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Why Read Daf Yomi? To Rediscover an Older Way of Imagining the Jewish Spirit.

To the Talmudic rabbis, religion was not opposed to the law but deeply connected to its study, even if dialogue wins over decree

Adam Kirsch
March 25, 2014
(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photo Center for Jewish History)
(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photo Center for Jewish History)

Literary criticAdam Kirschis readinga page of Talmuda day, along with Jews around the world.

It’s always a temptation for me, when reading the Talmud and especially when writing about it, to focus more on the few moments of aggadah than on the long stretches of halakhah. Aggadah, the lore and legend in the rabbinic text, is food for speculation, fantasy, and moralizing. It allows the mind to expand and wander and addresses the longing for meaning and miracle that we usually call “spiritual.” Halakhah, on the other hand, is mentally very demanding: It proceeds by close logical argument, and like a mathematical proof you can’t follow it if you miss one step in the chain.

Equally challenging is the way halakhah refuses to signify anything beyond itself, to become metaphorical. When the rabbis debate whether it is allowed to wave the lulav on Shabbat, they want to know whether it is allowed to wave the lulav on Shabbat, period. That is because, to them, every Jewish action has enormous significance, since it is a way of understanding and carrying out God’s will. Once you begin to doubt that immediate relationship between God and the law, the Talmud can easily seem arid and overly intellectual—just as it did to Christianity and the Enlightenment. One reason I am committed to reading Daf Yomi is that I want to try to rediscover that older Jewish way of thinking about the spirit as something not opposed to the law but deeply connected to it.

This week’s Daf Yomi reading, which took us to Chapter 4 of Tractate Sukkot, contained some aggadic moments—such as an exalted description of the sanctity of Simeon bar Yochai, the mystical rabbi who is said to have written the Zohar. But it also contained what I am beginning to recognize as textbook examples of halakhic reasoning—which does not mean simply statements of the law. On the contrary: For the rabbis, what mattered was not just finding out what the law said, but understanding the rationale behind the different approaches to the law taken by different tannaim. The Talmud is never scandalized by disagreement; rather, the rabbis see it as a chance to understand the legal issues more deeply. This means that the Talmud sometimes argues in the alternative: If A is true, it is because of B; but if A is false, it is because of C. Both B and C must be explained, even if they can’t both be valid.

This commitment to dialogue over decree is one of the aspects of the Talmud most celebrated today, because we like to think it reflects our own 21st-century commitment to diversity and pluralism. I don’t think that’s necessarily true—there are very strict limits to the rabbis’ tolerance, and all their disagreements take place in the context of a shared commitment to Jewish doctrine. But it does seem that the Jewish propensity for asking questions and finding reasons, on which we like to pride ourselves, must have some connection to the dialectic method of the Talmud, in which Jewish boys were trained for many generations.

A good example of this arguing in the alternative can be found in Sukka 45b, when the rabbis are discussing the blessings recited on Sukkot. Two different blessings are required, one over the sukkah and one over the lulav, since these are separate mitzvot. But the rabbis disagree about how often each of them must be said. According to Shmuel, “Lulav seven and sukkah one”: that is, the blessing over the lulav must be recited each day of the holiday, every time the lulav is waved, while the blessing over the sukkah is recited just once, on the first day of the holiday, when you first enter the sukkah.

“What is the rationale for this distinction?” the Gemara asks. It is because the waving of the lulav is an action that can only be performed during the day, not at night; as a result, each day of the holiday is regarded as a new beginning, a separate act, as if the clock was reset each morning at sunrise. The sukkah, on the contrary, is for dwelling in 24 hours a day, during the day and at night. Once you start performing the mitzvah you don’t stop until the holiday is over, so you only need to recite the blessing once, at the beginning.

This seems perfectly logical and convincing. But in the next line, we learn that Rabbi Yochanan taught the reverse of Shmuel: “Sukkah seven and lulav one.” And for this ruling, too, the Gemara provides a rationale. Here the difference has to do with the distinction between Torah law, which is supreme, and rabbinic law, which has lesser force and is usually instituted in order to “build a fence around the Torah,” in the famous words of Pirkei Avot. Dwelling in the sukkah for seven days is required by the Torah itself, so it is only fitting for us to recite the blessing on each of those seven days. Waving the lulav, on the other hand, is only required by Torah law on the first day of Sukkot. It is only by rabbinic decree that we wave it on the other days of the holiday, so those days don’t require a separate blessing.

Who is right, Shmuel or Yochanan? How can we resolve the contradiction? The Gemara’s first approach is to question whether these rulings have been correctly recorded. The above view ascribed to Rabbi Yochanan is the one transmitted by Rabba bar bar Chana. But Ravin, another amora, taught a different version, saying that Yochanan’s ruling was “both this and that, seven”: in other words, you should recite both the sukkah blessing and the lulav blessing for seven days, thus covering all your bases. But Rav Yosef rejects Ravin’s account, saying that Rabbi bar bar Chana is supremely authoritative in all matters related to Sukkot. If so, then the rule of “Sukkah seven and lulav one” should hold.

Next, the Gemara challenges Yochanan’s ruling by citing a baraita—a Tannaitic opinion that is not recorded in the Mishna but is known from other compilations. According to this baraita, you say the lulav blessing all seven days and the sukkah blessing only on the first day—which is the reverse of Yochanan’s view. Kashya, the Talmud observes in one of its favorite curt expressions: “This is difficult.” Which do we follow, Yochanan’s view or the baraita’s?

The Talmud’s favorite thing to do, in cases of disagreement, is to find room for each point of view to be valid, by explaining that the contradiction is only apparent. That is what it does here with regard to the lulav issue. The baraita’s instruction, to recite the lulav blessing each day, is meant to apply only “to a time when the Temple is in existence,” since in the Temple the priests would perform the lulav ceremony daily. And Yochanan’s view holds “at a time when the Temple is not in existence,” since in those days—our days—only the lulav-waving on the first day of Sukkot is required by Torah law, and the others are only rabbinic commemorations of the Temple. Notice how the law takes official cognizance of two different kinds of time, Temple-time and non-Temple-time. It emphatically does not say “in the past” and “in the present,” since for the rabbis, the Temple could be rebuilt at any moment, and all the Temple regulations would immediately come back into force.

This solves the lulav problem. But there is still disagreement over the other part of the ruling, the blessing over the sukkah. Do we say it just once at the beginning of the holiday, as the baraita holds, or do we say it every day, as Yochanan instructs? Here the Gemara gives up hope of finding a definitive resolution: This is a genuine dispute between tannaim. And it is related, the Gemara notes, to another dispute, having to do with when to say the blessings over putting on tefillin. According to Yehuda HaNasi, you must say it each time you put them on; according to the majority opinion of the rabbis, however, you only need to say it once, in the morning. If later in the day you take off your tefillin—to go to the bathroom, for instance—Yehuda would have you say the blessing again, while the rabbis don’t require it.

If the same logic holds in the sukkah dispute, the rabbis would seem to require only one blessing, on the first day of the holiday. But this is not explicitly stated in the Talmud, and the Koren Talmud’s notes indicate that “most authorities rule in accordance with the opinion of Yehuda HaNasi on this issue,” requiring a new blessing every day. As I have seen many times over the course of reading Daf Yomi, the Talmud represents only one stage of the development of Jewish law, and it is impossible to deduce from the Talmud what the actual state of Jewish practice is today.

All of this discussion, with its rulings and challenges and challenges to challenges, takes up just a few a paragraphs of the Talmudic text. To follow the Talmudic debate over a whole section or a whole chapter requires a sustained level of concentration that feels to me more like that called for by mathematics than by literature—one reason why, as I’ve been reminded by many people since I began Daf Yomi, you don’t “read” the Talmud, you “study” it.


To read Tablet’s complete archive of Daf Yomi Talmud study,click here.

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

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