we simply explore each page, each line, as it comes, we might be surprised by what we find. We might notice something we didn’t expect; we might see that spark that leads us to cross the hill and examine the fire. We might cross oceans, page by page; we might jump off the page and take to the sky, flying high with unexpectedly juicy Torah nuggets. We can do it without waiting for anyone to offer those nuggets up in a tantalizing package, simply by being willing to turn the page and discover – as the president on The West Wing often asked – What’s next?