The Curtain of Talmud

Inside the Jewish underground of daf yomi, daily Talmud study.

At the Siyum Hashas celebration in the Royal Festival Hall in London, the ceremony for the ending of seven and a half years of daf yomi (daily Talmud study ) on Monday, the guest speaker, Rabbi Moshe Tuvia Lieff, had an intriguing vort, or word.

"For the first time in history," he thundered in his Brooklyn accent, "this royal hall is celebrating the curtain going down, not up. Every mesechet (tractate of the Talmud ) is a masach, a screen, a curtain that protects us and shields us, our families and our community, from a foreign culture."

Like most men who were brought up in an Orthodox Jewish family, I have spent more time with a mesechet of Talmud open before me than with any other book bar none, including the Bible. But in all those years of study, I never thought that these attempts to come to grips with a convoluted text, written over 1,500 years ago in a jumble of ancient Hebrew and Aramaic, compiling the discussions of seven or eight generations of Babylonian scholars all brought together on the same page as if they were all sitting in one room, somehow set me apart from other people.

But for the first time I realized that I belonged to a club. I can make some sense of that jumble of unpunctuated syllables, formulate an argument based on the cut, thrust and parry of those ancient scholars and the layers of commentary that have been written on them in every century since. I used to be very proud of this ability which took long frustrating years to achieve, but I always felt it was just another intellectual achievement, like writing and reading in two different languages or having an appreciation of poetry and fine wines. Well, not quite the same, but I didn't feel that having a certain Talmudic fluency made me stand out from other, lesser mortals. It certainly hasn't shielded me from foreign culture (though many would argue that is my fault, not the Talmud's ).

But Rabbi Lieff is right. Talmud-learners are members of an exclusive club and those who study the daf yomi, a daily page in a fixed seven-and-a-half year cycle, are members of the biggest book club in the world, with an estimated 50,000 members. Only instead of meeting up once a week at someone's house for a leisurely discussion on the works of Jane Austen over tea and scones, they are getting up early every morning, or giving up time with their families after a day's work, for a 50-minute grind that never lets up on weekends or vacations. (It is also one of the last mens-only clubs, as Talmud learning among women is both rare and frowned upon. In this case, the curtain is a physical one. )

Talmud for the masses

This dedication is impressive and unprecedented in any culture. It has also allowed many Jews to join what was once considered the elite of Torah study. As Prof. Samuel Heilman, perhaps our foremost researcher of Jewish study patterns, points out: "Before the Holocaust, most religious Jews belonged to Hevrat Tehilim or Hevrat Mishnayot (groups who met to recite Psalms or chapters of the Mishna ), but daf yomi enabled them to join the upper class of Hevrat Shas. They have joined the elite but this has also caused a dumbing down of Talmud, as many of those studying a daf in 45 minutes are just reading it, they don't really understand very much of it. It is closer to prayer than study."

Though many rabbis will not admit this openly, they have serious reservations regarding daf yomi. In traditional yeshivas, students and rabbis will often spend weeks poring over the intricacies of a couple of paragraphs - the Lithuanian tradition which has infused the entire yeshiva world prizes omkut (depth ) far above bekiut (depth of knowledge ) and as a result focus mainly on studying a small number of tractates which contain the thorniest, most impenetrable passages. When Rabbi Meir Shapira of Lublin proposed daf yomi originally in 1923, it was meant as a study method for working men who only had an hour or so a day to indulge in study. The success and growing popularity of the system has created a challenge for many rabbis and that is why in their speeches at Siyum Hashas events around the world, they are at pains to emphasize that the vanguard of Judaism are still those who sit all day in yeshiva and study, unbothered by worldly concerns and that on no account must anyone think that by learning a page of Talmud, he has attained a level in which he can make spiritual or halakhic (Jewish legal ) rulings for himself.

Rabbinical reaction

The rabbinical reaction to this intrusion of the masses on what was once the preserve of a select few, or what Heilman calls "the proletarization of the Talmud," has been to enlarge the clubhouse while strengthening its walls. Daf yomi has helped create what Prof. Menachem Friedman termed "a society of learners," it has also served the rabbis as another tool for cutting their society off from the rest of the world. They are on guard that the daf students will not be liberated by their new knowledge and for that reason have institutionalized the siyum ceremonies, making sure that they become yet another occasion for celebrating the miraculous resurrection of the Haredi community after the Shoah, an opportunity to show how we have grown.

That is the true meaning of the 90,000-strong gathering at the MetLife Stadium in New Jersey this week. Talmud, or as its learners normally call it, gemara, is a fascinating intellectual challenge; to many it is the epitome of Judaism, combining intricate legal issues with basic details of ritual observance, biblical commentary and breathtaking myths, and even a fair amount of heresy, sex and absurd scientific theories (which is another reason rabbis are a bit uneasy with the masses studying a page a day, unsupervised ), but it does set you apart. Even with the help of translations into modern Hebrew and English, you need a grounding and background that is only obtainable in the Orthodox Jewish community to begin to comprehend it.

I once took part in a study event with a group of liberal rabbis in which we split into havrutot (study pairs ) and studied half a page of Talmud in the raw form without any contemporary translation. My partner was a Conservative rabbi, a leader of a community and a man much wiser than me in years and study, but after just a few lines, he became frustrated and impatient to reach "the point." The sad fact is that today there are only a handful of people outside the Orthodox community who can tackle an unadorned page of Talmud, and almost all of them spent their formative years in yeshiva before abandoning that world. Millions of literate and self-aware Jews are denied this integral part of their heritage, one of the most impressive intellectual achievements of mankind, while 10 percent of the Jewish people continue to learn it behind the curtains.

ada zavidov
Tomer Appelbaum
Ultra-Orthodox Jews celebrating the end of a seven-year cycle of studying texts from the Talmud.
Women learning Daf Yomi at Matan, in Jerusalem.
Michal Fattal