On New Year’s Day, Jews all over the world completed the daf yomi cycle, a program to study the entire Talmud in seven-and-a-half years at the rate of one page a day. I have been studying Talmud for over a decade, and now, at the conclusion of one cycle and the start of the next, I’m often asked if I plan to continue. I respond by repeating what a friend once told me: Daf yomi is like that boyfriend you’ve been dating forever whom you just can’t break up with because you’ve been together so long, even though you know it’s time to move on.
I carry a volume of Talmud with me everywhere, and most of my adult life has unfolded against the backdrop of what I am reading and learning. Although I’ve completed the entire Talmud nearly twice at this point, it is hard to imagine stopping. Who would I be if not for the texts that give my life texture?
At the end of the previous cycle, in the summer of 2012, I did not participate in any celebratory events, because most if not all of them were not welcoming to women who learned Talmud. At the time I could count on one hand all the women in my social circle who studied daf yomi. When I wanted to listen to a recording of a class about the daily page of Talmud, I could find only classes taught by men, generally men who spoke in Yiddish-inflected Hebrew. I did not know of anyone who wrote creatively about Talmud, or who regarded their daily study as a dialogue with their personal lives. I would listen to podcasts about the Talmud while jogging through the streets of Jerusalem, or while waiting in line to pick up a prescription at the pharmacy. Although there were hundreds of thousands of fellow daf yomi learners out there, the vast majority of them seemed to inhabit a world very different from my own.
One day recently my kids asked me to explain to them what a page of Talmud looks like, and what it says. I pulled a volume of Talmud off the bookshelf and placed it on the shtender on our kitchen table — the term is Yiddish for stand, and refers to a wooden book stand used to support open volumes of Talmud and other heavy religious tomes. Our shtender is decorated with a calligraphed quote from the Mishna, the earliest part of the Talmud: “Do not say: When I have time, I will study; lest you never have time.” With five young children underfoot, there is never an ideal moment to study Talmud — and so I try to view every moment as a learning opportunity. “We just read about Og, a giant who survived the flood in Noah’s time and went on to relay to Abraham the news that his nephew Lot had been captured,” I told my daughters, choosing a story that appears in a part of the Talmud otherwise focused on bodily fluids and childbirth. My youngest child, who was born on the first day we began learning this tractate, lay calm and alert in his stroller next to us. How marvelous to think that the community of daf yomi learners has expanded to include a newborn as well.
Jews have been studying daf yomi since 1923, when the program to learn a page of Talmud a day was founded by Rabbi Meir Shapiro in Lublin, Poland. That was nearly a century ago, and yet this time, with the completion of the 13th cycle this January, it feels very different. Students of daf yomi can find websites devoted to haikus and limericks about the daf, as well as a blog with daily drawings offering visual interpretations of each page. Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz’s monumental commentary on the Talmud in modern Hebrew has now been translated into English in an elegant and accessible edition that includes both the traditional format of the printed Talmud dating back to 19th-century Vilna, and a clean, modern page design. Now there are women who teach daf yomi to other women in classes in the U.S. and Israel, and there is at least one podcast that consists of a woman’s recording of her daily class. A gala celebration of the completion of the cycle was held Sunday at a major conference center in Jerusalem, attracting 3,000 women from across the country and around the world.
Talmud study no longer feels like the exclusive province of any single sector of Jewish society; anyone can tune in to a podcast or set down a shtender on their kitchen table. The more people who study Jewish texts, the more insights into those texts we gain. The start of the new cycle is an opportunity for even more individuals to join what is effectively the world’s largest book club. It is a reminder that for all of us, there is so much we have yet to learn. Do not say that when you have time you will study. The time to begin is now.
Ilana Kurshan is the author of the 2018 Sami Rohr Prize-winning memoir about daily Talmud study, “If All the Seas Were Ink.”