Learning Talmud Without Asking for Men's Permission

Jerusalem learning group celebrates the completion of the Talmud cycle as the first women-only seminar to have studied all 2,711 pages of it.

An anecdote making the rounds across synagogues in the Katamon neighborhood of Jerusalem tells of a boy who was bored out of his mind during the long summer vacation from school. "Why not go outside and play?" his father suggested in an attempt to tear him away from his iPad. "Don't wanna," the boy replied. "How about a visit to Grandma?" "Don't feel like it," he grumbled. "Why not sit with me in the living room and we'll study a page of Talmud," the father asked. "Talmud!" the boy said, horrified. "That's for women."

Years after the female revolution in Talmud study, droves of women in the modern-Orthodox community learn Gemara (a collection of commentaries that, along with the Mishna, make up the Talmud ), despite a centuries-old prohibition. And today, there are families for whom the above joke is not merely amusing; it offers a real glimpse into how they see the changing role of men and women in the Orthodox world.

The change began nearly underground in the 1980s, on religious kibbutzim and in groups of Orthodox new immigrants in the cities. It has been a widespread movement for a long time now, and its participants have stopped asking for men's permission. Still, there are plenty in the Orthodox community, particularly amongst the ultra-Orthodox, who continue to insist that women are not only unskilled at learning Talmud, but that there is also something unkosher about their doing so. Yet, many Orthodox women study Talmud in religious high schools and colleges throughout the world, and there are more who study in their own independent groups.

The Talmud, a compendium of rabbinic discussions covering nearly everything in Jewish law, culture and the Bible compiled in the 3rd and 6th centuries, is studied daily by many in Jewish communities worldwide, in what is popularly known as Daf Yomi, or literally, a page a day. The entire cycle takes seven and a half years to complete, and that completion is celebrated at a ceremony called Siyyum Hashas.

Tomorrow, a bit of Jewish history will be recorded as a group billing itself as the first-ever group of women to complete the entire Babylonian Talmud cycle will celebrate that achievement. The women learned 2,711 pages, beginning with the first tractate - Berakhot (blessings ) - through the last one, Nidda, which focuses on menstrual laws.

The women devoted an hour a day to studying a page a day together for the past seven and a half years, without taking a day off. If anyone traveled for work or pleasure, hurried to the delivery room with labor pangs, or had to take care of some other urgent business, she still found a way to keep up: for example, by reading a Daf Yomi Internet site (and there are now apps as well ). The women began in 2005 and will celebrate their Siyyum Hashas tomorrow in Jerusalem.

The group, now a genuine community, numbers 30 participants (about a third of whom started in the middle of the project and study in Beit Shemesh ). But they represent merely a drop in the bucket of those studying Talmud daily: tens of thousands of Jews around the world are marking the 12th completion of a Talmud cycle this week, with huge celebrations in which the entire Orthodox world, more or less, is involved in some way.

The idea for Daf Yomi was raised in 1923, by Rabbi Meir Shapiro, in Poland. At that time, most yeshivas studied the Babylonian Talmud, but each one did so at their own pace and in different ways. Shapiro, who also founded the Hokhmei Lublin Yeshiva and was a member of the Agudat Israel movement of Haredi Jewry, believed that a shared study plan would strengthen Jewish identity among the ultra-Orthodox.

The project survived the 20th century and met with increasing success in the 21st. In a few days, the 13th cycle will begin. It is estimated that hundreds of groups operate around the word in English, Yiddish, Russian, French, Spanish, Italian and of course Hebrew. The power of the "page a day" system is that anyone may adopt such a plan on his or her own.

The Sadie Rennert Women's Institute for Torah Studies in Jerusalem, known as Matan, was founded by Malka Bina and proved a pioneer in the field when it opened in the 1980s. In 2005, then-director Yardena Cope-Yosef initiated the program in the institute, and opened it to the public. "I said to her, 'You want a group? Make one. I don't think it will last more than a year,'" Bina says, glad to have been proven wrong.

Unlike members of some other women's learning groups, those who study Daf Yomi in Matan are fluent in Aramaic and boast of five teachers rather than one, each of whom teaches one fixed day a week. They term tomorrow's Siyyum Hashas "a revolutionary and historic event," but insist that there is no need to wave a flag.

"We haven't done this to achieve a feminist goal," says Debra Appelbaum, a veteran member of the group. According to Yifat Kresh, who teaches the Bet Shemesh group, "There are men who don't understand why we study. They say, "We are obligated [by the Torah] to study Gemara, but why should you?' The truth is that it's fun."

After this week's lesson on page 65 of the Nidda tractate, filled with gynecological material that was studied the same day by men around the world, I was admonished by members of the women's group when I asked whether women study differently from men. "You're putting us back a hundred years," said one woman. According to Appelbaum, "Men too must grapple with the fact that the text is upwards of 1,500 years old." Another woman pointed out that "We're not wrestling with the world of men; we've reached a good place, a stage where women study Talmud and don't have to check what men think all the time."

Teacher Surela Rosen says that the importance of the women's Siyyum Hashas lies in its being "the first in the history of the Jewish people." She explains that being part of the group, which requires women to come together every single morning, is "like running errands and going to the gym. It's normal and that's its importance: not innovative, not revolutionary, just normal and part of life."

Next Sunday, some of the women will return and begin the 13th Daf Yomi cycle, which will end in 2020.

Demonstrating disunity

These women, of course, are not the only ones celebrating their accomplishment. At least 12 massive rallies have been or will be held in Israel, the United States, Britain and Poland this week to celebrate the Siyyum Hashas.

In Israel, as is the deeply-rooted custom here, the ceremonies are an opportunity to demonstrate a lack of unity among the Haredim. The Ashkenazim celebrated at the Yad Eliahu Arena in Tel Aviv on Monday, while Sephardim gathered at Teddy Stadium in Jerusalem that same night. Yesterday, the Ashkenazim celebrated again in Jerusalem, and during the week the religious Zionists will celebrate at Binyanei Hauma in Jerusalem. The Hassidic courts held their celebrations independently.

From the ultra-Orthodox point of view, the Siyyum Hashas comes at a sensitive moment. On one hand, it is an opportunity to demonstrate the power of yeshiva students at a time when the demand has been raised for them to serve in the army. But, on the other hand, not everyone in the Orthodox world is so enthusiastic about the Daf Yomi enterprise, as it mainly targets those who choose to work for a living, as opposed to learning full-time. And so the yeshiva world, which tends to look down on these people and prefers those who devote their entire day to studying, is ambivalent about such celebrations during a period when it has to justify its existence as the only valid guardian against the "fatal decree" of army service.

From a different point of view, there is also criticism that the Daf Yomi program encourages superficial learning and is suited to western consumer culture devoted to output and not to real understanding.

Michal Fattal
Michal Fattal