Ten minutes before class began, Dr. Jill Felder hurriedly texted Rabbi Daniel Wasserman of Shaare Torah Congregation. It was Jan. 5, 2020, and Wasserman, like thousands of Talmud teachers worldwide, was beginning Tractate Berachot, the first book of the Babylonian Talmud. After spending years observing her husband and sons analyze rabbinic texts, Felder wanted to experience the Talmud herself. Wasserman gladly welcomed her to class.
Now 322 days and 322 pages later she hasn’t missed one yet.
Felder is one of many Pittsburgh Jews studying the Talmud daily. Colloquially referred to by the Hebrew words “daf yomi,” or “a page a day,” the practice enables participants to work through the classic corpus, totaling 2,711 double-sided folios, in about seven years and five months.
Consisting of 63 tractates of Hebrew and Aramaic writings, the Talmud serves as the backbone of Jewish law and a window into rabbinic interpretation. Forget about the absolute breath of material covered, or the numerous disputes, individuals and acronyms included — understanding one page is challenging enough, explained Felder.
“It takes quite a bit of work,” she said. “I continue to get into greater levels of understanding, but I do prep quite a bit.”
Each night, before Wasserman’s morning class, Felder reads a summary of the following day’s page. She outlines the arguments or stories, lists the rabbis mentioned and charts their statements. Felder estimates the prep takes about an hour. Factor in Wasserman’s class, which lasts approximately 45 minutes, and the occasional Talmud-related podcast she listens to while driving between Squirrel Hill and Steubenville, Ohio, for work, and Felder spends hours each week enmeshed in rabbinic thought.
“It’s a lot of fun and it gives me something to look forward to,” she said. Apart from yielding countless topics for discussion during family meals, daily study has allowed her to meet others who are interested in the subject. “It seems to be a shared passion,” she said.
For 30 years Rabbi Amy Bardack has studied Talmud. Prior to last January, however, she never undertook daf yomi.
“It felt like a daunting prospect,” said Bardack, director of Jewish life and learning at the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh.
Even so, before the new cycle began last January, Bardack decided it was time.
“I set my sights on 2020 thinking that by then I’d have teenagers and life might just be a little bit easier,” she said. “Of course, COVID came.”
Amid the uncertainty of a pandemic, Bardack said, designating time to rabbinic thought has been unexpectedly grounding.
“The rabbis of the Talmud themselves endured long periods of plague while immersed in their own studies,” she said, noting that the Antonine Plague occurred during the time of the Mishna and the Justinian plague during the time of Gemara. There’s a certain strength and inspiration that comes “from being part of a centuries-long sacred conversation,” she said.
Talmud study can broaden insight, said Wasserman. For example, people often use the word “eruv” to refer to the ritual enclosure that permits carrying on Shabbat; however, as the Talmud teaches, the term “eruv” actually refers to a box of matzah. The enclosure that people call an “eruv” is really the “mechizios,” or barriers, he said.
Some passages can be perplexing — within Tractate Eruvin, for example, there are topics as varied as the status of a doorway on Shabbat to coarse bread’s effect on fecal production. For some students, though, along with the confusion often comes laughter, or even nostalgia.
Dor Hadash congregants and survivors of the Oct. 27, 2018, shooting at the Tree of Life building Daniel Leger and Martin Gaynor began studying daf yomi in memory of Dr. Jerry Rabinowitz, who was murdered that day.
“The three of us were the ones who were in the shul that morning,” said Leger. “It's been a fascinating journey, and one of the things that is wonderful about it is sometimes Marty and I will come to a passage, in the comments, that is just ridiculously absurd and we will both say to each other, we can just see Jerry laughing with his big smile, just hysterically laughing.”
“Jerry would undoubtedly be laughing at us and getting a great deal of amusement for how confused and perplexed we are over things,” agreed Gaynor.
On Nov. 22, Leger and Gaynor, like thousands of fellow Talmud enthusiasts worldwide, completed Tractate Eruvin.
Of the three Talmudic volumes (Brachot, Shabbat and Eruvin) studied to date, Eruvin has been the toughest, said Leger. “It is just such a detailed exploration of the balance between leniency and stringency with regard to what can you move from one place to another on Shabbat.”
But beyond the details of boundaries, barriers and fence-building apparatuses, lie larger principles.
“It just seems to really strongly want to keep the community together — that's what seems to be behind most of it,” Leger said. “The goal is that you're not alone, that you're not out there isolated, that the community is engaged in Shabbat together and here's a way to do it.”
Mondays through Fridays, Leger and Gaynor tackle the material after attending Congregation Beth Shalom’s Zoom morning services.
“It’s mentally stimulating, it’s satisfying and it's a great way to start the day,” said Gaynor.
If time permits, Gaynor prepares beforehand, spending anywhere between 15 minutes and an hour listening to lectures, like Wasserman’s, or reading Talmud-related websites, like alldaf.org.
“The problem is not finding resources,” said Gaynor. “The problem is sort of selecting from among those. There’s so much stuff that is available electronically, either synchronously, or videos or stuff that people have written up in various places.”
The study partners break for weekends — they don’t FaceTime each other on Shabbat, but will occasionally correspond on Sundays with insights from that day’s or the previous day’s page — and when Monday arrives, they begin again.
“It's wonderful to have the opportunity to learn together with my friend Dan,” said Gaynor. “And to be doing it and honoring Jerry's memory is particularly meaningful. Learning Gemara is one of the quintessentially Jewish things. I think it really enriches one’s life and really sort of enhances one’s own Yiddishkeit.”
Daf yomi requires commitment, and some days it’s tough to get through the text. The need to constantly move ahead often restricts the ability for in-depth analysis, but over the course of seven-and-a-half years, there are opportunities to go back and explore previously covered material, noted Gaynor.
“That’s the great thing,” he said. “You do what you can but there’s always tomorrow.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.