The seven-and-a-half-year cycle of Talmud study known as daf yomi (“daily page”), which concluded its thirteenth iteration last week, has grown greatly in popularity in Orthodox, and especially ultra-Orthodox, circles since it was initiated by a Polish rabbi in the 1920s. But not all who commit themselves to the regimen of studying one folio page of the Talmud every day are Orthodox. Benjamin David, the rabbi of a Reform congregation in New Jersey, reflects on successfully completing the daf yomi:
I found the end of each tractate particularly enthralling. . . . Consider the end of Tractate Sotah, for instance, which has the text recount the many iconic values that died as each sage who embodied that value died. With boldness it declares that when Yoḥanan ben Zakkai died, so did wisdom. When Abba Yosi died, so did piety. When Yehudah ha-Nasi died, humility itself died. At the final line of this 49-page tractate, Rabbi Naḥman speaks up, a still, small voice of hopefulness: “Do not fear that fear of sin died, for there is still one who fears sin: me.”
It is this kind of moment that defies all expectations and assumptions regarding Talmud study. At least it did for me. For those who want to believe that it’s a cold text of yesteryear, such moments prove endlessly heartwarming and uplifting.
As my enthusiasm for Talmud study grew, so did my enthusiasm for teaching Talmud. [Students in my] monthly Talmud classes grew in number over the years, maybe because of my own consistently raised eagerness. I was bringing them texts well beyond the obvious, overanalyzed talmudic stories so many have come to love. . . . I brought them little-known nuggets from tractates M’naḥot and Mo’ed Katan, and other less likely tractates, and we loved them together.
While all of this might sound poetic, even inspiring, much of daf yomi is not at all poetic. Pages upon pages devoted to the ancient practice of levirate marriage or entire volumes devoted to the minutiae around animal sacrifices we haven’t done for over 1,500 years. Tractate Z’vaḥim was tough. B’khorot was tougher. These sections of the Talmud begged me to quit, but I never relented. I knew that if I could press on, there would be talmudic gold.