I’ve never studied Talmud systematically or regularly. When I do encounter a nugget of wisdom from the vast anthology of rabbinic law and lore, it’s usually cherry-picked — one of a half-dozen or more Jewish texts out of which rabbis and Judaic teachers build a sermon or lesson.
If you’re like me, you can probably compile your own “Talmud Top Ten” of famous passages, like “whoever saves a life, it is considered as if they saved an entire world” (Sanhedrin 37a). Or the story of Honi the Circle Maker, a Jewish Rip Van Winkle who learns that we need to plant trees now for future generations to enjoy (Ta’anit 23a).
Learning Talmud this way has its merits, but it is a little like studying Shakespeare out of “The Yale Book of Quotations.” You get the gist, but not the context. The 2,711-page Talmud is organized into 37 tractates, or massekhtot. Each tractate is ostensibly about a category of Jewish law or ritual. The genre is a conversation among various ancient rabbis in which questions lead to digressions, which lead to anecdotes, which might or might not lead back to the original question.
I am learning to appreciate these meandering paths by doing the “Daf Yomi,” the page-a-day study of the Talmud that takes a little over seven years to complete. Daf Yomi is having its moment: On Jan. 1, Agudath Israel of America, the charedi Orthodox group, organized a gathering at MetLife Stadium to celebrate the completion of the cycle begun in 2012.
There is a slew of Daf podcasts and YouTube videos, often catering to an Orthodox following.
But it is outside of typical yeshiva circles where I sense a groundswell. #DafYomi is trending on Jewish Twitter. Tablet magazine launched a daily Daf Yomi podcast. Hadran.org.il runs the Daf Yomi 4 Women Facebook group. It has over 1,400 followers. A similar group, launched on Jan. 2 of this year, Jewish Women Daf Yomi About Anything, already has 1,230 members.
Where you really see the trend is at the My Jewish Learning website. On Jan. 5 it launched “A Daily Dose of Talmud,” an e-mail with an insight from the day’s Talmud page and a link to the full text, in Hebrew and English, on Sefaria.org. The email had 17,000 subscribers by its first day, now up to 23,000. Its Facebook group has 6,480 members.
Rachel Scheinerman, an associate editor at MJL, said she’s been thinking a lot about why Talmud study has taken off outside of the yeshiva world. At a moment that feels “insubstantial, polarized and ephemeral,” she said, the Talmud “is none of these things. It is ancient, weighty and models respect for debate. And it taps into a search for authenticity and capturing one’s roots.”
As for the page-a-day format, Scheinerman calls it “tailor-made for the Fitbit generation.” By that she means the daily commitment “is really challenging and really measurable –– a Jewish equivalent of 10,000 steps. It’s hard but if you do it every day there are a lot of benefits.” (I add that the latest cycle also began soon after Jan. 1, when people make all sorts of resolutions.)
She also mentions Ilana Kurshan, whose award-winning 2017 memoir “If All the Seas Were Ink” charmingly chronicles her study of the Daf Yomi. I think she may have inspired imitators the way Cheryl Strayed’s “Wild” made people want to strap on a 50-pound pack and torture themselves on the Pacific Crest Trail.
But Rachel and I both agree that it’s also a lot about technology: Jewish study has benefited from the full flowering of social media. “If you weren’t raised Orthodox, Talmud is a very difficult text and it takes a great deal of time to learn and a great deal of background,” said Scheinerman. “The barrier to entry was very hard to scale.” Podcasts, videos, emails, and Twitter shrink that barrier. All of these technologies were in place seven and a half years ago, but since then we fully entered the smartphone era, letting us carry our communities in our pockets. Sefaria, which gathers and translates almost all of the classic Jewish library on one app, is almost insanely user-friendly.
I also suspect the Daf excitement is a testament, or reaction, to the revival of charedi Orthodoxy. You can look at it two ways: Agudath Israel started the Daf Yomi in 1922, and its example has inspired thousands of people outside their community. Or perhaps, after years of tension over the Orthodox monopoly in Israel, non-Orthodox Jews want to reclaim Jewish learning from the strict traditionalists. That would account for the popularity of women’s study.
Will I and all those 23,000 MJL subscribers continue? At the moment it helps that the first tractate is Berakhot, or Blessings. It’s ostensibly about how and when to say various prayers, but it leads into some very contemporary-sounding debates over mindfulness, gratitude and how to solve disputes. How I’ll feel about Kinnim, an entire tractate about the counting and sacrificing of birds, may be another story entirely.
For now, however, I’ll keep at it. The Talmud has all sorts of warnings about the digital age. (“Better to throw oneself into a fiery furnace than humiliate another in public” [Berakhot 43].) But that same technology has made the tradition accessible to anyone who wants to make it a habit.