April 2, 2020

Daf Yomi Fever: How Daily Talmud Study Is Sweeping the Nation

After a barrage of anti-Semitic incidents in 2019, January 2020 arrived with a burst of #JewishandProud energy. People gathered at rallies, began to wear their Magen David necklaces and donned their kippot. And there was a swell of interest in Daf Yomi, a daily Talmud study project that takes 7 1/2 years to complete.

Rabbi Jonathan Zasloff, a professor of law at UCLA, attributes the Daf Yomi’s popularity to the state of the “world in turmoil. People are looking for meaning,” he told the Journal. “We don’t have resources as Americans about what you do when you’re confronting catastrophe and disaster all the time, but Jews do,” he said, noting that the Talmud was born from the destruction of the Temple and the exile from Jerusalem. 

Rabbi Heather Miller, who in 2019 self-published the online book “Re(Soul)utions: A Practical Guide to Self-Repair,” has been offering her take on Daf Yomi on her Instagram page @hearabbi with visual memes. She cited several factors contributing to Daf Yomi’s popularity, including technological advances, the widespread use of social media, “and the #metoo movement that has empowered women to raise our voices into spaces where our voices were seldom heard before.” 

She added, “With more voices, the depths of our tradition are further revealed. This infuses energy back into the enterprise and keeps us all moving forward.” 

Participants are finding websites such as MyJewishLearning.com and apps such as Sefaria: A Living Library of  Jewish Texts more accessible than the large, expensive physical volumes. And podcasts, including Rabbi Yitzak Etshalom’s of Young Israel of Century City, Tablet Magazine’s Take One and Hadran’s Daf Yomi for Women, help to reinforce daily study. 

“I learn when I’m walking the dog. Stuck on the 405, there’s nothing better than to learn. I won’t be wasting time,” Zasloff said.  

Todd Shotz, founder and executive director of the b’nai mitzvah tutoring service Hebrew Helpers, decided to take on Daf Yomi this year and enlisted friends to join him. Shotz’s group gathered by Zoom call this week, with participants from Dallas, Philadelphia and Los Angeles, “so people can learn together and support one another,” he said. “I’m feeling like I have a cohort of people I love … my own little talmudic chavurah.”

Jessica Melhado, executive director of Westwood Kehilla, is studying with her husband, Rabbi Raif Melhado, who teaches at deToledo High School. 

“This not only gives us a goal to work toward but a community to do it with,” she said. “Learning together is really a big bonus of the whole project. There’s the aspect of wanting to be on the same page — literally. It’s been really nice to reclaim some time together, while also having another shared point of reference. … It builds intimacy.” 

Comedy writer-producer Rob Kutner enlisted for his second tour of Daf Yomi duty. Proud to have made it through the first time, he admitted that he may not have absorbed the text in-depth. With online resources now available, he hopes “to deepen the first experience and, with the enhanced connectivity, do so as part of a larger community,” he said.

To learn [Daf Yomi] more, you have to dive into it. Swimming in the sea of Talmud, you’re not reading a book, you’re encountering a world.” — Rabbi Jonathan Zasloff

Because people from all backgrounds and perspectives are participating, and with social media providing access to anyone, additional conversations are emerging about who is accessing the text and how. 

In “A Daily Dose of Talmud: Daf Yomi for Everyone,” a private Facebook page run by MyJewishLearning.com, the 5,300-plus members are producing dozens of mostly on-topic, respectful daily posts and comments. But, true to the nature of social media — and the Talmud itself — some posts challenge whether being in the group, commenting on someone’s post, or reading the text in English count as authentic Talmud/Daf Yomi study. Other conversations center on the presence and participation of non-Jews and the fear that the space will become a space for Christian proselytizing. MyJewishLearning issued a post on Jan. 13 stating it expects “group members be respectful even when (indeed, especially when) they disagree.” It also banned proselytizing and promised to delete posts that don’t focus on “the amazing text of the Talmud.” 

Zasloff learned Talmud during rabbinical school, but told the Journal that being ordained was “only a learner’s permit. To learn it more, you have to dive into it. Swimming in the sea of Talmud, you’re not reading a book, you’re encountering a world,” he said. He added he imagines himself learning at the same table as the Talmud’s rabbis. “I want to live, walk and talk with them, because once you’ve established that commitment, you can be more critical. That’s what it means to be Jewish, being part of this conversation through time.” 

Rabbi Kerry Chaplin, a spiritual counselor at Beit T’Shuvah, said studying Daf Yomi is “lighting up my teaching and my living. I bring my learning to residents, and they show me parts I hadn’t yet seen. Together, we apply it to our lives. It’s a deeply connective and spiritual experience. I believe both the content and the practice will help me live better as a mom, as a rabbi and as a human being.” 

“By the time we get to the siyum [the completion ceremony], we will have been doing Talmud for the majority of all of [our children’s] lives,” Melhado said. “I’m really hopeful that we can be a model of adult learning for them.” 

Kutner isn’t sure he’ll make it all the way through the second time but said he is considering Tanakh Yomi, a project tackling a chapter a day of Tanakh for a 2 1/2-year cycle. 

“Given the state of the world, that might be the safer bet for completion,” he said.

Attorney Mark Treitel was inspired to take on Daf Yomi after seeing news and community coverage of the previous cycle’s siyum. 

“I commented that we should celebrate this achievement, especially in light of the recent anti-Semitic attacks,” he said. Right now, he’s getting familiar with daily reading. “It is like a marathon to keep up. I think this will be like reading Torah commentary, that it takes lots of time to figure out where all the pieces fit together. You should do a follow-up article in three years.”