Penny Cagan

Reading the Talmud through a Pandemic

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When I first heard about the Daf Yomi cycle it was through an article in the New York Times that reported on an event attended by 90,000 mostly men who gathered at a New Jersey sports stadium to celebrate the end of a 7 ½ cycle of reading a portion a day of the Talmud. A new cycle was about to start again on January 5, 2020. I was always curious about the Talmud which appeared to be a mysterious repository of all Jewish knowledge and it seemed like a good time to jump into the cycle. And I did so headfirst, although I never committed to the full seven-years; I thought I would give it a try for a few days and move on.

But here I am one year later, somehow managing to keep up with the endless march forward of each day’s reading. It is a very fast pace and there is often not enough time to delve deeply into the text. But the rapid approach to reading is balanced with the broad sweep of the text and the cumulative knowledge I have gained each day of my heritage and religion. I have yet to miss a day although I have given myself permission if I need to. The parallels that I have found in the text to my current life is what have kept me going.

When I started this Daf Yomi cycle, I had no idea that it would collide with the pandemic and an almost four-month shutdown of my city. All of a sudden, I found references almost daily to the pandemic in the ancient text, which seemed to follow its trajectory. Tractate Shabbos, which started in early March, included long discussions on private and public domains. I was living my life in the private domain while I sheltered in place from a terrifying virus and was coming to terms with how drastically my life had changed. The text reflected the hyper-vigilance that was now part of my life.

The discussions of prohibition against moving set-aside objects resonated with how I was scrutinizing during the early months of the pandemic every foreign object that entered my home. I was wiping down mail, non-perishable groceries and amazon packages and setting them aside on my balcony, weather permitting, for twenty-four hours. At the time, it was unclear how the virus was transmitted and there were stories in scientific journals and the mainstream press on how long the virus could live on various surfaces. It was a daunting task to stay safe when I live in a high rise building and every elevator button, doorknob, and postal delivery posed a threat.

Moses was ever-present throughout many of the readings. We revisited his descent down Mt. Sinai with the sacred tablets and the anger that swelled up within him when he saw his people worshipping the golden calf. We were reminded that he was a great prophet, but also a human being who had very human emotions. This text coincided with Black Lives Matter demonstrations in New York, and the rage that Moses demonstrated when he smashed the tablets was a reminder that sometimes it takes getting angry to effect change.

Making my way through Tractate Eruvin was a challenge, with its geometry problems which brought back the terror of grade school math. But what resonated with me the most, was the sense of community and shared responsibility, that has been apparent through all the permutations of establishing and upholding an eruv. The message from the beginning of this Tractate was that we are in this together as we wade through extremely difficult times.

I have struggled to come to terms with the Talmud’s treatment of women. One woman stood out among the many that had no voice or name: Yalta. She is strong, daring, and not afraid to speak up and challenge authority. She retaliates when she is dissed by a small-minded sage who refuses her a cup of wine by destroying an entire wine cellar of bottles. I have carried the image of Yalta with me throughout most of the readings as a woman who has a name and a voice and the guts to stand up for her beliefs.

What has been especially interesting about this journey through the Talmud is that I feel like I am right there with the Rabbis as they argue and discuss what is permissible and what is prohibited. And all this was done against the backdrop of the pandemic, the months when New York City was entirely shut down, and social protests. It has been an unsettling dialog with the great Rabbis from 1,500 years ago. I say unsettling because when I think I have found something in the text that I can hang onto – some nugget of wisdom from one Sage – another one quickly offers a different opinion.

This journey has also allowed me to remember my late grandfather Joseph Cagan, who came from a family of traveling rabbis who went from village to village in Lithuania conducting services. He was a deeply religious man who spent his life studying the Torah.  His stillness terrified me, and I regret to say that I never got to really know him before he died. I only wish I could bridge the boundaries of time and mortality and discuss my daily readings with him.

And through this journey during the lockdown in New York and the social protests that resulted in fires being set in the streets of my neighborhood, has been the community of mostly (but not solely) women that I have found online who are reading the same page each day with me and working to find their own place in the text. We have sustained each other through our own perspective and interpretation of the text and through challenging each other to dig deeper to find meaning. I have no doubt that we will work together over the next six years to continue wading through the daily readings. And that has been the most profound lesson of reading the Talmud over the past year: it is through each other that we find our way into the text and able to survive the pandemic.

About the Author
Penny Cagan was born in New Jersey and has lived in New York City since 1980. She has published two books of poems called “City Poems “ and “And Today I am Happy." She is employed as a risk manager and continues to write poetry. More information on Penny can be found at
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