These words are a siyum, a finishing, of sorts: A celebration of ancient terms and their back-and-forth rhythm being sung to a modern melody; of my toe dipping gingerly at first and then with a splash into a deep pool of timeless wisdom; my marking of a very modest yet monumental personal achievement; a sweet end that is really a beginning.
At the age of 46, I have finished learning my first daf (folio) of Gemara, the Talmud — something I never thought I would do.
In about two weeks’ time, the Jewish people will once again finish learning the entire Babylonian Talmud with the 13th culmination of the cycle known as Daf Yomi. Daf Yomi is the communal daily study of the 2,711 pages of the Talmud, with participants learning one double-sided page or daf per day, which takes almost seven and a half years and is done in sequence. This latest completion of the Daf Yomi cycle will be marked with traditional Siyum HaShas celebrations in cities around the world, filling giant arenas, halls and stadiums (mostly with men, most exclusively so).
I have been excited about the approaching Siyum HaShas since my husband will complete the entire Daf Yomi cycle for the first time. I sheepishly admit that when he decided to attempt to “do the daf” seven and a half years ago, I was initially less than supportive, a far cry from Rabbi Akiva’s wife who encouraged her husband to start learning Torah at the age of 40, but instead a weary mom of young children, concerned about how the demands of such an undertaking would impact her physician husband’s already gossamer free time. But I soon saw that he could make it work, as he listened to a daily daf podcast between patient appointments, while loading the dishwasher, or even carpooling around sunny San Diego. Encouraged, I was soon encouraging.
Yet throughout my husband’s years of learning Daf Yomi, I never entertained the idea of studying Talmud myself. My day school education ended with high school and I did not spend a gap year in Israel in a seminary, which was where many of my friends first engaged in Talmud study as it was not a prevalent practice in most Orthodox Jewish girls’ high schools at the time. I would attend Jewish classes periodically over the years, but my own learning was not a priority while my children were small. When I made aliyah five and a half years ago with my atrophied Hebrew in tow, Hebrew texts seemed daunting and I could not even contemplate adding Aramaic to the mix.
Almost a year and half ago, I heard about Project 929, started by Rav Benny Lau, which was just completing its first cycle. Inspired by Daf Yomi, Project 929 aims to have both religious and secular Jews learn all 929 chapters of Tanach (Torah, Prophets and Writings) together, one chapter a day, five days a week, which takes about three and a half years to complete. Energized by my husband’s Daf Yomi practice, I decided to take part in Project 929, and while the learning has ranged from the riveting to the monotonous, I have stuck with it, appreciating the consistency even when I cannot give it the depth of study it deserves. I read the daily chapter in both Hebrew and English and I have also enrolled in a more in-depth Navi (Prophets) course to enrich my understanding of some of the texts I have already covered.
I was content with my learning, but then a few months back, I started to hear about an intriguing event: a women’s Siyum HaShas, which would be taking place in Jerusalem on January 5, 2020. As the volume of women who study Talmud regularly has multiplied, there are now a number of women who study Daf Yomi, and more of them will be completing this full cycle in the coming days than in previous years. This Women’s Siyum, spearheaded by Hadran and its visionary founder Rabbanit Michelle Farber, will celebrate not only those who are completing the entire cycle, but will also feature a collaborative siyum where women “Adopt-A-Daf,” each woman learning one page of Talmud and then completing the entire Talmud collectively. The Women’s Siyum Hashas (men are welcome to attend too) will feature luminaries in the world of learning including Rachelle Sprecher Fraenkel, Rav Benny Lau and Rebbetzin Malke Bina, as well as an uplifting Koolulam sing-a-long.
At first, I planned to attend just to be supportive and to witness this historic event, but then, I thought:
Maybe I could participate too.
I had recently admired my future daughter-in-law’s dedication to Talmud study as she made time to learn with her chavruta (learning partner) while she was here in Israel on vacation, and I felt a stab of regret that I didn’t embrace Talmud study when I was younger. But with the encouragement of a friend who has been studying Daf Yomi since her aliyah five years ago and is helping organize the Siyum HaShas for Women, I decided not to let myself overthink it, and when I went to buy my ticket to the siyum, I found myself clicking “yes” when asked whether I wanted to adopt a daf myself.
One daf. I could do that, right?
At my friend’s request, I posted an ad for the Women’s Siyum in a local woman’s Facebook group. Fortuitously, a woman I had recently become friendly with but did not know well reached out to me after seeing my post to ask if I had adopted a daf. I told her that I had and confessed that I was slightly terrified since I had never learned Talmud before. She told me that she had a lot of experience and asked if I would like to learn our two adopted pages together.
Suddenly, I had my first chavruta.
We arranged to get together, but as the time for our first meeting approached, I panicked a little. I realized that despite being educated and Orthodox, I really knew very little about the Talmud, how it worked and about its lexicon. An hour or so before our first meeting, I shoved my pride next to my dog under my dining room table and took out a book I had recently bought for my fifth grade son, an introduction to the basics of Talmud, which explains its relationship to the Mishna, its underlying rules and some common terms. When my chavruta showed up for our first session, I shared with her what I had just learned on my own, and then she went over the layout of the daf, explaining its numbering system, columns, and commentaries. Before I knew it, and without getting into any actual content, our first session was over.
Anxious to delve into the text, we met again soon afterwards and a number of times since. My chavruta is soft-spoken, modest and brilliant, a doctor juggling five young children, and somehow we have managed to carve out time over the last month or so to learn together. When time permits, we shmooze first, building a new friendship as we drown out the din of our hungry kids or my barking dog as we get down to the business of learning. Her skills far outweigh mine, but she is patient and helpful and together, we sift through the challenging text and analyze the thought processes of the talmudic sages. We decided to learn my assigned daf first, Tractate Yevamot, Daf 117, which delves into the complex issues of marriage, death, the relationships between women who are in-laws, co-wives and step-family, as well as halachic questions of inheritance and the reliability of certain witnesses.
Having finished American law school (and my law practice) long ago, I especially appreciate the brilliance of the talmudic process and the wisdom and psychology its sages employ while I simultaneously bristle at the assumptions the Talmud makes about women and how we feel about one another, about our egos and alleged jealousies. I am at times surprised at the Talmud’s attempts to be permissive in areas where I would have assumed it would be restrictive, especially in cases when a woman might otherwise be trapped under the legal boulder of a missing dead husband, a crushing weight that might prevent remarriage, financial security and future children.
When we reached the end of our first daf together, I wrapped myself in a feeling of accomplishment, a shawl of pride at doing something new and unexpected, and also experienced a true yearning to not end on the Mishna cliffhanger found at the end of my daf, but to turn the page and see whether the sages will address my questions and to see what questions they tackle next.
I also found that my chavruta has indeed become a chavera, a true friend as we are tethered together by our learning and the discussions about our lives.
On January 5th, I am excited to attend the Women’s Siyum HaShas not merely as the spectator I first envisioned, but as part of a new sisterhood I didn’t think I’d ever join, and I’ve discovered that something I thought I could not do at this stage in my life, which then became something I would merely muddle through, has serendipitously morphed into something that I love. While I am inspired by Rabbi Akiva’s wife selflessly urging her husband to learn, I also get to channel a bit of Rabbi Akiva himself, tackling Torah in a new way in my 40s.
This post is a siyum for my first daf, and though I’m not sure exactly what form my new Gemara-learning life will take, armed with the new Talmud dictionary recommended to me by my friend and chavruta, I am grateful that I have sampled the Talmud’s richness, and I’m ready to learn the next daf.
To sign up to attend Hadran’s Women’s Siyum HaShas, click here.