This is going to be one of the most emotional columns I’ve ever written or will ever write. I don’t know if that’s true for you, but certainly for me.
So here goes: this coming Thursday, I’ll be completing Shas [the entire Babylonian Talmud] for the first time in my life!
Thank you. Thank you. Please G-d by you. It warms my heart to see it moves you too. Although I can also hear those who are saying, “What? He’s only completed Shas now? With all the noise and fanfare he’s been making about the Daf Yomi [daily page of Talmud] all these years, we thought he’d finished it years ago.”
So no. What’s more, even now I don’t know if I can really say I’ve completed Shas. There are entire sugiyot [Talmudical topics] I didn’t understand, pages that were particularly difficult and due to lack of time — and lack of intelligence — I moved on, without everything being totally clear. But as my friend Rav Miki Yosefi once described those who study the daily Daf: “It’s all about the connection to the Daf.”
That’s a marvelous definition. Even if I can’t say I understood the Daf every day, I can definitely say I had a connection to the Daf every day. And that’s huge. Seven and a half years of daily connection.
And how am I celebrating the event? Truth is, I don’t know yet. At the time of writing, the Organizing Committee, of which I am Chairperson (and the sole member), has not yet convened. If I can share a little of my personal feelings, I find it hard to be the center of attention. And no, it’s nothing like emceeing. I’m always happy to emcee shows, weddings and any other happy event. To open the evening, to end it, to invite speakers up on stage. But when the speech is about me, when I’m the item, when the party’s all about me, that’s stressful and embarrassing.
And apart from that, what if I break down completely when I say the “Hadran Alach Talmud Bavli…,” the sentence that ceremoniously ends the cycle of Talmud study? And if not then, then surely at the prayer that comes afterward: “May it Be Your Will, my G-d, that just as You have helped me to complete Tractate Yoma and the entire Talmud, so help me to start more tractates and other books and finish them, to learn and to teach, to observe and to do and fulfill all the words of Your Torah with love.”
And why, at such an intimate, personal moment of gratitude and prayer, do I need other people around me? Isn’t my immediate family enough?
Well no. As Halacha stipulates, one needs a minyan to carry out a siyum [completion of a tractate or other book] properly, with the full text and the special Kaddish. How did a sensitive friend put it? You can be embarrassed all you like, but this event is not about you. It’s not your birthday. You’re not getting a degree. This is an event about Torah, about Talmud, about all of Shas. So don’t be all self-centered now. Don’t think about Yedidya. Think about the appropriate honor to bestow upon Abaye and Rava.
Okay, so until I rent out the Heichal Menorah sports stadium for the enormous celebration in the Torah’s honor, here are some thoughts that have been running through my head.
How did all this start? If you’d told me a few years ago I’d complete the entire Shas, I would have laughed at you. What have I got to do with regular, daily, intensive study? After all, I can hardly keep up with the few minutes of Shtayim Mikreh [learning a part of the weekly portion]. (That’s still true today by the way…)
Don’t get me wrong. I’ve always been in favor of learning. What is more important than fixing times for Torah? I knew it explicitly said in Tractate Shabbat (that back then I had still not got to know personally) that after 120 years, when a person is called into the Heavenly Court, one of the first questions they are asked is “Did you make time for Torah?”
Sure, but I have a fairly convincing argument. Talmud study doesn’t have very good connotations for me. It reminds me of one of the less successful periods in my life: the long learning sessions in yeshiva, in which everyone around me seemed to understand immediately, and was already discussing the Rishonim and Acharonim with the teacher, while I hadn’t even opened the book on the right page!
Wait, let me be clear. I don’t want to sound ungrateful. It’s not that I was the yeshiva dunce. Not at all. I was okay, and by and large I have very pleasant memories from those halcyon days, from the yeshivot I was lucky to learn in and to absorb so much from (and some of them even didn’t throw me out).
Bottom line though, after yeshiva and the army, any time I tried to open a Gemara, I felt small and a failure. And who wants to go back to those childhood feelings of inadequacy and being a loser? And who can be bothered to go back to spoken Aramaic? To those really small and squished fonts? No no, that Gemara thing is not for me.
But what about the obligation to fix times for Torah study? Well, I’ll tell the Heavenly Court about all the classes I’ve heard on the Hidabrut website, on Arutz Meir, and the ones I listened to on the radio at night, or in traffic on Route 1. Surely they’ll allow me in with that.
And so almost 20 years passed. Today I’m even embarrassed to tell you that for all of that time, until I was close on 40, I barely opened a Gemara. Why “barely”? Because sometimes, for a radio show, I did look up stuff. To quote a saying or words of a song that moved me. But by and large, all the parts of Shas Yossi Green didn’t compose were less familiar to me.
So what happened to change all that? When did it all turn around? How did I become not only a student of the Daily Daf, but also an aggressive sales agent who tries to recruit more and more members into this Golden Club?
Well, I don’t have any rational explanation. Apparently, at some stage, my parents’ prayers began to kick in, and the Almighty sent me a wonderful chevruta [learning partner] — Rav Motti Rotenberg, who one fine day, seven and a half years ago, on the spur of the moment, suggested we renew our old chevruta from those years back in yeshiva.
It was at the start of Adar 1, 5774, and the Daf Yomi cycle was about to begin Tractate Sukkah. I remember saying to myself, “Yalla! Let’s start!” Because Sukkah actually evoked some good associations. The pleasant smell of the Etrog and the deep green of the s’chach, and the fact I just like the Sukkot holiday.
Of course, I never dreamed I would stay committed and actually finish – certainly not the entire Shas but even the first chapter of Sukkah!
Apart from my G-d-sent chevruta, there were two other processes (less miraculous) that led me to join the Daf Yomi: first, my children got older and began learning Gemara themselves, and I suddenly realized I have a responsibility not only to myself but to the next generation too. So yes, it wasn’t fun for me to sit three hours at a time over Tractate Yevamot in yeshiva, but why should I pass on my Gemara complexes to my children?
And that’s not all. I realized we can’t do without Gemara. A Rabbi’s shiur on the radio is definitely worthy and strengthens one’s faith, and of course all Torah study is a mitzvah. Torah, Nevi’im. Ketuvim, Halacha, Mussar. But if you want to click in to the Jewish way of thinking for the last few thousands of years, you have no other option but to study Talmud.
It’s the secret sauce. I remember one seemingly throwaway sentence, said by my uncle, my Teacher and Rabbi, Rav Yaakov Katz, that really shook me: “A person who doesn’t know how to learn Gemara, also doesn’t know how to read a paper!”
Wow! Quite a thought!
Just so you should understand… when I heard that sentence, I was certain that not only do I know how to read a newspaper, I know how to write a newspaper! Today I appreciate just how true my uncle’s words are.
Talmud study cannot just be the exclusive privilege of yeshiva students and the like. On the contrary. They’re sorted. They live their lives in the Tent of Torah. They live and breathe Torah. They don’t need to worry. It’s those outside, in the world of action, who must, must must must, connect to the Talmudic mindset at least a few minutes a day.
But how? It’s hard, it’s long, it’s not accessible. Wait a minute though! I discovered that since we parted ways, me and her, the Talmud has advanced. Of course the basic sacred text remains exactly the same, but there’s Schottenstein.
And the various annotated versions (I mention Schottenstein because that’s my personal favorite), which simply put a stop to all the excuses of people like me. I’m telling you, we’re toast! We now have no reasonable argument for the Heavenly Court. There are voweled Gemaras, annotated Gemaras, reader-friendly Gemaras. And in the main, well-designed Gemaras — there’s space, bold, and even Enter!
And you suddenly realize that what stopped you all those years was just a design issue! It was all one block of text, with no beginning or end. But that’s it. It’s all over now. (Don’t tell anyone but right now, as opposed to most of the students around the world, I don’t study Gemara from the actual page itself and just glance at the explanations… I go straight to the explanatory, annotated side and follow from there, otherwise it just reminds me of the failure days…) And then there are the illustrations and the images in “Kol HaLashon’s” new album aids, and the Daf Yomi Portal App with recorded shiurim in all styles and languages, film clips and study aids, which apart from actually learning the Gemara for you, do absolutely everything else.
And there was one other thing released in me when I discovered Daf Yomi. Rabbi Meir Shapira of Lublin’s amazing start-up has two central traits that transform it into what it is: 1. The Daf. 2. The Daily.
Let me explain.
If we go back to those challenging days in yeshiva, and see them as a type of ADHD (and in our generation, who doesn’t have some type of ADHD?), I had a problem with the Gemara not having a beginning or an end. You jump into a complicated sugia and just lose it. It’s so depressing. But the Daf Yomi has a beginning and has an end. It’s only one page. And even if you didn’t understand today’s Daf, you’ll probably understand it tomorrow. And if not tomorrow, the day after.
And it’s Daily. That fixed pace, a page a day, gives you a framework. It disciplines you. You missed today’s Daf? You’d better find time to make it up, because tomorrow there’s another one, and if you miss that too, you’ll have a debt of two days, and who knows what’ll happen tomorrow. And we Daf Yomi guys are scared of our Daf Yomi debts more than debts to the black market.
For people like me, lacking self-discipline, it’s simply redemption! Without this commitment, I most probably wouldn’t fix times for Torah today either. I would learn whenever I wanted. And between you and me, most of the time I want to do other things. But from the day you enter the Daf Yomi track, you become the greatest matmid [dedicated student] in the world! You are the personification of the demanding verse: As you go forwards, it will guide you; as you lie down, it will guard you, and when you wake up it will converse with you” (Proverbs 6:22).
You learn on Fridays, and on Shabbat, and on Yom Kippur, and on Erev Tisha B’Av, and on Motzai Tisha B’Av. Wow! How amazing it is to realize that I am actually prohibited from learning Torah on this sad day… because it simply makes me feel good!
And still, after all is said and done, it’s not a walk in the park. It takes time. Every day, you have to disconnect from your frenetic world and enter a different vibe.
But that’s precisely the reason the Daf Yomi is so addictive. After all, what do we want in our lives other than a strong anchor, day after day, that will give us a sense of stability in any situation, of something beyond our Sisyphic daily grind?
As I said, I still don’t know how I’m going to celebrate my Siyum HaShas on Thursday. One thing I do know though: the next day, Friday morning, B’Ezrat Hashem, I’ll go to my Schottenstein closet — which gradually grew from Tractate to Tractate — and take out Tractate Sukkah Volume 1, the very same volume I bought seven and a half years ago… and I’ll start all over again.
There’s just one thing that excites me more than that: the thought that perhaps one reader will also buy one volume — just one — of Tractate Sukkah this week, and embark on the magical voyage that will change his life.
(Translated by World Mizrachi)