Joel Hoffman
Rabbi, Teacher, Columnist

Reflections on Completing a Tractate of Talmud

This Shabbos, I’ll be completing learning the Talmud tractate of B’rachot and will be having a Siyyum – a celebration of learning. The Siyyum also doubles as my 50th birthday party.

Twenty-plus years ago I learned in a yeshiva in Jerusalem for a few years, and since then I have learned Jewish texts every day, but this is the first time I will have completed an entire tractate of the Talmud.  (The Babylonian Talmud is divided into 37 tractates totaling 2,711 daf, or 5,422 pages.)

What made my learning of this tractate different from my other learning of Jewish texts is that I only learned this tractate of Talmud during “down times.”  This included, for example, the 30 minutes from the time my children had to arrive before their basketball or lacrosse games until the game began, as well as learning Talmud when my children were not on the field or the court.  The later was not a way to make friends with other parents!

I also learned when my children were in their dentist, orthodontist and doctor appointments, during the commercials when watching the New England Patriots football games (except for Super Bowls), while laying out at the pool on Sundays in the summer, while waiting to get a haircut, and dozens of other down times which added up to well over one hundred hours per year.  In short, when most people check Facebook on their phone, I opened my Gemorah, and in just 22 months I completed a tractate. Thus, theoretically, learning this tractate did not take up any of my time.  It just required desire, effort, and about $80 for the two Artscroll volumes.

When learning this tractate I didn’t outline the back-and-forth of every argument like when I learned in yeshiva; and if I didn’t understand why a response refuted a statement, nor understood the logic behind a proof, whereas in yeshiva I had to expend a lot of time and brainpower to figure it out, this time I utilized the Artscroll side of the page to spoon feed me the explanation.  This style of learning is called a Be’kiut (“broad”) approach to learning rather than a Be’iun (“in-depth”) approach.  Never-the-less, I am proud of my accomplishment.

The main topics of the tractate of B’rachot focused on when and how to say the Shema and the Amidah, blessings before and after eating and drinking, Kiddush, Havdalah, and special blessings.  However, what I mostly learned and enjoyed is the following:

  • Reading the original version of the story of numerous Jewish stories I’ve heard over the years. Rabbi Akiva’s “Gam Zeh L’tovah” (“This too is for the good!”) is one such story (page 60b).
  • Learning about everyday life 1,500+ years ago in the near-East. This was relayed through the Rabbi’s discussions about latrines, snakes, bathhouses, ovens, lanterns, burial, rodents, and stories specifically about latrines and snakes.
  • Learning about the lives of the Rabbis, as well as seeing maps, diagrams, and pictures of flora, fauna, coins, and archaeological remains—all in the Steinsaltz edition of the Talmud—illuminated the content of the Talmudic text. For example, I didn’t previously know that Elijah the Prophet appeared to several of the Rabbis; nor did I previously realize the greatness of Rabbi Yohanan.
  • Seeing the Sugiyyah, or “discussion chain,” upon which a Halakhah, or Jewish law, rests. The first half of the tractate focused on determining the time frames for saying particular prayers, so now I know why most of the Halakah’s are what they are.
  • Exposure to ancient Jewish teachings about medicine, science, astronomy, and demons. I know better than to make fun of the teachings that are not in congruence with modern science because there are numerous examples of how over time modern science keeps updating itself getting closer and closer to ancient Jewish teachings. Two popular examples include how many stars are in the universe (B’rachot, page 32b), and the length of a Lunar month (Rosh Hashanah, page 25a).
  • Being amazed when a rabbi had his argument turned against him and the only option seemed to be concession, but then through “mental gymnastics” he ends up proving his position. Concurrently, every Rabbi had great respect for each other, and seeking Absolute Truth underscored everything.  This is diametrically Polar to today’s political climate. I’m sure there’s a life lesson in here somewhere.
  • Exercising my mind trying to follow and understand every statement in a Talmudic discussion. One of my favorites for example is, and those who have learned B’rachot may recall, the Sugiyah where Rebbi Yishmael was lying down and Rebbi Elazar ben Azaryah was standing up, but then when it came time to say the Shema Rabbi Yishmael stood up and Rebbi Elazar ben Azaryah laid down.  It was only through each of them moving the way he did, it demonstrated that they not only held by Hillel’s opinion, but equally important, no one could mistakenly think one of them held by Shammai’s opinion (page 11a).
  • It’s cool reading a 1,500+ year old text written in not one, but  two ancient languages. (Though I will not say how often I had to look on the Artscroll side of the page for the translation of an Aramaic or Hebrew word.)  Over the past 22 months dozens of people have asked me what I was reading and I was glad to be able to tell them about the Talmud. Some of these people were even Jewish, and a few of them when we periodically run into each other we now “talk Talmud.”

I wrote this Blog not to brag, after all, over 100,000 Jews learn a daf of Talmud every day and complete the entire Talmud every 7.5 years which is a much greater feat.  Rather, I wrote this Blog to share a little about the Talmud and to encourage others to take up Torah learning or to add to their Torah learning.  As explained above, I learned an entire tractate in just my “down time” in just under two years. Therefore, not having time can’t be used as a valid excuse not to learn Jewish texts.

The next tractate I intend to learn is Bava Metzia which focuses on property law, but this time I intend to learn it more Be’iun (with depth).  I can hardly wait until my son’s basketball game on Sunday to begin.

About the Author
Rabbi Joel E. Hoffman is a special education teacher for his "day job," and in his free-time he teaches and writes about Judaism. www.birthrightjudaism.com
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