Jerusalem — Every morning Michelle Cohen Farber wakes up at 5:50 a.m. feeling energized.
She exercises, prays, gets her five kids off to school and, at 8:15 sharp, opens her home in the Tel Aviv suburb of Ra’anana to a group of women who have committed to learning daf yomi — one page of Talmud every day during a cycle that lasts seven-and-a-half years. That cycle ends on Jan. 4, 2020.
From 8:15-9 a.m. Farber guides the women through the difficult text, often from a female perspective.
There are several women’s daf yomi groups in Israel, the U.S. and elsewhere, but virtually all are taught by a roster of female teachers or a combination of male and female teachers.
Farber is believed to be the only female educator in Israel and possibly the world to have taught daf yomi day in and day out for an entire cycle. And to mark the completion of the cycle, Farber, a native of Lawrence, L.I., who made aliyah 25 years ago, has organized an unprecedented all-women’s siyum — convocation — at the Jerusalem convention center on Jan. 5. About 3,000 women are expected to attend the event, which is receiving support from several women’s learning institutions. It will also be live streamed.
A much larger siyum, organized by Agudath Israel of America, is scheduled for the MetLife Stadium in the New Jersey Meadowlands on Jan. 1.
“We wanted to create an event that will help spread the word about how popular Talmud study is among women and to show how far we’ve come,” said Farber, the founder of Hadran, an organization that encourages and provides educational resources to women who want to study Talmud. “Some women learn in groups like mine while others learn at home or in seminaries.”
While hundreds of thousands of mostly Orthodox men around the world learn daf yomi in yeshiva and synagogue settings, the number is far lower, but growing, among Orthodox women.
Daf yomi was created in 1923 by Agudath Israel, the charedi Orthodox umbrella group, as a way to strengthen and unify world Jewry. By learning daf yomi, a Jewish man could go to a Jewish community anywhere in the world and literally be on the same page as Jews he had never met.
Throughout history, studying the Talmud “was a man’s thing,” said Adam Ferziger, a professor of Jewish history and contemporary Jewry at Bar-Ilan University.
“Yes, there are some unusual examples of individual women who seem to have learned Talmud, but they are absolutely exceptions to the rule. There were even statutes that, when read literally, prohibit women from doing advanced Torah learning,” he said.
Even among Jewish men, Talmud study was seen as an “elitist activity,” Ferziger said, because most men, especially in the shtetl, were not learned enough to tackle a page of Talmud.
Many more women began to study Jewish texts starting in the early 20th century, as women around the world began to demand greater independence and the right to vote and own and inherit property.
And from the late 20th century onward, “we have seen an unprecedented, massive learning by women studying Talmud, on all levels,” Ferziger said.
Some of these female scholars have sought rabbinic ordination while others, like Farber, teach Talmud in high schools, seminaries and universities. American-Israeli author Ilana Kurshan won the Jewish Book Council’s top prize for “If All the Seas Were Ink,” her 2017 memoir about her study of the daf yomi.
The fact that these women have chosen to publicly celebrate the completion of their daf yomi study publicly is natural, Ferziger said. “The siyum is ordinarily a public event, a cathartic moment for people who have made studying a folio of Talmud a central part of their lives.”
The Talmud contains 63 tractates, or 2,711 double-sided folios (pages). The topics range from ritual to agriculture to marital relations to criminal and civil law.
A Fellowship of Women
Farber said she first fell in love with text study while a student at the Yeshivah of Flatbush in Brooklyn.
“The seeds were planted early. I liked the thinking, the analytics, the ability to take ancient texts and see their relevance today,” she said.
Farber earned a degree in Talmud and Bible from Bar-Ilan University and has studied and taught at women’s seminaries in Israel. She decided to teach daf yomi in her home in 2012 because she wanted a more intensive teaching experience.
“The new cycle was set to start in 2012 and I started asking around to see whether women would come to a women’s daf yomi and discovered there was interest,” she said.
Her students range from women who never studied Talmud to one woman who had already completed a daf yomi. Most participants work full-time. Many are mothers with school-aged children.
Their discussions reflect the interests and experience of the participants, especially with regard to Jewish laws that pertain to women.
“When we dealt with the section on the Sotah,” a wife whose husband accuses her of marital infidelity, “we see that the husband himself must bring her to the beit hamikdash,” Farber said, using the word for the ancient Temple. “We discussed how this makes a man think twice about accusing his wife and not getting overly jealous.”
Shari Mendes, an architect who mostly attended public school and had never studied Talmud, had just finished reciting Kaddish for her late father when she heard about Farber’s class.
It filled an emotional and educational void.
“I just love the logic, the philosophy and the stories we learn. This shiur [class] has enriched my life. We are a real fellowship of women who are there for each other through the good times and the bad times.”
One of the things Mendes finds most interesting is the lengths to which some of the rabbis went to find leniencies within Jewish law for the good of individual Jews.
“It’s clear they wanted to keep marriages together,” Mendes said, referring to the commentaries on niddah — the physical separation between husbands and wives during the women’s menstrual cycle and after they gave birth.
Dana Rubinstein, a lawyer-turned-graduate student who made aliyah from Manhattan with her husband and four children five years ago, said daf yomi study has become an important part of her routine.
“It’s perfect for a busy lifestyle. It’s condensed into 45-minute sessions. I drop off the kids to school at 8 and start learning 15 minutes later. It’s an enriching way to start the day.”
Farber has recorded more than 3,000 of her classes, which are available as podcasts in both English and Hebrew. She has hundreds of listeners, including some men.
Farber also serves as rebbetzin of the synagogue she co-founded with her husband Rabbi Seth Farber, director of ITIM, an organization that advocates for Jewish religious rights in Israel. She acknowledged that teaching daf yomi every day except Shabbat and holidays requires a doctorate in juggling life.
“People think I’m superhuman, but I’m not,” she said. “But I’ve found that if you put your efforts into something you really believe in you can accomplish it.”