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Playing the Daily Daf by Orrin Tilevitz
Playing the Daily Daf by Orrin Tilevitz

Volume 2 , Issue 1

Talmud Torah, the study of Torah, existed before the Torah itself. Broadly speaking, there are two kinds of ?Torah?: the Torah. i.e., the written law given to Moses on Mt. Sinai, and the oral law, Torah shebe'al peh, which encompasses the whole of Jewish tradition passed down from generation to generation, most of which was later written down to form the Talmud and similar texts, and through which the words of the Torah are construed. Some of this tradition antedates the giving of the Torah, and thus the Rabbis tell us that Jacob studied Torah in the yeshiva of his ancestors Shem and Ever for 14 years, many years before the Torah was given. Although most of us cannot afford to spend 14 years doing nothing but studying Torah, each of us is obligated to study Torah -- in one form or another -- every day. Given the realities of human priorities, however, the study of Torah tends to come out second best, if that.

Daf Yomi Like a Marathon

So was born the idea of the Daf Yomi (lit. daily page), an international program sponsored by Agudath Israel in which participants study one page (two sides) of the Babylonian Talmud each day. For the uninitiated, the Babylonian Talmud consists of two parts: the Mishna, essentially a set of black letter legal principles (and dissenting views) which was compiled in roughly the second century and which is arranged, roughly topically, by tractate; and the Gemorrah, essentially a record of discussions on the Mishna by Babylonian rabbis, which was compiled several centuries later and edited and annotated during succeeding centuries. (There is also a Jerusalem Talmud, consisting of the Mishna and discussions by rabbis who lived in Israel. Since at the time Babylonia rather than Israel was the seat of Jewish scholarship and since the Jerusalem Talmud was never edited, it is studied infrequently.) The notion behind the Daf Yomi program is much the same as that behind a systematic program of running five miles a day: once one sets aside time for an activity which is basically beneficial (although it may be difficult initially) and in which one has a definite goal, one develops the discipline to stick with it and even begin to enjoy it. I suppose the goal of most runners is to finish a marathon in one piece and preferably in under four hours. The goal, the ultimate challenge of the Daf Yomi participant, is to finish the entire Talmud. preferably retaining something of what one has learned. Since there are 2711 two-sided pages in the standard edition of the Babylonian Talmud, completing the Talmud in the Daf Yomi program takes about seven and one-half years. The program began in 1923. and eight cycles have now been completed. The most recent cycle began November 25. 1982 (9 Kislev 5743) and will end on April 27, 1990 (2 Iyar 5790).

Many Jews who lack a yeshiva education have nonetheless been exposed to the study of the Talmud in one environment or another, such as a Shabbat afternoon synagogue class or a Sunday morning discussion group. While studying Talmud at any level is praiseworthy, doing the Daf Yomi bears about as much resemblance to sitting in a basic once-a-week class as a systematic tour of New York City's streets at 35 mph. stopping for traffic lights but not necessarily for stray cats, bears to two weeks of standing on a street corner in, say, Bensonhurst. Also, most Jews who study the Talmud at all complete a tractate at most every few years, or may hear the rabbi complete a tractate on the day before Passover (which is otherwise a fast day for the firstborn: the celebration attendant upon hearing the completion of a tractate of the Talmud, a siyam, cancels the fast). By contrast, in the Daf Yomi program, one completes a tractate, on the average, every 69.5 days.

Like a comprehensive tour of New York City streets, even at thoroughbred speeds. in the Daf Yomi program one sees everything in the Talmud. which is just about everything Judaism has to offer: the laws of Shabbat and their rationale, the meaning of prayer, the rules of charity, examples of piety, the basic principles of faith, speculation about the world to come, civil law, criminal law, relations with gentiles, kashruth, family purity, and much more. It's all there, ranging from the intensely relevant to the (apparently) hopelessly arcane.

Why Study about Animal Sacrifices

Take the tractate currently being studied, z?vachim, which deals with the basic rules of animal sacrifices. (It discusses other things too, scattered here and there: one also encounters the rules of animal sacrifices in other tractates. A wonderful and maddening aspect of Talmud study is the proto-Joycian form of the discussions, so that one may run across nearly any topic at any time.) As was settled at least 2800 years ago, sacrifices may be offered only in a Beit Hamikdash, the Temple: since the last one was destroyed over 1900 years ago. we can't offer sacrifices until a new one is built. But although we pray daily for a rebuilding of the Beit Hamikdash and a restoration of sacrifices, it is hard for us to imagine how either could happen any time soon. For one thing, the site of the last ? and next ? Beit Hamikdash is occupied by a prominent mosque, which for political reasons will not be easy to move. (There are those who believe that when Jewish soldiers arrived at the Western Wall, the kotel, at the end of the Six-Day War in 1967. they should have immediately blown up the mosque. perhaps forever ending Moslem pretensions to Jerusalem and the Temple mount. In any event the opportunity passed, and the Holy of Holies remains desecrated.) So why study about animal sacrifices? Because we are the guardians of the tradition, and if we do not study it, we will cease to care whether it ever existed and will cease to hope for its restoration. That is one reason behind the Daf Yomi program: we study this material because it is there, so that it will not be forgotten. There is also the challenge. and joy, of completing an intellectual task ? although the task is never truly complete because as soon as we complete the Talmud, we start over from the beginning.

Unless one is a scholar, studying the daily Daf on one's own by simply reading the text (even in English) is practically impossible. Fortunately, one can purchase or borrow a tape-recorded explanation of each Daf. subscribe to Dial-a-Daf and hear the Daf explained over the telephone, or attend a Daf Yomi class. Many such classes are scheduled during the lunch hour, giving one a pleasant and intellectually stimulating alternative to shopping wandering the city's streets, or listening to inane small talk and office gossip. I attend the Daf Yomi class in Downtown Brooklyn held in a donated conference room. It is normally led by a rotating crew of five volunteers: a math professor, a real estate professional, a computer programmer and a couple of New York City bureaucrats. Each evidently eats and breathes Torah: the real estate guy, for example, entrusts his business to associates for several weeks each summer in order to study in a yeshiva in Israel. The class begins at 12:55 each weekday. 12:50 during the winter. and takes 40 or 45 minutes, during which the teacher reads. translates and explains the Daf, discusses halackot (laws) derived from the Daf, and answers the participants' questions in Yiddishized yeshiva English (or maybe it's Anglicized yeshiva Yiddish), all at speeds ranging from moderate to breakneck, depending on the volume of material to be covered that day. After the class, the participants and everyone else who has straggled in recite mincha. And at the conclusion of each tractate, one particularly generous local businessman throws a party for everyone catered by the local kosher dairy restaurant.

Agudath Israel of America publishes an international directory of Daf Yomi classes, as well as a mincha (the afternoon prayer) map for Manhattan and many other useful materials, which can be obtained by calling the Agudah at (212) 797-9000.

Orrin Tilevitz is a lawyer in Brooklyn.



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