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Women’s Talmud Study Picks Up During the Pandemic

The current cycle of ‘Daf Yomi’ learning has seen more resources aimed at women from all levels of observance

Nomi Kaltmann
January 04, 2021
Courtesy Rabbanit Michelle Cohen Farber
Rabbanit Michelle Cohen Farber, the co-founder of HadranCourtesy Rabbanit Michelle Cohen Farber
Courtesy Rabbanit Michelle Cohen Farber
Rabbanit Michelle Cohen Farber, the co-founder of HadranCourtesy Rabbanit Michelle Cohen Farber

On Jan. 5, 2020, over 3,000 people lined up to enter the Jerusalem Convention Center to celebrate the completion of the 13th cycle of Daf Yomi. While similar gatherings were happening simultaneously all over the world, this celebration, which was also beamed to an estimated 15,000 people globally, was unique, as most people there that day were women. They were attending what was billed as the first ever global women’s Siyum HaShas—the completion of learning the 2,711-page Babylonian Talmud.

Organized by Rabbanit Michelle Cohen Farber, the co-founder of Hadran, which describes itself as “the only organization dedicated exclusively to inspiring and enabling Jewish women across the world to learn Talmud,” the women’s Siyum HaShas was the result of over 18 months of careful planning.

“We booked the hall for the Women’s Siyum Hashas in July 2018,” said Farber. “It is the largest function hall in Jerusalem and leading up to the siyum, there was significant skepticism whether a women’s Siyum HaShas could fill it.”

Farber had worked with a small group of committed women to make this dream a reality, with tickets being sold out for weeks leading up to the big event. “The siyum was a turning point for women wanting to study Daf Yomi. It was meant to show that Talmud was relevant and applicable to their lives,” said Farber. “It succeeded in creating a successful event that put Talmud study for women on the map.”

The idea of Jews in all parts of the world studying the same daf (page) each day, with the goal of completing the entire Talmud, is still relatively novel. Founded in Poland by Rabbi Yehudah Meir Shapiro in 1923, the entire Daf Yomi cycle takes seven-and-a-half years to complete, with adherents studying a double-sided folio each day. Taken up with gusto by many segments of the ultra-Orthodox community across the world, there has been a radical shift in recent years toward less traditional Jewish groups adopting this daily Talmud study practice.

Farber is a trailblazer in the world of Talmud study for women. “I have always studied Talmud, and when I began the 13th Daf Yomi cycle there were hundreds of Daf Yomi shiurim [lessons] and podcasts available, but there were none specifically targeted at women,” Farber explained. “So I decided to record one that was pitched at women, many of whom have minimal, if any, background in Gemara.”

As the first woman to record a daily Daf Yomi podcast, Farber has been integral to creating accessibility for women who want to learn this traditional but complex and difficult Aramaic text that underpins Jewish law.

In fact, the number of women participating in celebrations marking the finishing of tractates is continuing to exceed record expectations. More than 1,000 women joined a recent online siyum celebrating the completion of the third tractate, Eruvin, in an event run by Farber’s organization.

The move to more women taking up daily Talmud study has been slow but steady. Ilana Kurshan wrote an award-winning memoir called If All the Seas Were Ink about her experiences studying Daf Yomi during the 12th cycle. She thinks that women have taken on learning Daf Yomi in increased numbers as “there is a growing sense that the texts of our tradition do not belong exclusively to any one sector of the population.”

Kurshan is enthusiastic about this development, explaining, “We can all access these texts, especially now, thanks to the increased availability of translations and study aids, and so in a sense we are witnessing a further democratization of Jewish learning.” For Kurshan, “it is very exciting to witness, because the more people who study the texts of our tradition, the more faces of Torah we will reveal.”

This increase in women participating in Daf Yomi is not limited to the Orthodox community; many Reform and Conservative women are joining in on the trend as well.

Rabba Claudia Marbach teaches a weekly Talmud shiur that summarizes the past week’s Daf Yomi Talmud pages. While Marbach is Orthodox, her small group is made up of Jewish women from all denominations, including Conservative and Reform rabbis as well as more traditional Orthodox participants. “From both a feminist and learning perspective, all of these people are very tapped into Torah study,” said Marbach. “They want to be Jewishly engaged and they want be a part of the scope of Jewish learning.”

Online, there are dedicated Facebook groups for women learning Daf Yomi, some of which have thousands of members, which post daily summaries of the Daf. The engagement among women has never been higher than it has during the 14th cycle, with many more opting in even one year into the cycle.

Rabbi Elisa Koppel, a Reform rabbi and educator living in Wilmington, Delaware, is the moderator of one of the most popular Daf Yomi groups for women on Facebook, Jewish Women Daf Yomi About Anything. “When I decided to learn Daf Yomi, I knew that I needed some sort of accountability, so the idea of a group—and leading that group—was definitely a motivator. If I have the group, I can’t give up,” Koppel explained.

Koppel posted on another Jewish women’s group on Facebook to see if, like her, there were other women interested in starting a women’s Facebook group to discuss the daily Daf. “After I made a post in the group Jewish Women Talk About Anything, several women said they were also doing it—and interest was clearly there to have an online group for the process,” said Koppel. “I also knew that if I were the one creating the group, I’d be able to make it a place of real pluralism and diversity—where Reform, Orthodoxy, secular, and anywhere in between were all equally accepted and embraced.”

With over 1,700 members and counting, Koppel has succeeded in creating an online community with a diverse group of female Daf Yomi learners.

The pandemic has also opened new opportunities for women wanting to learn Daf Yomi. There are now regular online classes that people can access from across the world, which has also helped to increase the number of women studying Talmud.

Rabbi Marianne Novak, who is completing Daf Yomi for the first time this cycle, finds the daily rigorous challenge of studying a page of Talmud during the pandemic deeply grounding. “During the pandemic it has been great—anything that can center my day is a godsend,” said Novak. “I often do it first thing in the morning using my online Sefaria app, or right before I go sleep.”

Novak thinks that the availability of Facebook groups and online apps to study Talmud has been a big game changer during the pandemic. “The accessibility of the Talmud on Sefaria with translation is a big deal, as it makes sure the Talmud is available to everyone. This is overwhelmingly important when people are stuck at home,” she said.

The different Daf Yomi groups that have sprung up can also provide people with an unexpected sense of connection during a strange year. “This is also the first cycle during a pandemic, so people are seeking to be connected to one another and discuss the Daf,” Novak explained. “It is really fun to be a part of the online club of Daf Yomi learners with all the funny inside jokes and memes.”

Many younger women have also dipped their toes into learning Daf Yomi for the first time since the onset of the recent cycle. Rachel Totz, a 21-year-old senior at Tufts University, took an introduction to the Talmud course as part of her sociology, civic studies, and philosophy studies.

“As a part of our course work, we were instructed to spend 10 minutes each day reading, listening to, or interfacing with Daf Yomi for the first seven days of the cycle,” said Totz. “I enjoyed the process of individually studying Daf Yomi because it allowed me to separate what I thought about the text from a way of thinking about Jewish ideas as the direct transmission of Torah from a teacher to a student.”

Women from many countries, including Israel, Australia, and the United States have appreciated the increase in women-led Talmud learning resources and podcasts. Rebbetzin Ahuva Tsykin, a Talmud teacher at the Mizrachi Organization in Melbourne, started teaching one of the first regular women’s Talmud shiurim taught by a woman in Australia. The weekly lessons have been a success and Tsykin thinks that this is due to the evolving Torah education opportunities for women who are now versed in Talmud. “We have arrived at a point where we have trained enough women to have a palpable impact on the teaching and learning of Talmud, Daf Yomi is no exception and more women are keen to learn from other women,” said Tsykin. “In some ways the pandemic was really good for women learning Daf Yomi: As things went online, there was a greater proliferation of female voices studying and teaching Daf Yomi.”

These new resources, which offer a more inclusive approach to Talmud studies that doesn’t rely on years of yeshiva learning and are far friendlier to beginners, have also found a community of fans among an unexpected audience: men. Ya’akov Hoffmann, a 30-year-old Orthodox man who attended Gush Etzion Yeshivah in Israel and has previously studied high-level Gemara, prefers to listen to the Hadran Women’s Daf Yomi podcast, recorded by Rabbanit Michelle Cohen Farber. “The podcast helps to provide a different perspective in contrast to standard Daf Yomi podcasts, which are very fast paced,” explained Hoffmann. “Rabbanit Cohen Farber’s podcast is easier to follow, as she uses less traditional commentators and modern academic sources, which helps to give more of a holistic view, as opposed to the standard Yeshivish perspectives.”

For Hoffmann, the question of listening to this podcast is a no brainer: “Rabbanit Cohen Farber’s podcast is overall a much more pleasant experience, so I will be sticking with it.”

Nomi Kaltmann is Tablet magazine’s Australian correspondent. Follow her on Twitter @NomiKal.

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