August 3, 2012
Climbing Mount Talmud
A shorter and slightly different version of this article appeared yesterday in the IHT-New York Times.
It is a commitment like few others. Seven and a half years of daily study – every day, no time off, no vacations, no holiday breaks, in sickness and health, at home and while traveling. Started almost 80 years ago, by a rabbi named Meir Shapiro, the study of the Daf Yomi – literally, a page a day - this week ends its twelfth cycle of learning and immediately begins its thirteenth. As I write this post I’m still undecided: should I, can I, will I?
Some basic facts: The Babylonian Talmud is a compilation of rabbinical discussions, sayings, rulings and stories drawn together between the third and fifth centuries CE, and studied ever since. Except for the Bible, it is the most important Jewish book, and even more than the Bible, it is the book Jews relied on as they were developing their practices and customs over the last 1,500 years. It is not an easy read: 2711 pages, many of them written in Aramaic, and challengingly encoded in ways that make it almost impossible for the untrained eye to understand. I’ve studied Talmud here and there, more intensively at a younger age, more sporadically in recent years. I can read it, and understand what I’m reading, if I get help from the many available commentaries and guides.
If one takes it one page at a time, every day, for approximately seven and a half years, one is able to say: I’ve read it all, including those parts of the long 36 tractates that are rarely visited by students, some of them dealing with issues that can seem quite bizarre to the untrained reader.
The rulings of the life of the Nazir - a person who chooses to abstain from drinking wine, avoid contact with the dead and refrain from cutting his hair - is a typical example out of thousands.
Page Nazir 20B is a typical example out of hundreds: “[Rabbi] Resh Lakish [once] seated with Rabbi Yehuda the Prince and discoursed as follows: [People can become nazirites by saying ‘I too’] only if they attach their vows within the interval of a break in conversation. And how long can such interval be? The time sufficient for a greeting. And how much time is this? The time taken by a disciple to greet his master…”
And on and on this goes, presenting the reader with the discussion that bears little relevance to modern life.
Of course, no one is forced to study the Talmud page by page on a daily basis. One can study once a week at the local synagogue, or twice a week with a friend, or apply for Yeshiva studies and delve into the pages all day, or choose Talmudic studies at university. Today, the tools with which to overcome the ancient text can be found on e-readers, podcasts, and online. I can use them, but never had the time or the motivation to read it all. The invention of Daf Yomi is for people like me – or is it?
Rabbi Shapiro’s program offered an antidote to the arduous practice of daily Talmud study: Comfort in numbers. The idea was to have as many Jews as possible around the world poring over the same page every day, moving forward in their study at the same pace and celebrating the end of the cycle together — as they do this week both in Israel and the Diaspora. Shapiro hoped that a sense of collective endeavor would be a key motivational ingredient that would help a Talmud student get through to the end.
More than 10,000 celebrated it together in Tel Aviv earlier this week. An international organization devoted to increasing Torah study held its celebration at Israel’s most notable stadium, Yad Eliyahu. In New Jersey, 92,000(!) celebrated the Siyum – literally, the completion – at MetLife Stadium. Smaller gatherings, celebrations and discussions are being held around the world (including the humble event that I moderated Thursday night in Jerusalem). A sense of togetherness is in the air, and of a looming challenge: its now, or only seven years from now. Its now – or January 5th 2020.
Why not doing it? That’s easy: Life, work, children, time, time, time, and the unavoidable shallowness of having to study in such hurried way, and the unanswered question - why bother - to which no answer of rationality applies.
Well, why? The Talmud teaches (Kiddushin 30): The Torah is the perfect remedy. Like the man who struck his son a strong blow, and then put a plaster on his son’s wound, telling him, “Son, as long as this plaster is on your wound you can eat and drink at will, and bathe in hot or cold water, without fear”. That’s quite motivational, is it not?
Seriously, studying it all would surely give me a unique sense of achievement. It would not be a smart career move; it would not lead to a salary increase. It’s not a goal that yields a diploma or is recognized by any official body. It is a challenge that is staring me in the face - like a mountain climber contemplating Mount Everest. I want to climb it just because it is there. It’s Mount Talmud.