What I Learned From Reading a Page of Talmud a Day for Four Years (Not as Much as I’d…

Religion, spirituality, and sacrilege.
July 30 2012 12:58 PM

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?

A religious Jewish Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism) scholar reads from the Talmud holy book during his studies at leading Kabbalist Rabbi Yitzhak Kadouri's synagogue August 4, 2004 in Jerusalem, Israel.
This week will see the completion of the 12th daf yomi cycle of Talmud study

Photo by David Silverman/Getty Images.

You might have seen them on the train during your daily commute: On the Long Island Railroad they’ve been known to sit together and speak in low voices; on the subway they tend to sit side by side and just read to themselves. For almost eight years they’ve kept up the same routine, and on Wednesday, these commuters, along with tens of thousands of Jews all over the Tri-State area, will flock to the Meadowlands. There isn’t a football game and no one will be protesting the Internet (that was Citi Field); instead, they’ll be celebrating the siyum hashas, or the completion of daf yomi, the seven-and-a-half year cycle of studying all 2,711 pages in the Babylonian Talmud.

While the New Jersey celebration will be the largest—the MetLife Stadium holds around 100,000 and most of the seats are expected to be filled—smaller festivities are scheduled in Toronto and many European cities, while a weeklong convention is taking place in Tel Aviv. Daf yomi literally translates to daily page, and if you stick to the schedule, in just under eight years you can finish all 36 tractates of the Talmud. Often misunderstood as a rulebook, the Talmud is better described as a compilation of years of rabbinic discussion of Jewish law—including arguments, allegorical stories, and the occasional joke.

You might be tempted to liken daf yomi to reading a page of Finnegans Wake a day (that club does exist, although it meets only once a month), but there isn’t really any corollary in literature or religion in terms of scope and time commitment. The Babylonian Talmud—compiled between the third and fifth centuries—is the written version of an oral tradition, and it is notoriously difficult to understand: It’s like reading the minutes from centuries of rabbinic debate, written in a mix of Hebrew and Aramaic and without any punctuation.

I’ve tried to complete daf yomi, twice. The first time was 15 years ago, after my father and I attended the 10th siyum hashas, at Madison Square Garden. His friend had two extra tickets and my older brother passed on the opportunity. As with many Orthodox Jewish events, there was separate seating for men and women, and I somehow ended up with the best seat in the house, accompanied on the Garden floor by a friendly female security guard as my father looked on from a sea of black hats and beards. When we got home, we decided that if everyone else there could do it, we could, too. Unfortunately, a week later we realized that we’d only been reading one side of the page, or amud, instead of both sides of the page that make up the full daf, and at our pace it would take 15 years to complete. (Such a thing, amud yomi, does exist, to which I say: Those people have a lot of patience.)

Seven-and-a-half years later, when the 11th cycle ended, I was a senior in high school, about to embark on a gap year studying and living in Israel. I decided it was a perfect time to try again. My friend Rimone, who was joining me for the year, also wanted to give it a shot, and we decided to become chevrutas, or study partners. One of the first tractates we did together dealt with eruvs, those mysterious wires you might have seen, and we ended up buying a book full of complicated diagrams to try and understand what was discussed.

For years, the type of rigorous study and language skills required to study Talmud prevented many Jews from trying to tackle the difficult tractates. But lately Talmud has become increasingly more accessible. While the text is traditionally studied with a chevruta to help work through questions and confusion, the advent of English-language translations and daily podcasts have, in many ways, eliminated the need for one by streamlining the process and answering questions before you even think to ask them.

Artscroll, a publisher known for its Hebrew-English prayer books and other translations of Jewish texts, has produced one of the most famous and widely used of these translations of the Talmud. A 73-volume set was completed in 2004, after 15 years of work and an estimated cost of $21 million. For each two-sided page of Talmud, there are often six to seven pages of English translation (in punctuated sentences) along with explanation that brings in sources and outside references to clarify the discussion in the original. For the more complicated sections, there are occasionally diagrams as well. (Naturally, an app is supposedly in the works, too.)

The past few years have also seen the arrival of many daily podcasts that allow you to essentially complete daf yomi without ever opening a book. The Orthodox Union posts MP3 downloads, as well as videos of the daily shiurim, or classes. A search on iTunes brings up other options, including a daily podcast by Rabbi Dov Linzer, the head of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School in Manhattan, and another, by a Rav Rozenberg, offered in French.

With these advancements, it’s no wonder that Wednesday’s celebration, the 12th such siyum (Hebrew for completion), is expected to be the largest since daf yomi first started in 1923. At the time, Rabbi Meir Shapiro, founder of the Chachmei Lublin Yeshiva, proposed the idea as a way to unify the Jewish population by encouraging them to study the same texts. It was also a way for more obscure sections of the Talmud–such as temurah, which delves into the prohibition against transferring the sanctity of one animal that has been set aside for ritual sacrifice to a different animal—not to be ignored.

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."