The Wrong Way to Study the Talmud

Studying one page of the Babylonian Talmud every day has become a popular custom among a range of different communities in Israel and the Diaspora. But is this really the correct way to approach such a sophisticated, multilayered work?

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Orthodox Jews take part in Siyum HaShas, a celebration marking the completion of the Daf Yomi, a 7.5-year cycle of studying the Talmud, at the MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., Jan. 1, 2020.
Orthodox Jews take part in Siyum HaShas, a celebration marking the completion of the Daf Yomi, a 7.5-year cycle of studying the Talmud, at the MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., Jan. 1, 2020.Credit: JEENAH MOON/Reuters
Yuval Blankovsky
Yuval Blankovsky

Tens of thousands of Jews in Israel and in Jewish communities worldwide will have something to celebrate this Shabbat: the completion of the latest daf yomi (daily page) cycle, during which the Talmud is read, one double page a day, over the course of seven-and-a-half years. The hype around the supposed intellectual achievement of reading through a work of 2,711 pages proves that the daf yomi has become a brand, with little attention being paid to the question of why the Talmud should be studied in the first place. Does speed-reading a double page in Aramaic and Hebrew every day actually constitute serious Jewish learning?

Talmud classes within the daily-page framework are widespread: in Lithuanian (non-Hasidic) ultra-Orthodox communities; in Hasidic sects; and among the national-religious (modern Orthodox) public. In Israel, there are also such classes geared to secular people, such as those led by singer Kobi Oz at a Tel Aviv cultural center, and others designed specifically for women. Of course it’s all on the internet, too, where dozens of classes are offered in a wide range of styles and personal tastes. The daily-page revolution transformed the Babylonian Talmud from an exclusive book into mass literature.

The outside observer might well think that this tradition has long existed in the world of Judaism, like the cycle of the weekly Torah portion read each Shabbat in the synagogue, which apparently began in Babylonia in the 4th century B.C.E. But in fact the project was launched less than a century ago, in 1923, at the initiative of Rabbi Yehuda Meir Shapiro, in Lublin, Poland. Now the 13th cycle is about to end. The event has spawned announcements and articles on “festivals of Siyum Hashas”: that is, completion of the six orders of the Talmud. These celebrations are in many cases shows of strength by groups that want to appropriate the Talmud for themselves; in addition, separate festivities are often conducted by religious feminists. Just this week, on January 1, Agudath Israel of America organized what it called the 13th Global Siyum Hashas of Daf Yomi at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey, with some 92,000 people in attendance.

Weekend banner.

Some members of the national-religious public in Israel and America, in an effort to distinguish themselves from non-Zionist Haredim, will celebrate the event “in honor of the soldiers of the Israel Defense Forces and the security forces,” as part of a project that markets the daily page to children through the newsletter “Israeli Talmud.” They maintain that it is impossible to learn a page of Talmud without remembering the battles of 1948 and the other heroic acts by the IDF. In similar fashion, Hasidic communities link the study of the daily page to legends from their world and to stories of tzadikim (righteous individuals).

What all these disparate groups have in common is a conviction that in order to possess the Talmud, it must be studied in the daily-page format. But that’s a highly dubious assumption: It’s not by chance that this is not how the Babylonian Talmud was studied throughout most of the generations of its existence.

Ahead of an examination of the value of the daily-page method, we might ponder the interest the Talmud generates in general. What is the secret of its power, and why do the different streams in the Jewish world want to appropriate this work?

Talmud books in Safed.
Talmud books in Safed. Credit: Dan Perez

The Talmud is the book of books of the rabbinical world of halakha (Jewish law), the open-source code of the rabbinic world in which all succeeding works of rabbinic are written – from medieval rabbinic literature to the rulings of the late Shas party mentor Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. The Talmud sets forth the knowledge of the sages of the first centuries of the Common Era, the period in which rabbinic Jewry as we know it was shaped and forged. Its power derives from the fact that it is the fundamental text of the rabbinic world, and its distinctive modes of thought have been replicated across the generations.

Talmudic discussion reflects a critical and creative conceptual process that was forged by theoreticians of the halakha and of Jewish thought. For example, in Tractate Kiddushin (60a), Rabbi Yohanan examines the theoretical legal situation of a woman who is married to 100 men simultaneously, and in Tractate Nazir (42a), hundreds of years after the institution of Nazirite asceticism was abolished, Raba ponders the question of whether a Nazirite has actually performed the commandment of shaving his head at the conclusion of his ascetic period, if, after he has shaved his head, two hairs remained, one of which he cut off and the other of which fell off by itself. Not exactly practical questions relating to everyday life.

These extreme cases and others like them have been the bread and butter of talmudic discussion since it was first led by professional scholars 1,800 years ago. Their aim was to clarify the principles of the halakha and of rabbinic thought by considering test cases. On this point an intolerable disparity arises between the daily-page practice and the content of the Talmud. In the best case, the students of the daf yomi are able to grasp the thrust and parry of talmudic debate, the ping-pong of questions and answers that underlies the talmudic method. The daily-page method, however, does not allow one to contemplate the fundamental principles that the topic examines, which are effectively the purpose for which the talmudic debate was set down.

Practitioners of the daily-page approach are comparable to someone who sees a basketball game for the first time without fully knowing the rules or being able to see the scoreboard. Such a spectator might be able to identify all the moves he sees, but won’t understand their meaning and purpose. The daily-page learners move from one page to the next, and they may well grasp the thrust of the whole Talmud, but this form of study ensures that they will not stop to consider the character of the discussion, what it teaches us about the ancient sages’ concept of religion and in what way the Talmud’s modes of debate resemble and differ from contemporary forms of discussion.

It’s not by chance that, as opposed to their national-religious counterparts, the world of Haredi yeshivas spurns the daily-page method. Students there learn by focusing on a small number of pages in a small number of tractates, and through them elucidating the basic scholarly principles as they are expressed. The Haredi conceptualization of talmudic principles might be very far from the world of the work’s authors, but at least they devote an effort to meta-talmudic thought.

Academic readings of the Talmud at secular institutions of higher learning also try to peer, by means of the issues raised, into the world of the sages and to identify the motivations for the creation of talmudic discussion. That, at least, is so when these readings are able to shed the indefatigable “academic” quest to identify the influences of external cultures on the sages. That quest is but a caricature, a mirror image of the rabbinic reading, which ignores completely the historical circumstances in which the talmudic literature was written. One way or the other, both yeshiva students and Talmud scholars in secular academic frameworks try to apprehend, each group in its own way, the rules of the game of talmudic debate.

Men studying at a yeshiva in Hebron.
Men studying at a yeshiva in Hebron.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

The popularity of the daily-page system has its positive aspects – notably, in dispelling the recoil from studying the Talmud and expanding the exposure to it. At the same time, the success of the various study circles that pursue the daily page also indicates the existence of something negative in the landscape of contemporary Judaism. The daily-page method originates in the modern religious world of the 20th century, which sanctifies obedience and conservative thought over understanding and critical thinking. It seeks to eliminate the critical thought that characterized the world of the traditional beit midrash, or house of study, and to supplant it with an alternative according to which the Talmud, too, can be rendered superficial and shallow, and then shred. Or, in short, to study Talmud the way Psalms are read and no more.

Life or death

To illustrate how juicy, sophisticated and fraught with meaning the Talmud is, and how it asks the learner to observe it with moderation and sensitivity, and not rush through it, I will offer a very brief analysis of one talmudic dictum from Tractate Sanhedrin (75a) that appears in the context of the following text: “Rav Yehuda says that Rav says: [There was] an incident involving a certain man who set his eyes upon a certain woman and passion rose in his heart [to the point that he became deathly ill]. And they came and asked doctors [what was to be done with him]. And [the doctors] said: He will have no cure until she engages in sexual intercourse [with him]. The Sages said: Let him die, and she may not engage in sexual intercourse with him. [The doctors said:] She should at least stand naked before him. [The Sages said:] Let him die, and she may not stand naked before him. [The doctors suggested: The woman] should at least converse with him behind a fence [in a secluded area, so that he should derive a small amount of pleasure from the encounter. The Sages insisted:] Let him die, and she may not converse with him behind a fence.”

There is nothing naive about this “tale,” in which, in the face of the doctors’ recommendations, the sages are unwilling to show consideration for a person whose life depends on violating a woman’s autonomy over her body. Space does not permit me to dwell on the other messages embedded here, so we will focus on the talmudic discussion.

Rabbi Yaakov Bar Idi and Rabbi Shmuel Bar Nahmani were divided over the issue of whether the story is about a man who lusts after a married woman or about a man who lusts after an unmarried woman. At the end of the debate, the Talmud asks: If the woman is not married, why should the lustful man who is dying not marry the woman he desires? This would resolve the conflict between concern for the health of the lustful man and the need to uphold halakha and ensure the modesty and honor of the woman and her family. The Talmud replies that if the lustful man were to lawfully marry the woman whom he desires, he would not be cured, because he desires the woman precisely because the fulfillment of his lust entails an iniquity. Our lustful man is in a paradoxical and ridiculous situation: When what he lusts for is permitted him, it loses its power over him.

The Talmud bases this argument on the words of Rabbi Yitzhak, which adds an additional layer of complexity to the talmudic utterance: “Since the day the Temple was destroyed, sexual pleasure was taken away from those who engage in permitted intercourse and given to transgressors, as it is stated: “Stolen waters are sweet, and bread eaten in secret is pleasant’ [Proverbs 9:17].” According to Rabbi Yitzhak, in some distant and more civilized past, which he signifies as the period in which the Temple existed, people did indeed enjoy sexual relations permitted by the halakha. But all that has been lost to us in the reality of present-day life; in the world we live in, pleasure has been wrenched from permitted sexual relations, and that pleasure now resides only in relations that are conducted sinfully.

This is an ironic statement, which ridicules both those who sin by conducting sexual relations in iniquity, and those who do not sin but feel that they are losing out by preventing themselves from sinning. Rabbi Yitzhak thinks it’s “all in the head,” that the cultural freight with which one enters into sexual relations dictates the character and intensity of the pleasure that will be derived. There is a special pleasure in sexual relations conducted in iniquity, pleasure that is indicative of human weakness and that shows to what extent the system of social conventions dictates even the physical pleasure a person derives from the unmediated experience of having sexual relations.

Rabbi Yitzhak’s dictum exemplifies well the vast distance that the rabbinic world has traveled from the talmudic period, in which it displayed complex thought rife with sensitivity and human wisdom, to the present day. The study of the Talmud by means of the daily-page project is an attempt to read the work as an insipid product, a mechanical rabbinic device that deals with contradictory utterances and tries to resolve them, like the regular mechanical rabbinic contrivances of our time.

The ancient sages likened the Torah to a drug, which can be a drug of life or a drug of death, depending on the consumer. The appropriate way to consume the special drug of the Talmud is to study it diligently and read it with sensitivity for its complexity. The Talmud is a sophisticated and multilayered work, and the daf hayomi is not a suitable way to enter its gates.

Dr. Yuval Blankovsky is a Talmud scholar. His forthcoming book, “The Function of Tradition in Talmudic Deliberation,” will be published by the Brill Reference Library of Judaism.

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