Every second Tuesday evening at 8:30 I turn on my computer to study Talmud over Skype with a group of five people that comes mostly from the egalitarian First Narayever Congregation I belong to in Toronto.
I don’t do it for religious reasons. Although theoretically I knew what the Talmud is, I had a secular Yiddish upbringing with respect for Jewish practices, but no real deep understanding.
I wanted to get more of an insight behind the rituals I sometimes practised but didn’t quite comprehend. I wanted the challenge of following through on something spiritual and intellectual every day. I started by reading daf yomi every day. Every morning I would get an English translation of that day’s Talmud page from Daf Notes and every evening I would read it, whether it made sense to me or not.
Daf yomi, a page a day, has been credited with making Talmud study accessible to Jews like me who are not Torah scholars. The process was generated by Rabbi Meir Shapiro as a way for Jews to collectively read all 2,711 pages of the Babylonian Talmud one day at a time. By following the sequence, the entire Talmud is completed in a cycle of seven years and five months. The first cycle of daf yomi began on the first day of Rosh Hashanah 5684, Sept. 11, 1923. I began with the start of the cycle on Aug.1, 2012.
With holidays and family obligations, every day was a heavy commitment and I fell behind. Catching up was a struggle. Then in 2013 I discovered a notice in the synagogue bulletin inviting participants for daf shevui. The pace is slower, covering one page of Talmud per week instead of one a day. The group meets every two weeks, covering two pages. They say Talmud is always best learned in a group and my study partners are literally and figuratively on the same page. We take turns leading the discussion and sharing what we know.
The Talmud is a living document that was written at the time of the first Diaspora, when the Romans drove the Israelites out of Israel. Jerusalem was the religious capital for the Jews. The Temple was its core and the rites and rituals all took place at the Temple. When the Romans destroyed the Temple the Jews were left without a place to sacrifice animals and other Temple rites mentioned in the Torah and had to find new ways to worship.
Between about the year 200 and the year 500 CE, the Jews were in exile in the towns and villages near Baghdad in ancient Babylon. The sages needed to develop a code of conduct based on the Torah that went beyond Temple practices. They had to create a framework for Jews to maintain their own identity and religion while at the same time living in harmony in a society which was not their own.
Eight hundred years ago, Maimonides theorized that many Jewish laws in the Talmud were instituted to distinguish Judaism from paganism. He insisted that trying to explain Jewish law doesn’t undermine the authority of the law. Understanding the rationale behind the law doesn’t compromise obeying the law. Studying the laws, he held, leads to keeping them.
We live in a different kind of Diaspora in the 21st century in Canada, but we have equal challenges about how to live our lives as Jews. The Talmud can still act as a guide as long as you see it as a living document, not something to be obeyed without questioning.
For example, the tractate my group is currently studying is Ketubot, and the page I recently led is about whether a young girl should be stoned or strangled for a sexual indiscretion. In the modern age we don’t do either, so the discussion is moot. But the system of logic the ancient rabbis used to arrive at their conclusions is what is brilliant. What I want to get out of reading the Talmud is the understanding, not the strict adherence, and the context for the life I live.
At the rate I’m going I should be finished my first run-through of the Talmud in about 49 years. Then I can start again. If you ask me then I might be able to tell you how much I understand.
Edward Trapunski is a writer based in Toronto and the chairman of the Canadian Jewish Literary Awards.