Jewish Journal


August 3, 2012

Climbing Mount Talmud



Orthodox Jews dance during the 12th Siyum HaShas, a celebration marking the completion of the Daf Yomi, at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey, August 1, 2012. (Photo: Reuters)

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. ‎

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