On the Same Page
Thousands of Jews have been reading a page of Talmud a day for the last seven years. They’re almost finished. Was it worth it?
For me, the desire to attempt daf yomi was partially inspired by the thrill of completing such an imposing text, but it also came from a love of Talmud and a curiosity about my heritage and traditions. From a young age, I knew I wanted to study Talmud—I found the discussions to be difficult, but thought-provoking. Reading the text made me think more creatively and gave me an entirely new lexicon (literally: I own no fewer than three separate Talmudic dictionaries or encyclopedias and have coveted four or five more). For a long time I thought this love might translate into a career as a lawyer and that familiarity with thousands of pages of Talmudic argument would only sharpen my legal mind.
During my year in Israel, my chevruta Rimone and I spent about two hours a day on each page, trying to keep track of the different discussions and arguments taking place. Then, life went on: I started college in America and Rimone decided to stay in Israel. For a while, we tried to study together by Skype, but eventually I found another chevruta and then joined some morning study groups. We tackled everything from how many witnesses need to see the moon in order to declare a new month to the laws pertaining to the divorce document delivered by a cohen (priest), which must be intricately woven, a dilatory tactic intended to force the husband to reconsider his decision.
Rabbi Shapiro’s goal of unity is worthy, and in many ways it has been achieved. A few years ago, I was in Venice and realized I’d forgotten to bring a Talmud with me. I was looking for an Internet café (dafyomi.org updates the page daily) but ended up in the Jewish ghetto, where I saw someone carrying a familiar blue leather volume of Artscroll’s Hebrew translation. I approached the stranger and asked him if I could borrow it. He told me he hadn’t yet learned that day’s page and we ended up reading it together.
I wish I could tell you what we learned, but I don’t remember, much as I don’t remember most of the details I learned during my daf yomi studies. Pieces will come back to me as I reread some of the pages, but for the most part all I can remember is having finished each tractate—and the people I met along the way.
Eventually this feeling that I wasn’t retaining the material began to detract from the daily joy of diving into the Talmud, and after four-and-a-half years of daily pages (I was more than halfway there!), I decided to stop. I liked the continuity: Doing something every single day—whether yoga, journaling, or staring at a page of Aramaic—can be very comforting. But it also made me forget the reason I fell in love with Talmud in the first place. In its original incarnation, Talmud is meant to be something that is analyzed and discussed at length (thus the colloquial turn of phrase, “a Talmudic discussion”). People dedicate their lives to the Talmud. I’m not an advocate of studying only Talmud, but to do it right takes time, and there’s a reason people get so engulfed in it. Talmud is difficult! There’s no clear narrative, or structure, and the reader is expected to be familiar with the entire Bible as well as the other tractates while studying each page. When I started, I convinced myself that if I learned more about the broader whole, I could better understand the individual pieces. (A single daf often references discussions from four or five other tractates.) Instead, I was often rushing to finish—my Israeli friends jokingly called it nirdaf yomi, a play on words that essentially equates doing daf yomi to having someone chase you.
I started to feel like the main goal of daf yomi was finishing it, and that the process—wrestling with the details, discussing the minutia, and trying to anticipate where the Talmudic discussion was going—was getting lost in the race.
The four-and-a-half years I spent studying daf yomi were incredibly fun. I spent hours, probably days, discussing archaic details with people with whom I had almost nothing else in common. I imagine that if I were planning on going to the Meadowlands on Wednesday night, this feeling of unity would only be heightened as I celebrated with people who persevered those additional three years and finished all 2,711 pages. But ultimately I’m glad I stopped, and I try to discourage others from taking on daf yomi. Although I open the Talmud less frequently these days, when I do it’s something I can get lost in, with no pressure to finish one page and move on to the next. I have time to ask all the questions I want.
Miriam Krule is a Slate copy editor and edits Slate's religion column "Faith-Based."