‘Doing the <i>daf</i>,’ a Jewish marathonThousands of scholars are about to finish a study of the Talmud, one page per day — a challenge that takes more than seven years.
On Aug. 1, I will cross the finish line in an authentic Jewish marathon. I will take my place alongside thousands of other successful competitors as we complete our study of the Talmud, one page per day, a challenge that takes about 7 1/2 years. Just like the participants in that other years-in-the-making event — the Olympic Games in London — some of us are eager to tell our stories.
Next to the Bible, the Babylonian Talmud is the most important text in Judaism. Jewish law, and a good deal of its thought, derives from this work, written mostly in Aramaic more than 1,500 years ago. No topic escapes its gaze or its treatment: family law, commercial law, ethical behavior, criminal procedure, religious observance.
The Talmud was deliberately composed in a kind of shorthand that demands that the student puzzle over the meaning of each line. At the beginning of the 20th century, a young Polish leader, Rabbi Meir Shapiro, a member of the country’s parliament, organized a program that would unite Orthodox Jews around the world through the study of the same page of the Talmud each day.
Each folio (i.e., double-sided page) is called a daf, and the marathon is called Daf Yomi, which means “daily folio.” But those of us working through 2,711 folios just call it “doing the daf.” The first siyum, or completion of a cycle, was celebrated in 1923. As one cycle ends, the next begins.
This year’s siyum will be the 12th since the program began. It will be especially poignant for the oldest participants, many of whom believed the Jewish people were doomed as they awaited their deaths in Hitler’s extermination camps. But traditional Judaism rebounded after the war, and this year, about 90,000 people will mark the siyum at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey, which will make it a kind of Jewish Super Bowl. Another 60,000 will gather in 75 cities around the world, including in Los Angeles at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.
There are no medals for those who reach the finish line, but as they used to tell us in Little League, everyone who participates is a winner.
What does it feel like? Much like what Olympians report. It is a long, punishing process. This is my second time around. There are no vacation days, never a skipped day. I have pored over the daf on a commuter train on the northern coast of Taiwan, pushed sleep from my eyes on a delayed flight from Monterrey, Mexico, and forced myself to finish my study time before snorkeling in Maui. To stay the course, we need endurance, dedication and lots of focus.
What does it do for us? First, it is a joyful act of love for Judaism. (Iranian Vice President Mohammad Reza Rahimi recently delivered a baldly anti-Semitic speech at an international antidrug conference, reminiscent of the czarist fabrication of the “Elders of Zion” myth. Rahimi said that the Talmud was responsible for the global spread of illegal drugs. If endorphins are illegal, he may have a point. Jumping out of bed to catch a 6 a.m. Talmud class leaves participants with something like a runner’s high.)
It is not difficult, however, to inventory how we also benefit from the experience: Intellect, like muscle, atrophies when not used. Doing the daf ensures that we will spend some quality time each day tending to our intellectual side. (Only a handful of Jewish Nobel laureates were conversant with the Talmud, but almost all benefited from the Jewish passion for education. For centuries, it was primarily the Talmud that Jews studied.)
The majority of the texts in the Talmud pit one opinion against another. The Talmud student therefore learns to examine multiple points of view on complex issues, something we would like to see more of in our political leaders, our talk show hosts and our general political discourse.
We learn to reject the crippling artifact of modernity that casts off everything old as outdated and useless. We learn that when we get past cultural differences, we can rescue the core truths in ancient works and find them enriching.
We appreciate continuity. The Talmud has a habit of speaking in the present. “Rava says,” rather than “Rava said,” even though Rava, a Babylonian contributor to the Talmud, died many years before his arguments were turned into written text. The old lives on in the present, and it projects itself on to the future. (An app is in development that promises to allow students to follow the daf on their computer tablets, toggling between the original texts and an English translation and commentary.)
We discover the power of an interpretive tradition. Taking the Bible or other holy texts literally breeds fanatical extremism. Rational interpretation is the antidote.
And then there are the ancillary benefits. My favorite is humility. We often spend hours struggling with a few lines of text, finally believing that we understand it. Minutes later, a new argument is introduced, and we are left with 2,000-year-old egg on our faces. We learn, often, that we are wrong, and we learn to live with it.
One benefit may be felt far beyond the ranks of individuals doing the daf. With Twitter, YouTube, PowerPoint presentations and so much else in the digital playbook, visual learning has pushed text to the sidelines. At some future siyum, the last players on the storied field of deep textual study may all be on the daf squad.
Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein is the director of Interfaith Affairs for the Simon Wiesenthal Center and a professor of Jewish law and ethics at Loyola Law School.
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