“I’m a slow learner.”
“I like to read very closely and carefully.”
“It takes me about 2 hours to get through a page of Talmud; I don’t have that kind of time.”
“Daf Yomi is not for me.”
I’ve recited some variation or combination of these sentences whenever someone has broached the topic of Daf Yomi, that is, the daily study of one page of the Talmud. (The Talmud is a big collection; studying one page a day takes about 7 and a half years, and a new cycle of people all over the world studying the same page of the Talmud begins January 5, 2020.)
In my Jewish education, I’ve always been taught to read with a critical eye to notice inconsistencies, to pay close attention to unusual vocabulary, to question premises and processes and conclusions, to compare related texts or ideas, to ask big questions, to… take several days to get through a page of basically anything I’m reading.
So why am I going to try Daf Yomi anyway?
I’ve noticed a gap in my knowledge. While I study something Jewish everyday, I’ve never committed myself very well to a strict regimen of a single subject with a strict time limit. I’ve tried in the past (and sometimes succeeded and sometimes not)–studying one teaching from the Mishnah a day, or reading the Torah’s Aramaic translation (Targum Onkelos) alongside each week’s portion–but my own study-practice has always been a bit bumpy.
One of the biggest obstacles to my learning comes down to one word: intertextuality. Intertextuality is the idea that one text is related to another text. If I want to understand how Jews understand the Mishnah, it’s important for me to read the Talmud. If I want to understand Targum Onkelos, it’s important to understand midrash–the rabbinic lore that shapes Jewish interpretation of the Torah. If I want to understand modern Jewish law, I should be able to wrap my head around the Talmud.
For a long time, when I’ve encountered a footnote or someone referencing something in the Talmud, I say something which the Mishnah, in Pirkey Avot, advises we never say: I’ll study this when I have the time. Pirkey Avot retorts: You might never have the time.
I’ve used the “no time” excuse for a little too much time. If I find that my Jewish learning is often nudging me (gently) to open the Talmud and read these sections I’ve long avoided, I’ll save myself a headache by learning just a little more of the Talmud.
But how will I survive Daf Yomi?
A few rules I’m setting for myself:
- I will become familiar with what arguments appear on the daily page. Now, becoming familiar is very different from intimately knowing. I’ve often been stuck trying to keep straight which rabbi said what. I will sink if I try to keep the lines of the argument straight. During Daf Yomi, I just want to know what the sages are arguing about. (And, yes, I anticipate that many of the arguments will be about which rabbi said what. I’ve prepared myself mentally.)
- I will become familiar with the general gists of the Talmud’s narratives. The lore (aggadah) in the Talmud is a whole genre of literature that many people who traditionally study just skip altogether. It’s usually written in lesser-used Aramaic vocabulary, and, like the rest of the Talmud, it’s told in truncated sentences missing details that would make sentence make a little more sense. (I don’t know about you, but I always love a sentence with a good old subject-and-predicate.) Because fewer people have celebrated the Talmud’s aggadah than the Talmud’s discussion of halakhah (law), I will allow myself to remain fuzzy on some of the nuances of these stories. As religious myths (whether or not these are true), aggadah can read a bit like (arcane) poetry anyway, and a good poem usually doesn’t give away too easily what it’s trying to say. I won’t demand clarity of the Talmud’s tales.
- I will not worry too much about how the page was edited. As someone who studied excerpts of the Talmud in university settings for several years, I have spent more than a few hours of my life analyzing which layers of the Talmud are earliest, which were late, which were later, and which were even later. I am blessed to be close with academics who devote their lives to truly understanding how the words sages of old said to one another turned into the Talmud. My life has taken a different path, and, if I casually catch some ‘layering’ clues (which can help me understand, for example, the historical development of a halakhic idea I might or might not love), I’ll be excited. If I overlook the finer nuances of an academic focus on the Talmud’s structure, methodologies I first met in college, I hope I’ll catch them the next time around.
- “Next time” is key here. I do want to know more about how the rabbis conceived of ethics, related to Greeks, borrowed from Zoroastrians, debated Christians, challenged the Hebrew Bible, acted as political agents, structured society, distinguished themselves from laypeople, imagined divinity, understood revelation, drew upon the sciences of their times, innovated or adapted norms, accepted the existence of demons and magic, and at least twelve other things. But, before I ask all of my questions on each of the pages of the Talmud, I should really give the Babylonian Talmud a good first read.
Upon completing any tractate of the Talmud, it is traditional to say Hadran alakh (“We will return to you!”), promising the volume that we will not abandon its words simply because we read them one time. If I keep up with learning Jewish things regularly, intertextuality tells me that those words and I will be meeting up again at some point. And, when I come back to those words with which I’ve become somewhat familiar, I’ll get to know them better and ask deeper questions.
For now, it’s breadth. And, next time, the depth will come.