As part of my Judaism month, I am practicing “Daf Yomi” which means I’m studying one one page of Talmud per day.
The Talmud is difficult to explain, but basically, it is a group of rabbis debating what pieces of the Torah mean. It’s like a blog post with comments that span a thousand years.
Imagine you write a blog post today, and someone comments on it offering his explanation of the post. Then, imagine in 100 years, someone else comments on your blog post, and debates the first commenter, and then offers his own interpretation. Then imagine in 1000 years, another commenter offers his interpretation of the blog post and replies two the first two commenters.
That’s what Talmud is, except the blog post is a piece of Torah and the commenters are rabbis.
The rabbis’ goal was to figure out to the last detail how God wanted them to live.
For example, in the two pages of Talmud I have studied so far, the rabbis tried to figure out when the appropriate times are to recite the Shema, which is a blessing proclaiming the unity and oneness of God.
The Talmud states that you should recite the Shema “when you lie down and when you rise.” What does it mean to lie down? What does it mean to rise? Does it mean when you go to sleep and when you wake up? Does it mean that you should recite the Shema once at night and once in the morning?
The Rabbis also tried to figure out the earliest time for reciting evening Shema – their debate focuses on instructions to say the blessing at the time “when a poor person enters to eat” and when the priests, or Kohamin, are able to eat the their sacrifice.
Some of the points seem interesting. When the rabbis were trying to determine what “nighttime” meant, they concluded that it was when three small stars were visible in the sky. It had to be small stars because a large star could be visible before the night.
Or, when trying to figure out when a poor person would eat, they took into account that the poor had to walk 90 minutes to and from work, which means they would arrive back home at a later time than normal people. This means they would eat later.
They also figured out that the poor eat very simple meals (bread and salt), which require little time to prepare, which means they would eat earlier than others who prepare more elaborate meals.
Other times, the rabbis’ commentary can become very dry and boring. It’s certainly less entertaining than watching The Voice.
I’m afraid I’m not learned or intelligent enough to truly understand the Talmud, but here’s what I like about it so far.
1) I like studying it with my Chavera (friend), which in this case is my girlfriend. It’s fun to read it and try to figure out what the heck the rabbis were trying to say. It’s an unusual activity to do together but one that I think will bring us closer.
2) I like the idea that rabbis from thousands of years ago were confused in the same way I was. It makes me feel connected to a long tradition of being confused.
3) It’s mentally taxing to read the Talmud. This is frustrating, but it made me realize how lax my thinking has become. After reading thousands of blog posts for the past few years, I’m not used to focusing on reading something line by line and really thinking about the meaning of each sentence.
I’m curious to see what happens after 30 days of Daf Yomi. I doubt I will become a Jewish legal scholar, but maybe I’ll learn to appreciate the intricacies and nuances of Jewish tradition.
*Here’s a link to an interesting series written by someone practicing Daf Yomi.