Daf Yomi – The Daily Page
In a recent article in Commentary Magazine (Jewish Genius, April 2007), Charles Murray, the non-Jewish co-author of The Bell Curve, put forth the thesis that Jews are and have long been more intelligent than their surrounding societies. I am not in the position to contribute anything to Murray’s speculations, aside from the comment that if he’s right, it wouldn’t be all that surprising given the centrality of learning in Jewish culture these past few millennia. But I do wish to offer a story about that learning, and about how alive it is.
Back in the 1920’s a pragmatic rabbi named Meir Shapira accidentally transformed how the Talmud is studied. Cognizant that study of the Talmud (or Gemara, it’s more common Aramaic title) is a time consuming activity even if one has already invested the necessary years of training, he invented a method of serious study for busy Jews. Rather than plumbing the depths of the text, he speculated it should be possible to race over a Blatt (or folio: two pages) in less than an hour, every day. True, one wouldn’t have learned very much, but given enough patience – seven and a half years of it, to be precise – one would cover all 2,711 Blaetter of the entire Talmud, and what had been lost by superficiality would have been gained by quantity. Shapira may also have had a practical goal in mind: when in 1930 he founded the Great Yeshiva in Lublin (Yeshivat Chachmei Lublin), he synchronized its schedule so that his potential donors and his students were all on the same page, thus creating a sense of community that couldn’t have harmed anyone.
Why would two pages an hour be an accomplishment, on the one hand, and such a sacrifice of seriousness on the other? For that you have to keep in mind that the basic text of the Talmud is in Hebrew, created accumulatively by generations of rabbis in Judea and the Galilee over some 250 years, or in Aramaic, created accumulatively by a different group of rabbis mostly in Babylonia after the first group finished. The languages are almost seamlessly intertwined. There is no punctuation, and no vowels. Some words could be either Hebrew or Aramaic, with different meanings in each language. The rabbis had the fine ability to put complex arguments into seven-word sentences, which they then shortened to five. Like their distant descendants, they often interrupted one another. Unlike their distant descendants, they all knew the entire Bible by heart, so that whenever one of them quoted half a passage, all the others recognized it in its full context. Also, they constantly used hyper-links, some 2,000 years before hyper-links were invented, so that when studying a page it helps to have previously studied all the other pages. Each section, called a tractate, has its own subject, which it scrupulously doesn’t adhere to (hence the hyper links), meaning that if you have brushed up your command of the putative subject of the tractate, there’s as good a chance as not that you’ll be dealing with something else anyhow.
At the time of creation of this mind-twister it was preserved orally, and when it eventually was put in writing, some 1,500 years ago, an occasional word had been misplaced or half a sentence falsely remembered; then, once it was finalized in writing, another thousand years would pass before Gutenberg’s invention, providing ample time for discrepancies to creep in between the various hand-written versions.
All of the ensuing generations have been mulling over this text ever since, often putting down their thoughts in writing. Rashi, an eleventh-century genius in France, followed almost the entire text and wrote a line-for-line commentary, most of which is an attempt to fill in the words and meanings that the earlier rabbis had left out. A group of scholars headed by his grandsons, collectively called the Tosafot, then trawled the entire Talmud and pointed out contradictions between statements – there are many of these – and figured out ways to reconcile them with one another. Rashi and the Tosafot all thought they were writing in Hebrew, or was it Aramaic? Without punctuation or vowels, in any case. From time to time Rashi helpfully translated something into the French of his day, and I’m told that philologists of mediaeval French regard this as a treasure trove – after all, how many people are there around who still know mediaeval French? (But you have to know ancient Hebrew or Aramaic to know what the French is a translation of). It begins to be clear why the Talmud is rarely studied alone, the preferred mode being in pairs who convene regularly in groups to make certain they’re all on the same page, so to speak.
The pertinence of Rashi and the Tosafot is not that they were unusually brilliant or erudite, which they were, but rather that when the Talmud was eventually put into print the typesetters incorporated Rashi and the Tosafot onto the basic page, so that the ancient texts appear as a block in the center of the page, surrounded by the mediaeval commentaries. (As with hypertexts, this is a concept that has become easier to understand since the advent of modern word processors and their various graphic potentials). All the other commentators went into the back of the volume, or into separate volumes, which partially explains why when the Nazis burned the library of the seven-year-old Great Yeshiva in Lublin, there were already more than 22,000 volumes in it.
Study of the Talmud is a painstaking, word-by-word and sentence-by-sentence deciphering of the ancient texts, accompanied by a decoding of the mediaeval ones and a clarification of the ensuing thoughts and concepts of all the other scholars who engaged in the discussion these past 1,500 years and are still doing so. It’s slow going. Doing a Blatt in an hour means getting the gist of the basic text, probably with Rashi’s assistance. Should the learners be experts, it might even be possible to glance at the Tosafot. All the rest is dropped.
Intriguingly, Shapira gave his project the Hebrew name Daf Yomi (Daily Page), and not it’s Yiddish counterpart. This would eventually contribute to the portability of the concept into a Jewish world where Yiddish is a distant third player to Hebrew and English. 80 years later his idea has become popular beyond his wildest dreams. A traveler arriving practically anywhere in the Jewish world can find a group of locals who are on the same page. There are at least 230 groups in Jerusalem alone. Websites offer daily visual and audio recordings; some have scanned the daily page. Blogs are perfect for discussing such an ongoing issue, which would explain why there are so many Daf Yomi ones. Students of Daf Yomi often have less training than traditional students, and always have less time, so there is a thriving industry of new publications of the Talmud equipped with tools to make it easier – punctuation, vowels, translations, diagrams.
If anyone ever expected the modern world to erode Jews’ commitment to learning their traditional literature, they weren’t expecting this. Wikipedia’s Hebrew-language version claims there are hundreds of thousands of Daf Yomi learners worldwide, and this actually may be true. When the cycle was last completed, in March 2005, tens of thousands of celebrating learners convened in Madison Square Garden alone. Poignantly, a smaller group, from all over Europe, convened in the empty building in Lublin that once housed the Great Yeshiva.
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What are they all studying? This summer of 2007 we’re traversing the tractate of Yevamot, the Yevama being the childless widow who must be married by a surviving brother, as decreed in the 25th chapter of Deuteronomy, verse 5: “If brothers are living together and one of them dies without a son, his widow must not marry outside the family. Her husband's brother shall take her and marry her and fulfill the duty of a brother-in-law to her.” The Bible also offers two examples of such families, one being the story of Judah and Tamar in Genesis 38, and the other being the family of Ruth, great grandmother of King David.
It’s a rather straightforward concept, you would think – until, that is, you begin to think in Talmudic terms, which entail figuring out the full meaning of the concept through a process of testing its edges. A brother: is he a full brother? The widow: might there be family connections to her that prohibit marriage? In Talmudic society polygamy and childhood marriages were permitted. The potential complications that require consideration are legion. And so, in recent weeks large numbers of men and, yes, women the world over have been stretching their minds over questions such as the following:
Two brothers marry a grandmother and her granddaughter (keeping in mind that the grandmother could be in her mid thirties and her granddaughter approaching puberty). The husband of the grandmother died childless, but left two widows. What now? (Answer: the surviving brother is prohibited from marrying his wife’s grandmother, and this prohibition is extended also to her co-wife, even though this means the deceased brother will have no-one to carry his name). The same logic is then applied to a case where a man married the half sister of his half brother (they are not related) and died leaving two widows. Obviously, the surviving half brother cannot marry his half sister, but also not his half sister’s co-wife.
These, however, are simple cases. A bit further on we deciphered the rules in a family of four brothers, two of whom married two sisters. One brother died, and his widow must now marry one of the two remaining brothers. (She cannot be married to her sister’s husband). However, before the marriage is consummated, a fifth brother is born; since he didn’t exist during the lifetime of the dead brother, there is no obligation to marry the widow. A while later, the sister’s husband also dies childless, and the same thing happens. The remaining uninvolved brother of the original four marries her, but not before a sixth brother is born. When eventually the two second husbands die childless, there actually is a way to keep the two twice-widowed sisters in the family, by having each of them marry the brother who was born after the death of her respective first husband, whom he never knew.
And so on, and on, and on. We heard rumors of Daf Yomi groups who were using colored Lego figures, but our rabbi insisted that was a mild form of cheating, and we should do the mental acrobatics in our minds alone. (Once, when he was away for a few days, his substitute cheated. It made things easier). Eventually some of the acrobatics indeed got easier, as always with practice, but also because some of the concepts began repeating themselves. Our growing familiarity with the models, however, opened the way for a far more substantial debate, namely, what did those ancient rabbis think they were doing?
One of our leading participants, a retired economist, insisted almost on a daily basis that the Talmud was engaging in intellectual acrobatics, not reality. The rabbi, however, a man who openly proclaims no mathematical abilities but whose social awareness is highly developed, countered that in a world where polygamy and early marriages exist, sooner or later every one of these cases would come before the rabbinical courts. The economist noted the neat mathematical symmetry of the constructs; the rabbi responded that courts deal with the endless diversity of real life. The economist complained that would mean also a world with death interfering on a regular basis; the rabbi agreed. After ten or twelve days of this argument, another participant, a psychologist, jumped in with his perspective, whereby the rabbis’ endless convoluted models were actually an expression of their awareness of the degree to which sexual attraction, especially among people in close proximity, is a powerful force which must be controlled.
A collection of mathematical riddles. An expression of the social immediacy of a legal system. An attempt to reconcile the drives of sexuality with ethical mores. All in one: is it really so surprising that 100,000 people engage daily in this habit?
Jerusalem, June 2007
This essay was followed up by more than 70 examples at my blog, Ruminations. the relevant posts are all labelled, predictably, as “daf yomi”.