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  • Writer's pictureLeann Shamash

The Maze of Daf Yomi

I'm not sure how to even start with this blog page. Words Have Wings reflects a period of my life, as I say kaddish to honor my mother's life. This commitment to say the kaddish prayer is for eleven months to join with a community in order to say a prayer that glorifies God and counts me as part of a community of people. The prayer doesn't mention the deceased at all, rather, I believe it is a way that the rabbis of old designed to have the mourner supported by the community. Somehow the rabbis decided that a child mourns for a parent for eleven months. For a child, for a spouse, for a sibling the allotted time is thirty days, but for the parents who gave you life, the time to mourn is extended through the period of just shy of one year.

Saying the kaddish is one way to memorialize a parent and send their soul flying upward, another way is to study and a prized type of learning is Jewish law. Jewish law, a combination of the ancient oral law which was recorded approximately two thousand years ago is called the Mishna. The voluminous commentary over the generations by venerated scholars is called the Gemara. Put the two together, Mishna and Gemara and you get the Talmud.

The Talmud is broken into 63 Masechtot, 525 chapters. It is a mixture of arguments, parables, strong personalities, ethics and philosophy, laws, anthropology all written in a style that takes a while (a very long while) to learn. While the Mishna is written in Hebrew, the Gemara is penned in Aramaic, the vernacular of Israel at the turn of the millennium. To study its crammed pages one by one takes more than seven years cover to cover and then one can only begin the study again.

For hundreds of years men have studied Talmud. For years women were barred from Talmud study, but over the past number of years, both within the liberal and even the traditional communities women have begun to study Talmud. This particular type of study is called "Daf Yomi" or a page a day. The cycle of Daf Yomi rolls on for seven and one half years and then starts again. The last cycle of Daf Yomi was completed at the beginning of January, 2020 with an epic celebration of over 90,000 participants in NY and 350,000 world-wide.

A person who does Daf Yomi has many choices. There are numerous podcasts one can choose from, there are websites galore and the texts themselves. Because Judaism, as expressed at the beginning of this piece, is a religion that focuses in on the community, there are community groups who learn together both in person and on line. People can work in pairs, called chevruta or in larger groups with a teacher. For this cycle of Daf Yomi, women figure prominently, with a new website on Daf Yomi taught for women by women.

The celebration of the completion of the cycle ended and began as Mom's condition deteriorated, so I lost out on the first weeks of the Daf Yomi cycle, but a few weeks after getting up from shiva, I began to study. I didn't head to where everyone else was in the cycle but started on my own. The first few months have been spent spent trying to find my way. Who would be my teacher? Would I read the daf or listen to podcasts? Would I try to get through each page, when each page had enough content for a week or would I try for just a taste of what is on each page? Who are the players on the page? What are they trying to say to me? Who, will shepherd me through this?

I'm like a turtle carrying a heavy shell, slowly plodding through the maze of this supremely challenging set of books, filled with wisdom of the ages. I'm tiptoeing, not always understanding, not always recalling what I have learned, but so excited to be part of an ancient tradition of study. Slowly I have found the "right" places to learn, places that work with my own learning style. I'm not sweating if I can't tune in every day, but I am finding my preferences. On most days now, I would rather listen to my Daf while walking than to music or even books on tape. I can feel that I am part of something bigger than myself. As I get accustomed to the rhythm and the vocabulary, I am beginning to hear patterns of ideas. Rabbis, whose names I have heard over the course of my life, slowly reveal their personalities. It's an exciting and long path to follow, as I join with others around the world who learn a little more about how this massive jigsaw puzzle, called Judaism, is put together.

I'm happy to go along for the ride.

My next post will be about the first Masechet, which I completed last night, Masekhet Brakhot.

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