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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

Adam Kirsch
August 07, 2012
Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photo  Shutterstock
Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photo Shutterstock
Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photo  Shutterstock
Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photo Shutterstock

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.

To get a sense of how the Talmud moves, look at just one of the dozen paths leading out from the Mishnaic text. Rabbi Eliezer says that you can say the evening Shema until the end of the first watch of the night. But how do you define a watch, and how many are there during the night—are there four three-hour shifts or three four-hour shifts? (The curt phrasing of these questions—even more curt in the original, since the English translation usefully expands on the compressed Aramaic phrasing—gives a delightful sense of frankness and impatience, as though the rabbis were talking face-to-face, rather than separated by hundreds of years and hundreds of miles.)

To clarify the point, the rabbis turn to a baraita—a part of the Oral Law not included in the Mishna—which declares that there are three four-hour watches in a night. You can identify them according to signs: At the first watch, donkeys bray; at the second watch, dogs howl; at the third, infants wake up to suckle and women begin to talk to their husbands. These are totally concrete signs that give an intimate sense of Jewish life at the time and bring it close to the present day: Infants wake up to feed now just as they did in Babylonia.

But then comes a step that, while it seems utterly logical to the rabbis, looked quite irrational to me, at least at first. They quote a verse from Jeremiah that describes how God will “roar” from the heavens, in which forms of the word “roar” are used three times. This corresponds, they say, to the three watches of the night, suggesting that God roars three times a night. Why does He do this? Because, according to another sage, He is saying, “Woe to the children because of whose sins I destroyed my Temple and burned my sanctuary and exiled them among the nations of the world.” This kind of inference, in which similarity of number—three watches, three roars, a three-part lament of God—is made to indicate an essential relationship, is one of the Talmudic strategies that seems most foreign to contemporary reason.

But the chain of questions doesn’t end there. We’ve been given the signs of the three watches, but do these signs—the donkey braying, the dog howling, etc.—happen at the beginning of each watch, or at the end? If at the beginning, why do we need to know the first sign, since the first watch obviously begins when the sun sets? If at the end, why do we need to know the last sign, since the last watch obviously ends when the sun rises?

To which the Gemara gives a really ingenious answer. The signs mark the end of the watches, and the third one—an infant waking up to feed, a woman beginning to talk to her husband—is given so that, if you wake up in a room with no windows, you will still have a way of determining whether the morning has begun and it’s time to say the Shema. This is yet another kind of unexpected logic, but unlike the Talmud’s numerical logic, it does not seem contorted; rather, it seems unexpectedly brilliant, as if someone had just solved a mystery with no clues.

It’s only been four days, and I already have a sense of getting acquainted with a foreign, at times frustrating, but genuinely exhilarating way of thinking. I’m looking forward to tomorrow.


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Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.