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Doing Daf Yomi- Guest Post by Yaakov Elman

This post, a first in what we hope will be a series on the Daf Yomi as its 12th cycle comes to a close, was written by Yeshiva University’s Prof. Yaakov Elman. A long time daf yomi learner, Prof. Elman was also Shai’s doktorvater, and his deep influence on this blog parallels the one that he has had on the field of academic Talmud.

The Babylonian Talmud (hereafter: the Bavli) is made up of approximately 1,863,000 words, spread out across 2,711 double folio-pages. Studying a double-page- known as a “daf“- a day, it takes seven years, five months, and approximately six days to complete a cycle of study of the Bavli, and the completion of the twelfth cycle (inaugurated in 1923) will be celebrated today, August 1st, by hundreds of thousands of people world-wide, with an expected 100,000 attendees at MetLife Stadium in the Meadowlands.

Such a regimen is definitely a daunting task, but tens of thousands of Jews rise early, stay up late, or somehow crowd an hour or so of study into their daily schedule, often in synagogue before or after services, on commuter trains, subways, and the like. Most of them do so in groups, with a leader taking them through the intricacies of an Aramaic-Hebrew text that has challenged the best minds the Jewish people have produced for the last millennium and a half. Of course, being part of a group allows for social interchange, and the feeling of participating in a shared goal. But my own experience suggests that while the text alone can be riveting at times and “merely” interesting at others;the Bavli hardly ever requires a stiff upper lip to see it through.

I have been asked to describe the experience of studying the Talmud in this way; let me begin by admitting at the outset that I am not a typical daf yomi person. In the forty-some-odd years that I have studied daf yomi, I have never taken part in a daf yomi group; my schedule is seven blatt on a Sabbath rather than a daf a day. Still, by not taking part in a group I was forced to rely on my own resources, and thus my view of the Bavli is my own and reflects my interests. These have changed over the years, but for the most part, my focus has been on the Bavli’s cognitive style and modes of argument, the individual contributions of its major voices, the society that produced it, and the interaction of that society with its general environment.

I began daf yomi when the thought that I would never complete even the most cursory review of the whole of the Bavli in my lifetime (at the rate I was progressing) became intolerable. I couldn’t stand the thought that I would never get a sense of the whole of the Talmud. One may ask: If the Bavli is more or less uniform in its style of language, thought and argumentation, what’s the difference, apart from the changing subject matter?

The short answer is that not only do the topics change, but the “research agenda” changes as well. Discussions of the Temple service are different from those on practical matters of civil law, for example. Some tractates concentrate on the biblical derivations of the Mishnah’s rules (Zevahim, Menahot); in some, most of talmudic law is based on custom rather than Scripture (Bava Batra, for example). While there are only 12 or 13 major figures, not all appear in the same proportion throughout the whole Bavli, and so one does not get a sense of their approaches without having kept track through a complete cycle (at least).

Daf Yomi takes its participants through the Bavli in a close-up view of the discussions carried on among the Babylonian rabbis of 220-530 CE, from prayers and blessings though the rules governing celebration of the Sabbath and festivals, through rules governing gender relations, civil law, to the Temple service and slaughter. But it is also a reflection of the society whose norms determined the shape of Jewish life for a millennium and a half, and continues to do so for hundreds of thousands of Jews today. It is also the cognitive underpinning of the Jewish mind as it has developed over the last two millennia, indeed, much more so than the Hebrew Bible.

Let me quote from a short description that I published a few years ago on which I would like to expand:

…The Babylonian Talmud is marked by a salient characteristic, its continuous and unending dialogue. The debates are not haphazard. Certain authorities who were contemporaries or near-contemporaries debate all sorts of issues related to the Mishnah, issues that are sometimes only remotely relevant to them personally. Some statistics will give us an idea of what is happening. The Babylonian Talmud is the creation of at least seven generations of Babylonian authorities, and contains several generations of Israeli authorities as well. However, of the hundreds of authorities mentioned by name, more than forty thousand times in toto, only a dozen or so dominate the discussion and are scattered in pairs… These debates are often arranged as structured discussions on a given topic, so that they appear to be stenographic records of actual debates. This appearance is literary only, however, as few of these authorities lived in close proximity. This is true even though the discussion, or sugya (a “walking through), sometimes seems to reflect a long debate over a point, a debate that gives the appearance of having lasted for generations.

The cognitive style of the Bavli is dialogic and dialectical, as manifested not only by its predominant voice, that of its anonymous redactors, who contributed over half of its text (the stama di-gemara), but by its named authorities, who both query and question and investigate incessantly. They take very little for granted; everything must have an authoritative source—and sound logic counts as such a source. As my first Talmud teacher told us ten-year olds: “A gemoro daf men farshtein, nit nur gloiben” (“We must understand the talmudic text, it us not enough to believe it”).

The predominant mode of inquiry is binary: Is A to be construed as X or perhaps (o dilma’) as Y? But while the query may seem simple, the answers seldom are, and alternate possibilities are brought into consideration. At times the query leads to another, in a dizzying array of cantilevered logic. If A, then X or Y or Z. But if A leads to X or Y or Z, then other binary possibilities open up… and so on. This is one of the ways in which the Bavli comprehends the complexities of human experience.

One consequence of the predominance of about a dozen figures over seven generations is that a few sages have a outsize influence on the whole. Furthermore, the contribution of some sages outside this dozen is quite distinctive and can easily be traced. Thus, R. Yirmiyah (a Babylonian who went on aliyah) and Rammi bar Hamma (a Babylonian who stayed home) both tend to propound theoretical problems, often involving boundary conditions for whose solution no authoritative text exists; an inordinate number of their problems defy solution. One result is that after one such query R. Yirmiyah was ejected from the study hall (Bava Batra 23a); on a later occasion, however, he was brought back by dint of another such question (Bava Batra 165a). Another reaction, that of the highly-influential fourth-generation sage Rava to two of Rammi bar Hamma’s questions was “His sharp-wittedness has brought him to error!” It is perhaps no surprise that R. Yirmiyah praised Rammi bar Hamma to his own teacher R. Zeira (Pesahim 48a). It is also not surprising that on at least one occasion R. Yirmiyah’s suggestion was so astounding that the Bavli interprets it as an attempt to make his master, R. Zeira, smile—but, as the Bavli notes: “R. Zeira did not smile” (Niddah 23a).

There are two other aspects of the Bavli’s thought that I think are essential to its understanding: its sense of proportion, and its requirement of reasonableness (as opposed to adherence to pure logic), that is, that statements conform to reality. One might think that with its continuous arguments the Bavli would be bound to strict logic, but then logic is not always reasonable. Thus, in Shabbat 5a, a particular analysis of the text at hand (quoted, as it happens, in the name of a western scholar for which there is no parallel in the Talmud of the Land of Israel) results in an interpretation in which a midget (or an normal-sized person bent over or standing in a pit) is holding a basket within three handbreadths of the ground. Rava reacts as to this proposal as follows: “Did the authority of the mishnah then trouble himself to teach us these [highly unusual] cases?” Though this retort appears only five times in the Bavli, this may be because such interpretations are rare.

The other response is far more common, and appears more than a hundred times in the Bavli. Thus, in Shabbat 151b, the redactors’ reaction to R. Yosef’s assertion that rabbinic students are never reduced to begging is: “But we see that they are!” Formally, the Bavli is a commentary on the Mishnah, a collection of laws and rules governing almost every area of life promulgated about 220 CE, but one which does not—in common with law collections of the time—decide issues at contention. But at times the Bavli will set aside the mishnaic view on matters that are not disputed as a minority opinion, or it reinterprets it so as to change it substantively, or even marginalize it in some other way.

Nevertheless, though the Bavli is often hard-headed and self-critical, and at times questioning (to the point that it embodies some of the characteristics of the later proverbial Yiddish skepticism and bemusement at human failings), these are only some of its moods. The Bavli reflects all the varied moods of a wise and discerning mentor who bemusement at human folly never stoops to cynicism, and will even at times allow itself a certain measured naivité. Its infinite variety, like that of the human mind and heart, keeps it ever fresh, and that may be the secret of why tens of thousands of people are ready to turn the page and experience the lessons of the next day.

Yaakov Elman is Professor of Judaic Studies at Yeshiva University and an associate of Harvard’s Center for Jewish Studies. He has published or edited eight books and dozens of articles on rabbinic intellectual history, Jewish biblical exegesis, and hasidic thought.


4 thoughts on “Doing Daf Yomi- Guest Post by Yaakov Elman

  1. Eleanor Pearlman says:

    Thank you for this overview. I am looking forward to learning daf yomi for the first time. I need the English translations and will try to find an online group for now. I am most grateful to my teachers.

  2. maggieanton says:

    I have been studying Talmud for 20 years, ever since Rachel Adler [now a rabbi and professor at HUC in Los Angeles] started a woman’s Talmud class in her home. It took us 5 years to complete Tractate Berachot, during which time I began the research that would eventually lead to writing my “Rashi’s Daughters” trilogy. My interest in women and Talmud continued unabated, and I began researching the few women mentioned in the Talmud itself. Prominent among them was Rav Hisda’s daughter, and in order to find all I could about her, along with her family and community, my hevruta and I are now on our third trip through the Shas [not that we study every daf]. But taking the Talmud page by page opens the text up beyond the traditionally studied sugyot into the weird and wonderful, more obscure passages. Whether one calls it coincidence or bashert, the pub date for my historical novel that bears the name “Rav Hisda’s Daughter” is the same day that the current Daf Yomi cycle concludes.

  3. Dear Prof Elman –

    Thank you for this wonderful overview. I plan to include a link to your post in my own blog. I do have one question. When you write “One consequence of the predominance of about a dozen figures over seven figures…” did you actually intend to write “over seven generations” or did I misunderstand? If I did misunderstand, please explain what I missed.

    Thank you and mazal tov on completing this mahzor and may you merit many more.

    Sid Slivko,

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