Welcome to 2020! The secular new year is of course replete with resolutions– we make these commitments to being better versions of ourselves which more often than not don’t make it to the end of January! However, this year there was a pretty special coincidence with the start of 2020 and the start of something very different– the seven and a half year cycle of studying the Talmud known as Daf Yomi (Daily Page).
The Babylonian Talmud is a massive document- as a running commentary on the full 63 tractates of the Mishnah, the Talmud comes in at 2,711 double-sided pages (daf). Mastery over such a text is impossible, and perhaps even inadvisable– but yet it still provides the basis of our tradition.
More or less the Talmud is a court transcript, a record of hundreds of years of debates, tangents, decisions, and prevarications which occurred in the Academies of Torah study in the Late Antique period (3rd-6th century CE). Like a court report, much of it is written in sloppy vernacular shorthand, with a lot of detail missing, and very poor organisation. All of that, compounded with the fact the the language of the Talmud is an idiosyncratic Jewish Babylonian Aramaic, means that the student has a major challenge ahead of them to access the text.
Thankfully today, it is easier than ever– with translations, glossaries, infographics, and online resources which make learning accessible to anyone. Though the idea started in the 1920s, it was specifically the development of the internet which really spurned on the idea of Daf Yomi– that each day, for seven and a half years, individuals would take the time out of their day to study a page of Talmud. The newest cycle of this has just begun, starting afresh with the first page (Berakhot 2) on 5 January.
All of this is very inspiring– but it is also a bit overwhelming! Right now I’ve probably got 50-100 people who are posting about Daf Yomi on Facebook each day! That’s incredible and I admire their dedication– but I also know that by page 100, and certainly by page 1000, that number will be a handful– if that.
One of the lessons of the Daf Yomi cycle is perhaps that we set unrealistic expectations for ourselves of what it means to be ‘learning Torah.’ You don’t need to spend a half hour every day for years to be ‘religious’ – you can learn in your own way, in whatever time you have. There are lots of great resources
which make learning about and participating in Daf Yomi easier, and if you’re at all interested, I encourage you to check them out. You may not think that Talmud has anything to say to you, but I guarantee that in 2,711 pages, there’s something there that speaks to everyone.
If daily Talmud study isn’t your thing– I’d still encourage you to use the excuse of a new year to find ways to create regular routines of Torah learning in your life.
Whether once a day, once a week, or once a year– making time in our lives for learning is an essential part of being Jewish. There is always more to learn, more to know, and more to study– and the first step is to approach the monumental challenge of self-improvement with a healthly dose of humility– as the Talmud itself tells us:
“Teach your tongue to say ‘I don’t know,’ and then you can begin to learn” (from B’rakhot 4a, yesterday’s Daf Yomi)