Babylonian Talmud: Everyone's on the same page

They study 2,711 `daily pages' for seven and a half years, and start over again from the beginning the very next day. Today's the end of the 11th Daf Yomi cycle

Yair Sheleg

Haaretz

Adar1 21, 5765

For 10 years now Rabbi Pinhas (Paul) Lederman has been participating in the daf hayomi ("daily page") lesson in Jerusalem - a lesson in which a page of the Babylonian Talmud is studied every day in sequence, one two-sided page a day, 2,711 pages altogether. The lesson lasts for about an hour in the late morning, with some 20 people taking part, all of them pensioners.

Lederman takes care to make up on his own any pages that he misses, so as not to fall behind his friends. This is no simple commitment, as many pages of Talmud contain issues that are not easy, and most of the text is in Aramaic. Lederman relates that the teacher of his class, a man of 91, "told me that he spends five or six hours a day preparing the lesson."

Lederman says that he makes a point of sticking to the commitment because "someone who was raised like I was with a yeshiva education is very aware of the commandment to study Torah. According to the Torah-based outlook that I inherited, one is in fact supposed to study during all the hours of the day, but as this is very difficult, then there should at least be some sort of regularity every day. Beyond that, the fact that I am partner to hundreds of thousands around the world who are studying the same page on any given day creates an almost mystical feeling of companionship all over the world."

A common topic of conversation

More than 1,000 groups around the globe similar to Lederman's will study the last page of the Talmud today, for the 11th time since this project was started in 1923. The number of pages in the Talmud means that each cycle takes about seven and a half years. Ceremonies will be held internationally to mark this event tonight and tomorrow, with three of the biggest locations being at the Yad Eliyahu sports arena in Tel Aviv, at Madison Square Garden in New York, and for the first time since the Holocaust, in the city of Lublin in Poland, the city where the daily page project began. In contrast to the first two ceremonies, which will be held this evening, the event in Poland will be held tomorrow, in order to allow an "air bus" to bring hundreds of people from Israel in time to participate in both events. An English-language event will also take place in Jerusalem tomorrow night.

The initiative for the daily project came from Rabbi Meir Shapira at the first Great Assembly of Agudat Yisrael in Vienna in 1923. The initiative was greeted with much enthusiasm, and the daily study began immediately on Rosh Hashanah.

Shapira is a fascinating figure in his own right: a Chortkov Hasid who became a member of the Polish parliament, he re-established in his city the Hakhmei Lublin Yeshiva - which had existed in the 16th and 17th centuries but was neglected and destroyed afterward - as a yeshiva intended to bring the studious Lithuanian model into the more Hasidic world of Polish Jewry.

Professor Menachem Friedman, a researcher of ultra-Orthodox society from Bar-Ilan University, explains the background of the daily page initiative.

"It is part of the whole outlook that led to the establishment of Agudat Yisrael and to the establishment of the Bais Yaakov network (of schools for girls) after generations during which education for girls had been neglected," Friedman says. "This was a period when the centers of ultra-Orthodox Judaism were in danger of falling apart. There had been a transition from the small towns to the large cities, and from Eastern Europe to America, and the fear had developed that in these dramatic transitions the basis of identity would become shaky. As a result, an initiative was introduced to create a common scholarly basis for all of ultra-Orthodox Jewry, which would create an immediate connection between all the Torah-learners in the world. Every day everyone studies the same page, and when they meet they already have a common topic of conversation."

Friedman relates that a friend of his, an American Jewish neurologist, provided him with additional information about the benefits inherent in the project: "It turns out that in the ultra-Orthodox public there are a lot fewer `geriatric illnesses,' like dementia and Alzheimer's disease, than in the general population. This same expert suggests that the reason for this is that the elderly men have a daily social gathering like hadaf hayomi, at which intellectual activity also takes place."

The daily page project is indeed very suited to the new global era and also to the need to balance between the value of Torah study and the need to earn a living. It is not by chance that it has gained momentum particular in the world of modern Orthodoxy in the United States, where on the one hand (at least since the 1960s) yeshiva education has been very strong, while on the other, there is no one to fund hundreds of thousands of yeshiva students over the years, and they work for their living.

Lederman, who is himself an immigrant from the United States, tells of a group of ultra-Orthodox men who work on Wall Street and hold their daily page lesson every morning in the train from Long Island to Manhattan.

Rabbi Mordechai Kornfeld, the head of the Iyyun Hadaf Kollel (yeshiva for married man) in Jerusalem, relates that in the United States during the past several years there have been about 800 daily page study groups. In Israel, too, their number has increased markedly in recent years, including among religious Zionist men, and he says that a study conducted recently by his people found that "in Israel today there are about 650 such groups, and in Europe about another 250." Other surveys have found that the number of daily page lessons in Israel is even higher and approaches 1,000.

Rabbi Elyashiv will be absent

Modern technology also affords many study aids for learners of the daily page. For example, it is possible on the Internet to find detailed lessons for daily study, and even by telephone it is possible to find daily lesson commentaries. One of the organizations that provide a service of this sort in Israel, Kol Hadaf, summed up its figures for the last year alone in the ultra-Orthodox newspaper Yated Ne'eman: nearly 1.3 million calls during the course of the year, an average of about 5,000 calls a day.

The languages chosen by listeners to the lessons is also interesting: About 60 percent prefer the lesson in Hebrew, 32 percent in Yiddish, 6 percent in English and about 0.5 percent in Russian. The most popular hours for calls to the line are between 11 and 12 o'clock at night.

The world of modern communications also influences the character of the festive ceremonies that will be held this week. Thus, for example, the ceremony tomorrow at Binyanei Hauma is aimed entirely at the anglophone audience, as all of the speeches will be in English. Not only have all of the thousands of tickets already been sold (at NIS 50 each), but also thousands of additional participants are expected to watch it on closed circuit television screens.

Not only will there be a ceremony at Madison Square Garden in New York this evening, but parallel ceremonies will also take place at the Meadowlands in New Jersey, and at the Javits Convention Center three blocks west of Madison Square Garden, with each of the main speeches being shown on television screens at the other sites.

Every success also has its downside. One of the anxieties of which the heads of the ultra-Orthodox public are afraid is the sense that it is possible to be a talmid hakham (wise student) by studying only for one hour a day, and therefore there is no need for yeshiva study. Therefore, in recent days, parallel to the preparations for the festive events this week, the columnists in the ultra-Orthodox press have been stressing the need to preserve the hierarchy between those who study a daily page and those who devote all of their time to study.

Outstanding among them is Nati (Natan Ze'ev) Grossman of Yated Ne'eman, who for a long time has been considered the "seal bearer" of the "authentic" ultra-Orthodox outlook of Rabbi Eliezer Shach's school. He explained last Friday that "it is necessary to be vigilant lest the fuzzy thinking of other circles (religious Zionist circles - Y.S.) infiltrate us, because sometimes a person who sets aside times for the Torah can be stricken with arrogance and is liable to think to himself: `In fact, what is the difference between me and the yeshiva student or the kollel student? He studies and I study.'"

In the face of this danger, Grossman writes that anyone who does not see the yeshivas as the most important thing will end up "going from bad to worse."

Ultimately, despite the celebrations, it is also impossible to avoid the political aspects of the event. One of the reasons for the large number of events to celebrate the completion of the cycle is not only the desire to have as many people as possible participate; it is also the fallout from disputes among the followers of various rabbis.

Thus, for example, the rabbi who is called "the Rabbinical Ruler of the Generation," Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, will not participate in the main event this evening at Yad Eliyahu but is in fact expected to participate in an event that will be held next week at Binyanei Hauma. The official reason given is that the elderly rabbi does not leave Jerusalem. However, one of the ultra-Orthodox newspapers relates that the real reason is that "Rabbi Elyashiv does not want to participate in any ceremony with three of the Torah sages who are supposed to participate in the ceremony at Yad Eliyahu: Rabbi Aharon Leib Steinman, whom he considers a reformer (Steinman supported the Tal committee, which encourages ultra-Orthodox men to go to work, and the ultra-Orthodox Nahal unit in the Israel Defense Forces); the admor of Ger, with whom he disagrees about a number of issues, and the Ger Hasidut is considered the main sponsor of the daily page project in the ultra-Orthodox world; and Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef, who disobeyed Rabbi Shach's instruction at the time not to enter the government of the left - Shas joined Yitzhak Rabin's government, and was also a partner in the government at the time of the signing of the Oslo agreements.

Incidentally, Rabbi Yosef, at whom all of the Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox world is angry because of that "disobeying of an instruction," is not expected to deliver a speech or to be accorded any mark of respect at the Yad Eliyahu ceremony. The opening of the event - the study of the last page in the Talmud - is reserved for Rabbi Shmuel Vazner, one of the last students of Rabbi Meir Shapira, the founder of the project. Yosef, then, will be just one of a long list of rabbis sitting in the row of Torah sages.