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March 1, 2012

Accidental Talmudist, Day One

http://www.jewishjournal.com/blog/item/accidental_talmudist_day_one_20120301/

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Salvador Litvak

This week marks the seventh anniversary of an errand that changed my life.

On March 2, 2005, I went to The Mitzvah Store on Pico Boulevard in order to buy a book. I was in my seventh year of being a practicing Jew, and I had probably visited the shop a dozen times. After finding the needed book, I glanced over at the shelves of Talmud. Every set looked like three Encyclopedia Britannicas and, as usual, I was totally intimidated.

I’d heard of the Talmud, of course. I had a bar mitzvah in the late disco era. My mother is a survivor of Theresienstadt. And my father sent me to Hebrew school so this Judaism thing wouldn’t end with him. I think even most non-Jews have heard of the Talmud.

But to study it? That’s something rabbis and yeshiva boys do. Not that I was opposed to Jewish learning — after finding my own way back to Judaism, I studied with some of Los Angeles’ finest — Rabbis Mordecai Finley, Shlomo Schwartz, Mark Blazer, Jonathan Omer-Man, David Wolpe and David Seidenberg — and they all brought down words from the Talmud. But to actually read those books myself? Not with a family and a career. It was pretty clear to me that that boat had already sailed.

Still, as I looked over at those rows of tractates with strange names like “Bava Kama” and “Avodah Zara,” I thought, “What am I afraid of? They’re just books.” I was an English major in college. I read the whole Bible for a class. These volumes have English on their spines, and there must be a book one of the Talmud. I’ll just buy that and dip my toe in the sea. What could it hurt?

I walked over and picked up the nearest volume of something called the “Schottenstein Edition of Talmud Bavli — the Babylonian Talmud.” The table of contents told me that the first book is “Berachos 1.” I found a copy and took it over to the counter with my other purchases. The kid at the register wore a kippah. As he rang up “Berachos 1,” he remarked, “You’re doing Daf Yomi.”

I said, “What’s Daf Yomi?”

He looked at me strangely. “Well, Daf Yomi means page-of-the-day. It’s a program where Jews all over the world read the Talmud together, one page every day. It takes seven and a half years to do the cycle, and today ... is day one.”

“Really?” “Really.”

Fairly stunned, I walked out to the car. “Seven and a half years’ worth of pages,” I thought, as I perused the strange layout of “Berachos 1.” Aramaic, Hebrew and English; boldface here, all caps there, comments on comments, an ocean of footnotes.

“And today is day one. A 1-in-2,711 chance. OK, God, I get the message. I’m doing Daf Yomi.”

And that’s how my voyage began. It’s been called the world’s longest marathon. A page of Talmud equals four to 12 pages of English. It takes 20 to 50 minutes a day for seven and a half years. Every day, including Shabbat, Yom Kippur and even your wedding day, if that should occur during the cycle.

I also learned it’s considered a sin to study Talmud without a teacher. So I found a Daf Yomi class, or shiur, in my neighborhood, but every other word from the teacher’s mouth was in Hebrew. My colleagues all nodded along, but I was lost. I felt like I didn’t learn a thing, and I had to reread the page by myself later in the Schottenstein.

So much for the shiur, I thought. It might be a sin to read alone, but the editors of the Schottenstein did a phenomenal job. Their Talmud is not just a translation. They add explanatory language between every phrase, thus tripling the length of the text but essentially “teaching” it as a Daf Yomi teacher would.

Still, I felt guilty reading alone. It nagged at me for the next three years, until I finally tried another shiur. Miraculously, things had changed, or rather, I had changed. When I checked into Mechie Blau’s shiur at Congregation Etz Chaim on Highland Avenue, he also spoke every other word in Hebrew, but by then, I had absorbed enough Talmud logic and language that I could follow along. I was thrilled.

I have so much more to tell you about my journey, but that’s why I’m embarking on the Accidental Talmudist blog. Over the past seven years, I marked hundreds of profound tales, strange laws, ribald legends, ancient prescriptions, and I hope to transmit them all. The Talmud is roughly arranged by subject matter, but the Sages digress constantly, and when you embark upon a linear Daf Yomi voyage through their seas, you never know what the day’s page will bring. What you will always find, however, is a passionate quest for truth in every aspect of human experience. There is simply no matter too small or too large for the Sages — they eventually focus on everything. If God is in the details, this is the surest path to Him.

My hope is that someone will hear my story and try out Daf Yomi for himself or herself. The cycle renews this August, so now is the perfect time to investigate and prepare. You don’t need a 1-in-2,711 miracle to set sail on the seas of Talmud.

As Purim arrives this week, I will leave you with a tale from tractate Megillah (7b): Rava said: One must become so intoxicated on Purim that he cannot distinguish between “cursed is Haman” and “blessed is Mordecai.” Rabbah and R. Zeira celebrated the Purim feast together. They became intoxicated. Rabbah stood up and killed R. Zeira. The next day, Rabbah prayed for him and revived him. The following year, Rabbah said, “Come, let us celebrate the Purim feast together!” R. Zeira answered, “A miracle does not happen every day!”

Not every day, but perhaps today. To learn more about how, when and why Rabbah killed R. Zeira, check back here.

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Salvador Litvak wrote and directed the Passover comedy and cult hit “When Do We Eat?” His current film, “Saving Lincoln”, explores Abraham Lincoln’s conflicted tenure as commander-in-chief through the eyes of his dear friend and bodyguard, Ward Hill Lamon.

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