Jan. 5, 2020, was a momentous day in the Jewish world. It was the start of another cycle of daf yomi. What’s daf yomi? It’s the tradition, about a hundred years old, of studying a page of Talmud a day. It takes more than seven years to read it all. At the end of the cycle, after reading the entire Talmud, there’s a siyum hashas, a celebration of learning. The last one was held Jan. 1, in the MetLife Stadium in New Jersey, to a sold-out crowd.
There are also smaller siyums (celebrations) to commemorate finishing a talmudic tractate. Being invited to a siyum was likely the first time I ever learned about this kind of study. Sure, I learned snippets of Talmud in religious school or when I heard sermons at Temple. When I got to Cornell University as an undergraduate though, I met a small but thriving group of Orthodox Jewish students who lived together while attending school. One of those students had a siyum, and invited other Jewish students. I had no idea what was going on.
I was reminded of this when I read an article by Rabbi David Bashevkin on the JTA website online. It was about what it was like to take a bunch of teenagers, doing a weeklong NCSY Torah learning program (run by the youth movement of the Orthodox Union), to the enormous siyum in MetLife Stadium. He defined the teens as “not attending Jewish day school” and explained that the Yinglish at the event and the Talmud study process were all foreign to these teens, but that they understood the deep meaning of the gathering.
I struggled with the article’s headline – it called the teens “secular.” Any kid who attends a weeklong event run by the Orthodox Union is choosing a Jewish lifestyle, even if it isn’t the same as those who attend Jewish day schools or yeshivot.
Beyond this headline definition of “secular,” I saw the great divide not mentioned. This chasm – of being a liberal Jewish woman – caused me to feel, for years, that I was not capable or worthy of studying Talmud in depth, never mind daf yomi.
I wasn’t taught the skills to study Rabbinic Hebrew or Aramaic in my Reform congregation’s religious school. I learned basic prayers, Hebrew and knowledge of Jewish holidays and customs. When I lived in Israel on a kibbutz for a year in high school, I immersed myself in Modern Hebrew every day – but I never saw anyone studying Talmud!
At Cornell, I took Modern Hebrew classes and one Biblical Hebrew literature course. I met the students who lived in the Cornell Centre for Jewish Living. I got “closer” to knowing Orthodox people than I’d ever experienced growing up in Virginia. When I returned to graduate school in religious studies, I began learning basic talmudic terminology. Slowly, painfully, I made my way through the text with lots of dictionaries and help.
About 20 years ago, you could get a CD-ROM with the whole Talmud on it, and some of it had stilted English translation available, but not all of it. Otherwise, one had to have access to a whole set of Talmud or a good library and be conversant in Rabbinic or Modern Hebrew (Adin Steinsaltz was slowly creating translations of Talmud for those who spoke Modern Hebrew) to make it through the text.
Over the years, I had occasional study partners. We worked our way through a few pages of Talmud. In every situation, my partners were unconventional. They had to be willing to study with a woman, willing to study in a slow mishmash of what we understood in Hebrew/Aramaic and English – and, further, willing to make the modern, 21st-century connections offered by my academic (not yeshivah) training.
This fell by the wayside when I had twins. Study time was nonexistent, although writing this column let me study the Torah portions as they seemed relevant. To learn more about Talmud, I signed up to get Ilana Kurshan’s memoir, If All the Seas Were Ink – it was an adult selection from the kids’ PJ Library book program.
I never finished the book. I felt ashamed instead. Here was Kurshan, an author and translator with several kids, including twins, and she had time to study daf yomi. I ignored the fact that she lived in Israel, where access to both Talmud study and childcare was much easier to find. I reminded myself that everyone is different. Our challenges might not be the same, and I returned to working as a freelancer, looking after twins, and running our household.
Then something miraculous happened. My Jewish Learning, a Jewish online resource, started a new daf yomi program. I signed up for my email a day. A friend of mine, a rabbi who is also a knitter, is chatting with me online about the new cycle of study, as a kind of study partner. And, through the miracle of technology, I have managed – so far – to keep up with my page a day. Through sefaria.org, we now have free access online to both the original and (a mostly decent) English translation of these texts.
It’s early days yet. However, today’s page, Berachot 5a and 5b, touches on twins, health troubles, commitment to learning, and, for me, it’s relatable. Most important, it teaches that, in our rich Jewish tradition, it’s never too late to commit to learning more, no matter when one begins. I started on Jan. 5. It’s never too late to start!
Joanne Seiff has written regularly for CBC Manitoba and various Jewish publications. She is the author of three books, including From the Outside In: Jewish Post Columns 2015-2016, a collection of essays available for digital download or as a paperback from Amazon. Check her out on Instagram @yrnspinner or at joanneseiff.blogspot.com.