Toward Shabbat: Bo
Two years ago this week, on January 5, 2020, I joined a very special club.
For most of its existence, this club was fairly exclusive. Women’s participation was not encouraged and was often prohibited. Access to the club required a certain type of education. There were unspoken rules about behavior and belief. But over the decades, since the club was founded in 1923, things began to shift. Technology, new pedagogical approaches, changing attitudes, and more, all began to lower the barriers to enter the “club” known as Daf Yomi, the daily study of a page of Talmud.
Two years ago, the Daf Yomi cycle—in which the 2,711 pages of Talmud are learned, one page a day, over the course of seven and a half years—began anew. I joined this international club of thousands at that time; as I predicted, I’ve loved it and been bored by it, fallen behind and caught up, been befuddled and enlightened.
What I did not predict, however, was the global pandemic that would change our world—and how learning Daf Yomi would buoy me through the choppy waters of the past 22 months. Many people have found spiritual practices, such as prayer and meditation, to be powerfully helpful during this period. You likely know this if you’ve regularly joined BJ’s morning minyan on Zoom, or started meditating since the start of the pandemic. These practices have been meaningful and supportive to me, as well—but there has been something unexpectedly nourishing about Daf Yomi. It is not only the rhythm, routine, and community that this practice has brought, but also a curious sense of hope.
I do my daily study using what is colloquially referred to as “the Artscroll,” a printed version of the Talmudic text that on one side of each spread retains the traditional layout of a page of Talmud in Aramaic (known as the Vilna edition) and on the other side presents an English translation and explanation of the sometimes inaccessible language of rabbinic discourse. I flip back and forth between the Aramaic on one side—which has no vowels—trying to understand as much as I can on my own, to the rich exposition on the other side, which allows me to read and understand a full page of Talmud a day with relative speed.
On Thursday afternoons, I teach a class focusing on one snippet of Talmud that was covered in the previous week’s material (please join me!). We read the text on an incredible website called Sefaria, a resource bank of Jewish texts, with hyperlinked references and hundreds of built-in research tools. A page of Talmud on Sefaria can be formatted in a number of ways with a simple click—one format, for example, includes translation and elucidation based on the work of the scholar Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz.
A few times over the past two years I have pulled from my shelf a heavy, dusty volume of Talmud belonging to a set that was owned by my paternal grandfather. It is a Zhitomir edition, printed originally in the Jewish publishing center of Zhitomir, Ukraine, in the 1860s, and very similar in layout to the Vilna edition. I have used this special, delicate volume of Talmud several times to read the last lines of a tractate and to recite the special prayer, called the “Hadran,” that is said upon its completion.
In today’s day and age, Daf Yomi is perhaps the most temporally transcendent Jewish practice: I read words spoken thousands of years ago, touch hundred-year old pages of an edition printed in one of the many cultural centers of Eastern European Judaism that is now completely lost, study daily from a modern publishing company that has brought hundreds of years of scholarship and commentary together in one volume, and teach from a website that is powered by technology beyond my comprehension.
Studying Talmud has become for me a journey through the Jewish past, and a celebration of the contemporary human creativity that has made this history more accessible to so many more people. As I mark two years of study during a very challenging period for humanity, I feel a deep sense of being part of an incredible and resilient chain. I recall all that these words and pages and ideas have survived. And I study each day, hopeful of their continued survival. Whether it is through study, prayer, meditation, Shabbat, or any other practice, I pray that we each find meaningful ways to connect to our past, feel rooted in community, and have faith in the future.