Daf Yomi: A symphony of learning

In honor of the siyum of Brachot this past Shabbat. No days off. No mid-winter break, no summer vacation. Every single day.  Shabbat, Yom Tov, Yom Kippur, Purim, Tisha B’Av.  Rain or shine.  

Rabbi Dr. Eliyahu Safran

Judaism Talmud study
Talmud study
צילום: INN:RS

The ancient understanding of the “music of the spheres” holds that when the universe is in harmony, it creates an inaudible, cosmic symphony.  We have an intuitive appreciation of such harmony. We are awed when we watch the poetic beauty of a crew cutting through the water, six or eight pairs of rowers moving in perfect sync, their oars moving through the air and water as one; or experience of the grace of the ballet, with a line of dancers moving as one body; or when we conjure the image of a series of super computers working in concert to perform incredibly intricate calculations and solve once insurmountable problems.  

In each of these examples, we can appreciate the beauty of the singular as well – the one rower, the single ballerina, the free-standing computer – but the singular cannot match the power, the awe-inspiring grandeur of a large, complex community working in perfect and beautiful harmony 

We Jews have always been a people of the book.  Not only of the Torah, but of the Talmud as well.  To study Talmud is to engage with God and with the fullness of our masoret.  It is a blessing and a gift.  The image of the old Jew, back bent over the ancient text, lost in study and prayer, is indelible in our communal imaginations.

As it is for one, how much more for the many?  

Indeed, one would be hard-pressed to name any community event or celebration that generates the level of unity and joy as the siyum of the Daf Yomi.  Every seven years, since its inception a century ago, the Daf Yomi has continued to grow, demonstrating in a clear way the power, the grandeur and satisfaction of a large, complex and diverse community moving in perfect harmony.

In 1923, Rabbi Meir Shapiro, Chief Rabbi of Sanok in Poland, issued a call for the universal study of one daf (folio) of Talmud per day.  From a modest beginning, Rabbi Shapiro’s call for fellow Jews to undertake the enormous commitment to follow the calendrical cycle that would have each participant quite literally “on the same page” day after day after day, until all 2,711 pages (two sides of the daf equals a page) are completed, a task that requires a full seven and a half years of daily study.  No breaks. No days off. No mid-winter break, no summer vacation. Every single day.  Shabbat, Yom Tov, Yom Kippur, Purim, Tisha B’Av.  Rain or shine.  

2,711 days of learning.  2,711 dapim.  Some lessons easily grasped.  Some difficult, intricate and involved.  2,711 days of wrestling with the topics and themes of Torah in every aspect and nuance.  Whatever is Torah is in the Talmud. It is, and can often feel like, a never-ending ocean, a yam ha’Talmud.  

Rav Shapiro, as brilliant as he was, could never have imagined the revolution his call would bring about in the Jewish world.  Of course, Jews always studied Talmud (recall that comforting image of the old, Jewish man bent over his texts!). Yeshiva bochurim studied Talmud.  Rabbis. Scholars. 

But everyday Jews? Everyday Jews have enough to worry about.  They must get up and go to work. They must coach baseball and lacrosse teams.  They must paint the spare bedroom or mow the lawn or pick up their in-laws at the airport.  Studying Talmud was for the rabbis, talmidei chachamim and scholars, who could immerse themselves in texts.  Not the every-day Jews who had to live in the world.  

But Rav Shapiro’s charge was precisely to those everyday Jews.  

We doubted the wisdom of the call.  Respected and revered rabbanim who valued study and learning viewed the call with skepticism.  Studying Talmud was serious work. A daf could easily demand days, weeks, a month to grasp.  Certainly, more than a day.  To this day, that debate continues. 

Perhaps not directly participating in this discussion, but clearly addressing the crux of the concern, Rabbi Shraga Simmons, on Aish.com published “5 Reasons Why “Daf Yomi” Electrifies the Jewish World.”  In the article he notes, that Daf Yomi taps into the power of Jewish wisdom.  He notes that the Talmud is, “…the place to recalibrate our societal arc, employing time-tested principles to guide us…”  Daf Yomi allows for no excuses from the essential, spiritual task of engaging in a fundamentally Jewish exercise.

By participating in Daf Yomi, we are continually exercising a profound victory over our oppressors.  We know that the Nazis had a clear hatred for Talmud study. They were not the first to recognize – and hate – the power of tradition’s wisdom.  They will not be the last. But as long as we study, we are victorious.

The victory we claim in studying Talmud is more than one over our oppressors.  At the deepest level, Daf Yomi unites us – like dancers and athletes moving in concert – and we become a singular entity rather than an aggregate of discrete parts.  It engages us in our own, spiritual “music of the spheres.” In doing so, the perfect beauty of our engagement in Daf Yomi gives sanctuary in a hectic, uncertain and confusing world.

This sanctuary, this harmony is not only for the deeply religious or the learned.  Quite the opposite. While the benefits Rabbi Simmons elucidates are enjoyed by the dati, and the yeshivah student, and shomer shabbos Jews, the benefits transcend every conflict and contradiction of the Jewish community to unite us and inspire us – it brings together Chassidim, Yeshivish, Modern Orthodox, Sefardim… Jews from every corner of the Jewish world.  Old Jews. Young Jews. Observant, Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist Jews. Men and women too. Studying the daily daf is the unifier of the entire Jewish community.  

So, while I respect the ongoing debate by the rabbis who correctly argue that study of a daf often demands much more than a day, I am a firm believer in, proponent and participant of Daf Yomi.  It allows for exposure to the entire Torah sh’bal peh, to the Oral Law – the bread and butter of Judaism.  For me, that exposure alone more than justifies the limitations of the exercise.  Even if one does not fully grasp or retain all that he has learned, it is worth doing the daf if only for the unity it engenders!

When Rav Shapiro’s call first went out, there were maybe a few hundred who took up the challenge.  Nearly a century later, more than half a million Jews joined in the celebrations of the siyyum, 100,00 in MetLife Stadium alone!  If that is not an argument to justify Daf Yomi, I don’t know what could be.

Daf Yomi has electrified the Jewish community.  Still, it has taken more than Torah’s foundational role in our lives – and Rav Shapiro’s call – to bring us to this incredible place, from a few hundred participants in the Europe of old to several hundred thousand Jews joining hands to celebrate the largest Daf Yomi siyumim ever.  It took the dedication and resources of other determined Jews to get our community to this point.

First and foremost, among these are Steinzaltz and Schottenstein.  Then the  Artscroll translation and commentary of the Talmud into English revolutionized Jewish learning.  From the moment Masechet Makot was published in 1990, Jews who had never opened let alone contemplated learning a page of Talmud began to discover both the enormity as well as the availability of the 2711 dapim of the Talmud.  Thanks to Artscroll, Jews from communities all over the world began to learn Talmud, following the daily schedule of Daf Yomi.

Artscroll, with its copious notes and English translation, received wide and laudatory approval from every corner of the Orthodox world.  Could the great Torah leaders, scholars and luminaries who lent their names and prestige to Artscroll and its dynamic, creative founder and general editor, Rabbi Meir Zlotowitz Z’L (who passed away just 2 years ago), have foreseen the impact of their approbation?   It is no exaggeration to say that Artscroll did nothing short of renewing the Sinai experience of Torah learning. So, when we ask the question, how did we get here? The answer is one word, Artscroll.  

The rest is commentary.

That said, no one knows better than the Jewish community the power and importance of commentary.

Even with the foundational role Artscroll played in the revolution of Talmud study for English speakers, I must confess that the exponential growth of participation in Daf Yomi relies also on one of my most frequent foils – technology.

I have often decried the negative influence of technology in the coarsening of our modern world.  And I do not retract any of my criticisms. However, it is important to also acknowledge and laud technology’s positive potential and certainly its role in the flourishing success of Daf Yomi.  It turns out that the same technology that can bring foul content into every nook and cranny of our lives can just as readily carry the most magnificent content to us!

By virtue of the online Daf Yomi experience, there is never a time or place when one cannot have access to Talmud study.  No one need worry about missing the 8:00 pm Daf in his local Shul, or the 6:00 am Daf in his local Beis Midrash.  Where Artscroll has opened the gate to learning, many – including doctors, lawyers, businesspeople, students, – need the time, the right time, to be able to learn.  They need not just the “what” but also the “when”.  iPhones, iPads, home computers, addresses the “when”!  

On January 1st, when the grand Siyum was taking place at MetLife Stadium, my wife and I were on El Al flying to Israel.  Guess what? Daf Yomi is available on El Al!  30,000 feet in the air! Fortunately, we arrived in time for me to attend a Siyum HaShas at Binyanei HaUma in Jerusalem.

And what an experience that was!  Teens, college students, a blind Daf Yomi rebbi saying it all by heart after having already completing five previous cycles, farmers, retired gentlemen at Beit Tuvei HaIr, holocaust survivors, university professors, IDF soldiers… even a commander of an Israeli Air Force battalion.  Imagine his daily routine.  Online access allowed him to complete the Daf.  Day.  Night.  In the air.  On the sea. Every single day.
 

What does one do when he or she has completed this monumental cycle, these 2,711 days of study?  The same thing we do when we conclude the cycle of Torah readings on Simchas Torah – we start anew!  As we finish Niddah, we immediately turn to the first daf of Berachot.  The celebrations and the eternal Jewish message of continuation were infectious.  Jews everywhere sought to join in the great harmony. On El Al on the day the new cycle began, I saw people on the plane learning the first daf of the first Masechet.  Jews with kipah seruga, with big black, velvet yarmulkes, some wearing a hat to show extra reverence. Jews clean shaven.  Jews with long beards. Even a Jew sans head covering!  

This past Shabbat, a little boy only eleven years old told me he had started Daf Yomi.  Yeshiva bochurim usually not into Daf Yomi are learning Daf Yomi at least the first several masechtot.  Everywhere you go, more Daf Yomi.  Artscroll. Online. OU’s new AllDaf.org.  OU’s App includes not only Rabbi Moshe Elefant, Rabbi Aryeh Lebowitz, but a variety of enhancements to the daf including introductions and reviews along with insights and focus on specific halachic, hashkafic and historic issues found on the daf.  As of this writing, nearly 30,000 have downloaded this most enriching App. Imagine! A shiur with tens of thousands of students!  Students of all shapes and sizes. You can almost hear the spiritual symphony!

As Andrew Silow Carrol emphasizes in his “The Fitbit Generation Discovers the Talmud”, there is a groundswell of learners outside of the typical yeshiva circles.  Sites such as #DafYomi on Twitter, or Tablet magazine’s daily Daf podcast.  Hadran.org.il has a Daf Yomi 4 Women on Facebook.  These are access points for people who would never have conceived of studying Talmud.  And yet… and yet, here they are, studying and learning Talmud.
 

I pray to God that I will witness the next siyyum.  Will there be a stadium large enough to accommodate all who complete the Daf Yomi?  Will we be so numerous that we will be able to hear the harmony of the heavens proclaiming God’s pleasure at our great achievement?





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