Recently, my seven-year old son was invited to his friend’s house on a Shabbat afternoon for a siyum. I asked this child’s father what the siyum was on. “Oh,” he responded, “He finished Berakhot in daf yomi.” My jaw dropped. He’s a bright kid and all, but I hadn’t realized what kind of a rare talmudic genius my son was playing soccer with. Continue reading
The second post in our series on Daf Yomi comes from field notes taken by Dr. David J. Landes, an anthropologist who has worked on Orthodox Jewish study culture. David was present at the central Siyum held at MetLife stadium last Wednesday night.
Over the past several decades a new ritual has taken hold within the Orthodox community, the daily learning of a prescribed daf, or double sided page, of the Talmud Bavli. The nature of this ritual, though, has yet to be fully investigated. On the one hand, it would seem to be purely a matter of study, of acquiring knowledge of God’s Torah. However, the pace of the learning and the limited amount of time that participants in the program generally allot to it – as far as I know, no daf yomi shiur exceeds one hour in length, and 45 minutes seems to be the preferred “shiur” (measure) – makes it impossible to retain much of what is studied. Talal Asad has written that the original sense of “ritual,” before the adoption of the term by modern anthropologists, was “the apt performance of what is prescribed” which involves “abilities to be acquired according to rules that are sanctioned by those in authority.” According to Asad, ritual presupposed “no obscure meanings, but rather the formation of physical and linguistic skills.” Daf yomi would seem to fit Asad’s understanding of ritual quite well: for many it seems to be more a matter of performance akin to davening (daily Jewish prayer), than the acquisition and retention of knowledge. In any event, the performance of the ritual is particularly demanding of one’s time and intellect, and the day of the completion of the cycle was awaited with great anticipation and excitement.
“Achdus” (“unity”) was the major theme of Wednesday night’s spectacular siyum has-shas celebration at the MetLife Stadium thrown by the Agudath Israel of North America. At the beginning of the evening the Jumbotrons displayed the many locations throughout the world where other siyum celebrations were taking place, as well as videos of daf yomi classes from all different types of Orthodox communities. The refrain “ke-ish echad be-lev ached” (“like one person with one heart”) was repeated many times over the course of the long evening, especially by the representatives of the Agudah who addressed the crowd. The daf yomi program of study was declared to be the great unifier of ke’lal yisrael, with Yidden of every stripe studying the same page of the Talmud on the same day throughout the world. As one speaker put it, no matter what headgear the learners of daf yomi may wear – a black yarmulke, a kippah serugah, a streimel, or a baseball hat – they are united in the great project of learning through shas together, studying the very same text on a daily basis. The daf yomi program is built on an insight made famous by Benedict Anderson, that the reading by disparate individuals of the same text on a daily basis – for Anderson it was the daily newspaper – can be a key factor in generating the sense of an imagined community.
Emphasizing unity, the organizers were careful to avoid controversial, divisive issues. The evening’s master of ceremonies declared that we care for Jews everywhere, no matter where they may be, whether “in Postville, Bulgaria or North Carolina.” The many speakers did not stray from safe themes, such as love of learning and the miracle of Jewish continuity. The only speaker who touched on a political issue was Rabbi Malkiel Kotler who passionately reiterated that Jews who are committed to learning constitute the “tziv’os ha-shem” (“the army of God”) – an indirect comment on the efforts being made to draft yeshiva students into the Israeli army that probably went mostly unnoticed.
A genuine feeling of community was felt within the stadium. It was easy to strike up conversations with complete strangers, everyone seemed eager to share with one another where they lived and whether they were being me’sayem (completing the Talmud). The crowd was laid-back and comfortable. People mostly sat quietly and listened to the speeches, but there were many quiet conversations going on. On the playing field, where I was sitting, the aisles were filled with people milling about, chatting on their smartphones. Everyone seemed to be taking pictures. In front of the dais there was a constantly changing cluster of people jockeying for position in order to snap shots of the various gedolim.
With the vastness of the crowd and the captivating pageantry, which included live performances by popular chazanim, singers and bands, and slick videos on the huge screens, the feeling that one was part of something much larger than oneself, a collective that spans the globe and transcends time and earthly existence, was palpable. Through videos, speeches, and an el maleh, the martyrs of “churban europa” (the Jewish European holocaust) were repeatedly invoked. Those martyrs, we were told, were celebrating together with us, as were the neshamos (“souls”) of all of the past generations of Yidden. After Rabbi Kotler recited the hadran, and Jay Schottenstein, patron of the Artscroll edition of the Talmud, said the kaddish, a “collective effervescence” (to use Durkheim’s term) broke out. The band played, the chazzan sang, and for a good twenty minutes everyone who was lucky enough to have a seat on the playing field (which I did thanks to the generosity of my brother, a siyum-celebrant who flew in from Chicago) danced, and those who were sitting in the stands swayed together, arms around each other’s shoulders.
Everyone danced or swayed in their rows, except, of course, the women who were sitting very still in their seats high up in the third tier. The work of establishing solidarity is inevitably partial and obscures the work of exclusion that is its complement. It was a given that no women could participate in the learning of daf yomi – they were thanked, though, for making it possible for their men to learn — and there were no women in the program or in the videos, including the historical footage from pre-War Europe. While Modern Orthodox men were welcomed and the Agudah speakers marked their inclusion in the celebration and their participation in daf yomi learning, I have heard that Yeshiva University’s efforts to have one of their roshei yeshiva speak were rebuffed. The crowd was actually quite homogeneous, made up mostly of clean-shaven yeshivish ba’ale-battim (orthodox laymen). There were very few chasidim and a small contingent of Modern Orthodox. Jews of other denominations were not recognized in any way. The Noveminsker Rebbe stated in his speech that the continuity of the Jewish people was due solely to the merit of Yidden who learn Torah.
A sense of hierarchy was also subtly conveyed. Finishing shas by learning a daf a day was certainly celebrated as a great accomplishment, but at the same time some of the speakers hinted that real learning requires a good deal more than a quick run through a daf of gemara. Rabbi Shmuel Kaminetzky urged those who were being me’sayem now that they do it again, but this time with tosafos. Rabbi Yitzchak Steiner implored everyone to learn more deeply and with greater fervor, offering his recently-deceased rebbe, Rav Elyashiv, and Rav Elyashiv’s son-in-law, Rav Chaim Kanievsky, as persons to emulate. Another speaker suggested that people consider being regularly tested on their learning in the next cycle (which was met with audible shudders by many around me). It is noteworthy that none of the speakers gave a shiur or “spoke in learning,” which would seem to reflect an assumption that many in attendance either would not be interested or not be able to follow. While the daf yomi program was feted for being a great equalizer, unifying Jews of all types, the distinction between real talmidei chachamim and ba’ale-battim was maintained.
Establishing a sense of identity as a people committed to the study of God’s Torah also requires differentiation from without. The sharp words of the hadran, “anachnu mashkim, ve-hem mashkimim … anachnu ratzim ve-hem ratzim,” (“we awake, and they awake… we run, and they run”) were invoked, and the holding of a siyum ha-shas in a sports stadium was pointed to more than once as a demonstration of this difference between Jews and non-Jews. The venue being a stadium and it being Olympics season, the siyum was depicted as “sweet revenge” for the Olympics held in Berlin in 1936, which Hitler used as a platform to spew his anti-semitic venom. It would not have been appropriate, apparently, to explicitly make reference to the games going on in London, but the contrast was understood: while the non-jews were competing over there, God’s Olympics were being held here in the MetLife Stadium.
Nevertheless, despite the differences being drawn between Yidden who devote their lives to the study of Torah and worship of God, and the non-jews who “waste their time” in idle endeavors, it obviously took a great deal of familiarity with the “goyishe velt” (non-Jewish world) to pull off this kind of event, including intimate knowledge of stadium economics. Corporate sponsorships were prominently advertised and I am told that luxury suites were sold for over a hundred thousand dollars each. And it was apparent that for many of those present it was not their first time in a football stadium: a few rows in front of us a boy sat on a souvenir seat cushion from a recent Superbowl – after a few hours on a very hard seat I was quite envious. The financial and technical resources required to make this event possible are considerable and one cannot help but be impressed by the material power and worldly sophistication of the American Agudah community (it is hard to imagine an event of such scale being undertaken by the Haredi community in Israel.)
One of the functions of daf yomi is to redeem this immersion in non-Jewish culture and society. Participants in the daf yomi program take their gemaras with them when they leave for work in the morning, learn during their commute or during lunch and other free moments, and they take their gemaras with them when they go on vacation and even to ballgames. The glossy commemorative booklet that was distributed to ticket-holders contains an article on the planning of this “historic simchas hatorah.” The article relates that “Thomas M. Steinberg, President of Tisch Family Interests (owners of the New York Giants), once remarked that he finally understood why it had been necessary for him to devote 12 long years to the planning, design and construction of this brand new billion dollar stadium. It was so that tens of thousands of Yidden would have a place to gather for an unprecedented demonstration of kovod haTorah.” With daf yomi, everything in this world exists for the study of torah. Going to work or on vacation enables one to learn; the true purpose of a football stadium as a giant beis medrash is revealed. And on this muggy night in August, with 90,000 people filling the MetLife stadium, the Agudah made it all very believable.
David J. Landes is an independant academic living in the New York area. His dissertation, which he wrote in Princeton University’s Department of Anthropology, is based on fieldwork that he conducted at Yeshiva University and in the Modern-Orthodox community.
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.