A Talmudic Journey Begins
Our book critic dives into Daf Yomi’s daily regimen expecting a law code, but instead finds a chain of questions
Literary critic Adam Kirsch is reading a page of Talmud a day, along with Jews around the world.
Last Thursday, 90,000 people gathered at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey to celebrate the Siyum HaShas—the completion of the study of the Talmud. These Jews, and thousands more like them around the world, were reading the Talmud according to the schedule known as Daf Yomi, “a page a day,” a pace that allows the student to complete all 63 tractates of the Babylonian Talmud in about seven and a half years. Daf Yomi was created by a Polish rabbi in 1923; the cycle of reading that ended last week was the 12th. And the very next day, the 13th cycle began, with the first page of the first tractate, Berachot, or “Blessings.”
In this column, which will appear weekly, I will report on my experience following this cycle of Daf Yomi. I’m embarking on this commitment with excitement and curiosity and even some sense of homecoming. Like other Jewish literary critics before me, I have sometimes wondered whether my vocation—the reading and analysis of texts—is in a certain sense an inheritance from my ancestors, some of whom probably devoted their free hours, or even their lives, to analyzing the oceanic text that is the Talmud. If so, however, it must be an indirect inheritance, since the Jewish schooling I received in a Conservative Hebrew school did not extend to reading the Talmud.
And so, along with the excitement, I have an acute sense of my limitations in reading and writing about the Talmud. Knowing little Hebrew and no Aramaic, I will be reading it in English—using the Schottenstein Edition, which I’m accessing through my iPad thanks to Artscroll’s Digital Libary app. Most weeks I will be reading it alone, rather than studying it with a teacher or a study partner. And I am approaching the Talmud from a basically secular point of view, not as part of a religious education—which means that my experience of it will be very different from the one Jews had for many centuries, and still do in many parts of the Jewish community.
If, after all these reservations, I still hope that writing about my Daf Yomi experience will be worthwhile, it’s because I know that many American Jews today stand in the same relation to the Talmud that I do. And I hope this column will be not anything so presumptuous as a commentary or an exegesis, but simply a record of one Jewish reader’s encounter with the Talmud—its enchantments and difficulties, its law and logic and legends, the questions and answers and counter-questions it provokes. With some knowledge of the Talmud’s structure and some previous experience of reading it in selections, I am diving into Daf Yomi with no preconceptions, ready to go wherever the text leads me. Each week I will write about the pages read during the preceding seven days, and I hope that readers who are also doing Daf Yomi—or who are simply curious about it—will find some of their experiences reflected in my own.
There’s something admirably austere about the way the Daf Yomi cycle begins again the day after it ends: There is no rest for the student before starting over from the beginning. But there is also something oppressive about it. We are used to expecting a reward for our knowledge: We learn in order to master a new skill, obtain a credential, or at least enjoy the feeling of possession. But the circularity of Daf Yomi suggests that studying the Talmud is not a means to an end but an end in itself—which means that it can never end. (Though the text also suggests that there is a quite literal, divinely assured reward for Torah study, as we read on Monday’s page, Berachot 5a: “Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish said, anyone who engages in Torah study, afflictions keep away from him.”)
First, let’s clarify some terms. What we call the Talmud—a word derived from the root for “learning”—has at its core the Mishna, a compilation of the Oral Law. These were legal teachings supplementary to the Torah that were handed down from ancient times and brought to a final form around the year 200 C.E., by the great redactor Yehuda HaNasi. Accompanying each passage from the Mishna (referred to as “a mishna”) there is a much longer passage of Gemara, which is a record of discussions of the Mishna that took place at academies in Palestine and Babylonia (today’s Iraq) from around 200 to 500 C.E. (The Babylonian Talmud, Talmud Bavli, is considered richer and more authoritative than the Jerusalem version because, at this period in history, the Jewish community in Persian-ruled Babylonia was better-off and more secure than the Jews in Roman-ruled Palestine.)
In the standard edition of the Talmud, the Hebrew text of the Mishna and the Aramaic text of the Gemara sit together at the center of the page; surrounding them is a constellation of commentaries, the most famous of which is by the medieval French commentator Rashi. The standard pagination of the Talmud was developed in the 1520s, in the first authoritative printed edition, which was produced in Venice by a Christian printer named Daniel Bomberg. Each page number is followed by “a” or “b,” to signify the front or back of the page; a “daf” is made up of both sides of a page. The whole work is divided into six orders composed of 63 tractates: Theoretically, these each have a unifying subject, but in practice the content of a tractate can range widely.
The Talmud is often described as a law code, but if this gives the impression of a series of regulations ready to be put into practice, it is quite misleading. That becomes clear from the first mishna in Berachot, which famously asks, “From when may we recite the Shema in the evenings?” What follows is not an answer, but four answers. First the text says that the evening Shema can be recited starting from the hour that the Kohanim, the priests in the Jerusalem Temple, entered to eat the terumah, the food offerings reserved for them—that is, at nightfall. But then we get three further opinions, from different authorities: One says that you can say the prayer until the end of the first watch of the night; the second that you can say it until midnight; the third, until the first light of morning.
This is not the approach of a text that wants to promulgate a single, simple rule for everyone to follow. And if the Mishna is already giving multiple answers, the Gemara seems to offer multiple dimensions of response. Each of the Mishnaic opinions is questioned; those questions give rise to new questions; then someone will cite an opinion on an unrelated subject that happened to be delivered by a sage already quoted; then a rabbi will seize on a word and cite a passage in the Bible that uses the same word. These first four pages alone are enough to suggest how strange and exhilarating the Gemara’s logic can be. Reading it is like being swept up in a river, or getting lost in a maze: You look back at where you started and you aren’t quite sure how you got here from there. A short list of the subjects covered in these pages—which began, remember, with the question of when to say the evening Shema—includes: what kinds of ruined buildings are inhabited by demons; how King David examined women’s menstrual blood to determine their ritual purity; whether it is better to be childless or to see your children die; and how to determine when the sun has risen if you wake up in a room with no windows.
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