True story: The day after the siyum – celebration of the end of a unit of study – for those who had studied the daf yomi – two sides of a Talmud page daily, Lenny Dykstra (yes, the former baseball star) tagged me in a Twitter post, in which he congratulated those who had completed the 7 1/2 year cycle and challenged those who would be starting the new cycle. I’m a veteran of significant Talmud study but never thought of myself as disciplined enough for the daily study. But, when Lenny Dykstra gives you musar, well, why would I ignore it? So in I jumped.
I was pleased to see that there are great online as well as face-to-face communities banding together, through which people on this journey are supporting one another. There are podcasts, online guides and even specialized women’s resources to daf yomi that Rabbi Meir Shapira, who dreamt up the idea at his yeshiva in Lublin, Poland couldn’t have imagined. Personally, I’m enjoying the astonishment of the Talmud newbies as they discover the rather chaotic and stream of consciousness nature of the Talmud and its complete lack of the year 2020 sensibilities.
Although I’m not at all new to Talmud study, I’m by no means a scholar. Nonetheless, for those who are less experienced, I am pleased to offer some reflections that I hope will be of value as we approach the one month mark of new daf yomi journeyers:
- The Talmud was a response to new realities on the ground: The nation that was Judea became a Roman province, Jewish self-government was gone, the Temple was destroyed, the priesthood became irrelevant, the prophetic period ended, “rabbis” or “sages” became the community leaders, the centers of Jewish life shifted to Yavneh, Tiberias, Babylonia.
- The Talmud was a revolutionary set of documents that transformed “Jewish” from a nation that included religious components into a culture that had religion and ethics at its core. It created a version of “Jewish” that could be put in a suitcase and unpacked wherever Jews would live.
- The Talmud is your extended Jewish family’s dinner (or Seder), if 500 years of relatives were invited to the conversation. Or its a Knesset meeting, if that’s your frame of reference. It’s the rabbinic equivalent of the Annie Hall scene where a Jewish family, living under the Coney Island Thunderbolt roller coaster, brings everything they want to talk about to the table. But this is with Jewish scholars and their guests.
- There is a lot of wisdom in the Talmud, as well as some mundane and sometimes outright disturbing content. There are discussions of Jewish practice. There is sharing of superstitions. There are deep conversations about the course of history. There are theological wanderings and wonderings about the nature of God. There is gossip. There are potshots at different nationalities. The rabbis and authorities occasionally insult each other. What you’re watching is the drama of (re-)invention of what it means to be a Jew.through a dialogue that spans over 500 years.
- The Talmud is human. There are spiritual high moments and moments of pettiness. The characters that appear are intelligent, articulate, well-read, and yet, very human.
- The Talmud reflects the values of its time. If you’re looking for gender equality, you’ll find some hints of it, but for the most part, that was not the value of that time. If you’re looking for universalism, it shows up occasionally, but that was not the primary concern of the sages. You’re rewinding the clock 1500+ years and need to check the enlightenment at the door as you check in [you can pick it up again when you are ready to apply the learning to our world]
- If you want to get a sense of how the diversity of who we are today as Jews – traditionalist/Orthodox, Reform, Reconstructionist, Zionist, anti-Zionist Jews, Hasidim, atheists/agnostics, converts, ba’alei teshuva – began to develop during an absolutely revolutionary era of Jewish history, you’re in the right place.
- Pet peeve, if you don’t know: Mishnah is written in Hebrew. Gemara is mostly Aramaic with an occasional Greek, Persian or Arabic word thrown in.
- The apocryphal story about a law school dean telling new students: “Look to your left and look to your right, because one of you will not be here next year” is going to be true for daf yomi learners. And that’s OK, because as far as you get, you’ve learned more Torah than you had coming in.
We’re in this thing together, my fellow travellers. Hope you see you along the journey and at the finish line.
B’hatzlacha, wishing you all success in your learning.