Although I’ve lived in a large city for almost my entire adult life, at my core, I’m a kid from Iowa. I grew up in a traditional but not particularly observant household in a small Jewish community. A few years of day school plus many years of Hebrew School were the extent of my formal religious education. Since then, I’ve taken advantage of opportunities in USY, a teen Israel trip, a few college classes, and immersion in multiple observant synagogue communities to enhance and enrich my Jewish education. I absorbed a great deal, but Talmud remained an untouchable thing for me.
I have always found the Talmud interesting in the abstract, but my view was from afar. In my mind, it was a massively unapproachable text at the foundation of Judaism. I simply don’t understand enough Hebrew (or any Aramaic) to comprehend an unvocalized text, and I always figured I just didn’t have enough background and education to be able to truly study it.
I absorbed a great deal, but Talmud remained an untouchable thing for me.
For a long time, daf yomi was both intimidating and exciting to me. The idea of reading one page of Talmud a day, every single day, for more than seven years and actually completing such a colossal text seemed like an incredible exercise for anybody who had the background to understand it–but I wasn’t that person. And then for a variety of reasons, including reading Ilana Kurshan’s If All the Seas Were Ink and discussing the book with my rabbi, who suggested starting daf yomi study, I thought maybe, just maybe, I could give it a try.
I went to a local Judaica store and bought a volume of Koren’s Talmud Bavli Noé Edition in January. A few days later, I opened it and joined the rest of the daf yomi world in beginning Masechet Avodah Zarah, stepping into a journey I could not have previously imagined. With vocalized Hebrew/Aramaic and an English translation to guide me, line by line, I began to learn about the laws governing the many ways Jews should avoid avodah zarah (idol worship)–and much more.
How had I not known that I, too, could access this text?
Whether I’m listening to a podcast on my commute or catching up on a daf in the carpool line, reading during quiet evenings or with early morning interruptions by the small children in my life who push their own books (which I obediently read) on top of my gemara, daf yomi has quickly become part of my routine.
I was surprised by how easily I was able to work through the text, how accessible it was once I had found a volume that placed all of the tools I needed right in front of me. How had I not known that I, too, could access this text? It occurred to me that being able to read and understand this body of knowledge was, in fact, my birthright as a Jew.
Much as the Birthright Israel program was designed to open up a new world to young Jews who had not experienced a peer-based educational Israel program, so too has opening up the Talmud, day after day, opened up a new world to me.
It occurred to me that being able to read and understand this body of knowledge was, in fact, my birthright as a Jew.
I was drawn in almost immediately by a familiar story about Adam panicking when the days became shorter and the nights became longer, and amused by what appeared to be humor in some of the rabbis’ banter. I cried when a rabbi urged his students to run and save themselves from the Romans rather than staying to save him, and when his body was pierced by 300 arrows. I was stunned by the appearance of very familiar halachot. Imagine my surprise to discover that if you have glassware from a non-Jew, you can soak it in water for three days, changing the water every 24 hours, and then it’s usable. And as each rabbi would give his opinion in turn, and the section would close with “v’chachamim omrim,” and the sages say, I imagined the chachamim as a chorus on the side, popping their heads into the scene and singing “The halacha goes with… Rabbi Eliezer (or whomever).”
Being able to read this foundational Jewish text in its original form–certainly with the help of translations, notes in the margins, and conversations with others–has helped me better understand the structures of Jewish life that I previously accepted without question. Another benefit has been deepening my Jewish vocabulary with the terminology that more traditionally educated Jews learned much earlier in their lives.
Perhaps one of the most exciting moments in this process has been completing Masechet Avodah Zarah for the pre-Pesach siyum at my synagogue, thereby allowing firstborns (including me) to eat on Erev Pesach. This is something I was able to do after two months of intense daily study for 45 minutes each night.
I don’t understand everything I read while I work through the day’s daf. Sometimes it’s frustrating, and sometimes it’s fascinating. But it speaks to me, it adds richness to my life, and it is my birthright, so I will continue my slow and steady trek through the Talmud.
Caroline Musin Berkowitz lives and works in Chicago. She is an active member of Anshe Sholom B’nai Israel Congregation. As of this writing, she is studying Zevachim 25b.
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