Reflections on finishing the study of the entire Talmud for the first time
This part January 4, 2020 marked the official completion of 13th cycle of daf yomi. Beginning on August 3, 2012,1 I, along with thousands of others worldwide, have studied one page of Talmud a day for 2,711 days.2 With this accomplishment, I can confidently assert the following without any hint of hubris or hyperbole:
I have forgotten more Talmud than most of you will ever know.
Truth be told, the lack of retention is one of the challenges of learning daf yomi and it’s a common critique I’ve heard regarding the daf yomi project as a whole. Each page of Talmud is dense with detailed deliberation and dictums. Studying at a pace of a page a day barely allows for deep understanding of the text, let alone time for review. Unless someone is gifted with a phenomenal memory, forgetting at least part of one’s daf yomi is inevitable.
I have some consolation that I’m not the only one with an erratic memory, but the Rabbinic Sages were not pleased with those who forgot their studies.
The most extreme statement I’m aware of is that of R. Meir, who is cited as saying “whoever forgets one thing from his studies, scripture considers it as if he is liable for his life” (M. Avot 3:8). Thankfully, the Mishna quickly qualifies this forgetfulness “removing it from your heart” meaning, it’s an active forgetting not a passive forgetting. Similarly, Reish Lakish states, whoever causes himself to forget even one thing from his learning violates a prohibition (Menahot 99b).3 Elsewhere, R. Elazar says that someone who intentionally forgets his learning causes exile for his children, and R. Abbahu states we remove such a person from his position of greatness (Yoma 38b).
I’d like to think I haven’t forgotten anything intentionally.4 Or at least if I did forget anything intentionally, I’d probably remember it. But even if I haven’t intentionally forgotten anything, the Rabbinic Sages were also concerned with unintentional forgetting.
For example, a student who “quickly learns and quickly forgets, his gain is offset by his loss” (M. Avot 5:12). According to R. Yehoshua, someone who learns and forgets is like “a woman who gives birth and buries her child” (Sanhedrin 99a) and that someone who isn’t diligent in their studies is like someone who sows without reaping (T. Parah 4:7).
According to R. Ami, Doeg the Edomite was only killed because he forgot his Torah with no qualification that it was intentional (Sanhedrin 106b). When describing the sequence of the rebellious son’s transactions, the Yerushalmi writes, “God sees that in the end he will finish the property of his father and mother, he will sit at the crossroads and strike people, he will murder people, and in the end he will forget his studies” (Y. Sanhedrin 8:7 26b). If we take this statement at face value of escalating wrongdoing, it would seem forgetting one’s Torah is somehow worse than murder.
On the other hand, we’re also supposed to be mindful of the honor of a sage who forgot his learning due to forces outside his control (Sanhedrin 96a), so perhaps I can use that as an excuse.
All these statements about the importance of remembering one’s Torah studies shouldn’t be surprising when we consider the Rabbinic tradition was an oral tradition. Memory was critical for continuing the entire tradition. Forgetting a passage would be the equivalent of burning the book. The fact that we have any part of the oral tradition written down is itself a concession because “better to uproot Torah and not have Torah forgotten among Israel” (B. Temurah 14b).
On the positive side, the Talmud also records some practical solutions for memory retention. For example, studying with sound can be useful for retaining information. R. Eliezer had a student who studied in silence and forgot his studies after three years (Eiruvin 54a). Diet is also said to affect one’s memory (Horayot 13b), as is one’s mood (Nedarim 22b).
But in all this discussion about remembering one’s studies and as important as it is to retain the Torah one has learned, we cannot ignore one inescapable fact: you cannot remember something you haven’t learned.5
Moshe Tendler once discussed in class the merits of daf yomi. As he put it, it’s inevitable you’re going to forget some degree of what you studied, but it’s also inevitable that you’re going to remember something you didn’t know before. And the next time you study daf yomi you’ll remember a little more.
I’ll give a personal example.
On August 29, 2017, we came across the following passage in Sanhedrin 44b:
ת”ר מעשה באדם אחד שיצא ליהרג אמר אם יש בי עון זה לא תהא מיתתי כפרה לכל עונותי ואם אין בי עון זה תהא מיתתי כפרה לכל עונותי וב”ד וכל ישראל מנוקין והעדים לא תהא להם מחילה לעולם וכששמעו חכמים בדבר אמרו להחזירו אי אפשר שכבר נגזרה גזירה אלא יהרג ויהא קולר תלוי בצואר עדים
Our Rabbis taught: It happened once that a man who was being taken to be executed said: ‘If I am guilty of this sin, may my death not atone for any of my sins; but if I am innocent thereof, may my death expiate all my sins. The court and all Israel are guiltless, but may the witnesses never be forgiven.’ Now, when the Sages heard of the matter they said: It is impossible to reverse the decision, since the sentence has been promulgated. He must therefore be executed, and may the collar [of responsibility] ever hang on the neck of the witnesses.
First, someone convicted of a criminal offense on his way to be executed curses the witnesses whose testimony led to his conviction, or at least does so conditionally. The Sages paid no mind to this outburst because the sentence had been passed. If the judgement was in error, the “collar of responsibility” rests on the witnesses, not on the judges.
Even though the idiom of the “collar of responsibility” resonated, I didn’t remember that we had actually seen this metaphor 37 days earlier when we studied Sanhedrin 7b. However, I did remember it 121 days later when on December 28 we studied the following in Shevuot 30b-31a:
מנין לדיין שיודע בדין שהוא מרומה שלא יאמר הואיל והעדים מעידין אחתכנו ויהא קולר תלוי בצואר עדים תלמוד לומר מדבר שקר תרחק
And how do we know that a judge who knows that a plea is false should not say, “Since the witnesses give evidence, I will decide it, and the chain [of guilt] will hang round the neck of the witnesses?”— Because it is said: “From a false matter keep far” (Ex. 23:7).
This use of the “collar of responsibility” provides a wonderful contrast with the passage cited earlier. As long as the trial is in progress, the “collar of responsibility” falls on the judges to ensure the integrity of the process. But assuming the judges performed their due diligence, then after they rendered their judgement based on the evidence presented, the responsibility shifts to the witnesses.
There is much more to discuss in these sources. How would judges “know” that a claim is false without evidence? What should judges do in such cases while maintaining their impartiality? After all, judges cannot also play the role of an advocate or lawyer (M. Avot 1:8). What are the implications for how Torah defines “justice?” Is it more about following the process or reaching the “just” conclusion? In this case, it seems the process matters more, but in order for the process to have validity, it cannot simply be performative and judges must take an active role to ensure the process isn’t corrupted.6
But my real point in citing these sources is had I not be studying daf yomi, it is unlikely I would have ever come across either of these sources, let alone connected them for comparison. It just so happened the repetition of a particular idiom resonated enough with me that I was able to remember it when I saw it again later. I’ve certainly forgotten plenty, but it’s the moments of memory like these which make daf yomi worthwhile.
On Superficial Understanding
Another critique I’ve heard is that daf yomi promotes a superficial understanding of the Talmud. Again there is obvious truth here as well. In the span of an hour or so one quickly glosses over texts which full time students and scholars will spend months or years.
To some degree, the strength of this critique depends on the aptitude and experience of the student. If daf yomi is someone’s only exposure to Talmud then I can appreciate how the superficial summaries may result in a distorted understanding of the Talmud. On the other hand, people who have more familiarity with the Talmud may be able to benefit more from the increased literacy.
In my case, I was fortunate enough to have had an excellent Jewish education and I was even more fortunate to have had the opportunity to serve as a pulpit rabbi, a position which required me to keep learning and forced me to prepare well enough to teach others.
Over these many years, I either studied tractates in depth or isolated passages related to specific topics, and I prepared hundreds of classes focusing on rabbinic sources. Finding these sources again in daf yomi was like reconnecting with an old friend. Additionally, daf yomi allowed me to update my source sheets as I learned new passages or thought about familiar ones differently and daf yomi also inspired me to put together new shiurim from scratch. Speaking only for myself, I’m not sure if I would have appreciated daf yomi had I started in a previous cycle without the benefit of having the greater depth and breadth of knowledge beforehand.
For those who do not have an extensive background, we should consider why superficial understanding would be a risk at all.
At best, daf yomi helps with knowledge and literacy, but not necessarily expertise. People who only have a cursory knowledge of the sources, assuming they understood the passage correctly, are at greater risk for reaching incorrect conclusions. This concern is expressed in Talmud itself where it attributes the the Mishnaic restriction of teaching certain subjects to the risk of students misunderstanding the subject (Chagiga 11b). Furthermore, incorrect interpretations are easily perpetuated when people who think they know as subject instruct those who do not.
I agree that the concern for superficial understanding is valid, but I think it’s less a function of daf yomi than the attitudes of the individuals. People who lack intellectual humility and integrity are more likely to misrepresent sources or preach flawed (if not disingenuous) arguments regardless of how much or little they know. I’ve seen this sort of thing from laypeople around a Shabbat table to professionals who promote themselves as rabbinic or scholarly “experts.”7
I think a greater contributor to superficiality in contemporary Judaism is what friends of mine have dubbed, “Source Sheet Judaism.” Source sheets are popular tool in formal and informal Jewish education. I’ve personally created over a hundred of them and I currently teach students how to create them.
Source sheets can be an exceptionally useful tool for cataloguing and conveying complex ideas in a short time, especially to a lay audience. But as with all data, people can use source sheets to manipulate as much as educate. People can present conclusions based on selective citations, either due to ignorance of contradictory sources or intentionally omitting them because they’re inconvenient to their point. I’ve even seen people truncate sources in order to present an interpretation which is explicitly rejected in the omitted portion of the very source they cite.
The problem compounds when the people who attend these sorts of classes come away thinking they now have the truth on a given topic, or worse, believe all they need to do to present themselves as “experts” is to create a source sheet of their own and the cycle of ignorance and misinformation continues.
In my experience, the dishonest people find greater success and influence when their target audience is relatively ignorant. Some charlatans actively discourage others from learning more in order to preempt them from posing challenges. Consequently, the ignorant masses will continue to follow their fraudulent leaders simply because they cannot and will not know any better. After all, “all depend on the master of the wheat” (Horayot 14a). These are the types of people who adorn themselves with the crown of Torah as a means to feed their ego (Nedarim 62a).
In contrast, experts who feel they must answer to fellow experts tend to be more careful in how they communicate because they know they will be held accountable for incorrect and imprecise statements. In the rabbinic equivalent of “experts,” genuine sages welcome challenges from others sages because the accountability forces them to do better. These were not threats as much as opportunities (Ta’anit 7a, Bava Metzia 84a, Nidda 14b).
In short, any problems created by superficial understanding of daf yomi are not a function of the system but the personal integrity of the individuals studying. Dishonest people will continue to selectively cite sources or offer easily rebuttable interpretations regardless of daf yomi while honest people will benefit from increased knowledge. If anything, increased literacy is invaluable for identifying the better scholars and being able to demand accountability from those who appropriate Torah for their own ends.
Since this cycle began, I have been tweeting points from daf yomi with the #DafYomi hashtag. These were initially sent to my Facebook account, but after the Cambridge Analytics scandal compelled Facebook to change their API permissions, I started sending these to a dedicated Facebook page.
I enjoyed Tweeting daf yomi. It gave me a degree of accountability in terms of keeping up with the pace and forcing me to pay closer attention to what I was learning and it sparked fascinating conversations. Plus I realized Tweeting daf yomi had a wonderful and unexpected perk. Thanks to Twitter’s advanced search function, I could look up my old tweets with the #DafYomi hashtag and easy find the citations.8
The criticisms I received from these tweets generally came in one of two forms. The first is that on occasion I’ll tweet something in the Talmud which some people find disturbing for one reason or another. The most frequent complaint I received was for sharing one of the several unflattering statements regarding gentiles. Another example of negative feedback was for statements regarding sensitive personal matters which may have been triggering for those who had personal experience.
By way of response to these criticisms, I’d like to share a derasha I once heard regarding an oft-cited passage from the Yerushalmi, though I apologize for forgetting from whom I heard it.
The Jerusalem Talmud records an instance where the government sent two officials to study Torah from Rabban Gamaliel, and studied scripture, Mishna, Talmud, laws, and aggadot. At the end they said to Rabban Gamaliel, “the whole of your Torah is beautiful and praiseworthy except for these two laws.” One of these offensive laws was that what is stolen from a Jew is prohibited, but what is stolen from a gentile is permitted. Immediately, Rabban Gamaliel issued a decree prohibiting theft from a gentile on the grounds in order to prevent a desecration of God’s name (Y. Bava Kamma 4:3 4b).
Given that Rabban Gamliel was leading the class, and he presumably knew who the outsiders were, we may reasonably ask why he didn’t self-censor. If he knew gentile authorities were sitting in the class, couldn’t he have simply skipped the part about stealing from gentiles for another time and not give government officials a bad impression of Judaism?
The answer I heard in this derash was simply that it was his job to teach the lessons per whatever schedule he had. To alter the regular teaching to his students would have entailed a compromise of the Torah itself.
Torah is not something which should be contingent on one’s personal feelings. As Rava critiqued R. Nahman, “Whoever says this teaching is pleasant and this one isn’t loses the benefit of Torah” (Eiruvin 64a). We argue, disagree, and reinterpret what the text means, but the point is that we wrestle with the contents as opposed to dismissing what we personally dislike. Again, Torah is something which much be confronted, not ignored or suppressed.
Another complaint I heard is that certain comments are not “representative” of the Rabbinic position on a matter. This happens when I share a statement which contradicts a view which is considered conventional by a given community, be it religious or academic.
Here too, I would argue that the texts must speak for themselves. In order to say an opinion is “representative” of rabbinic thought, one would need to collect all relevant statements on a given topic to see which statements are most common and which might be the outliers. Of course, one cannot know this until one has studied sufficient amount of Talmud, in which case, daf yomi could be most helpful in this regard.
Finally, I’d like to address the an issue of teaching in public. We find that R. Yehuda HaNasi decreed that Torah should not be taught in the marketplace and only the study hall (Moed Katan 16a). As I understand this opinion, R. Yehuda HaNasi’s concern seem to me to be an issue of not cheapening the Torah or treating it as something common, perhaps even turning the sacred profane.
From my experience on social media, I can appreciate R. Yehuda HaNasi’s concern. Tweeting Talmud could certainly be seen as cheapening Torah, particularly when not everyone reading the Tweets does so with the best of intentions. After all, we also find R. Zeira stating that a person shouldn’t teach a student who is unfit or improper due to the responsibility teachers have over their students (Makkot 10a).
It’s important to recognize R. Yehuda HaNasi’s decree was not enacted universally. My sense is that like everything else, there’s a cost-benefit analysis involved and the benefits of sharing Torah on social media outweigh the risks. Setting aside any theological approaches about bringing sacred to the profane to raise it up, based on feedback, I think enough people have appreciated the daf yomi tweets that it’s been valuable for people who came across ideas they otherwise would not have encountered. In several instances I know of, my daf yomi tweets inspired others to look up that day’s source, either out of curiosity or disbelief.
From my vantage point, anything which gets people to learn something they otherwise wouldn’t have is a win.
I would be remiss if I didn’t take a moment thank the various aids I’ve used when studying complicated passages. These have included the English Soncino found at Halakhah.com and the Artscroll Talmud, but mostly the PDFs of the new Koren translation which were exceptionally useful for studying Talmud on my daily commute.9 These aids were invaluable for getting even a cursory understanding of complicated passages in a limited amount of time.
With the completion of daf yomi I’m reminded of midrash which teaches that the fool becomes intimidated by the vast amount of knowledge they do not know and leaves before even starting, thus remaining ignorant in perpetuity. In contrast, the wise start with just one chapter and keep going (Deut. Rabba 8:3). Wisdom isn’t something one achieves in a moment (if it can be achieved at all), but is at best the result of years of effort. In this sense, the achievement of daf yomi is not just about accumulating knowledge but the discipline of establishing a fixed time for Torah study (Shabbat 31a).
Anyone with an internet connection has greater access to more Torah resources than any sage or scholar had as recently as 30 years ago. The greatest obstacles to Torah study today are not from society, but our own sense of commitment.
I’m grateful I had the opportunity to study and complete daf yomi. I don’t think I would have gotten as much out of it had I done so in previous cycles so I additionally appreciate the timing.
Hillel teaches that, “one who reviews one hundred times is not comparable to one who reviews a hundred and one times” (Chagiga 9a). For the passages I remember, I look forward to a much needed review. For those I’ve forgotten, maybe more will stick the next time around. In any event, I’m grateful I had the opportunity to learn the entire Talmud once, and I look forward to the opportunity to do it again.
Maybe even with a little Yerushalmi this time around…
- The day before my 35th birthday
- Or at least kept up the pace consistently. I think the most I ever fell behind was something like two or three days due to illness.
- The conjugation of משכח implies intentional forgetting (otherwise it would be שוכח), which would be similar to R. Meir’s statement.
- R. Moshe Feinstein applies the principle of intentional forgetting to instituting or changing practices which would cause people to forget Jewish law. Specifically, R. Feinstein argues that a double-ring wedding ceremony would lead people to forget fundamental laws of Jewish marriage. In other words, changing a practice may be tantamount to actively forgetting Torah, and thus worthy of criticism (Iggrot Moshe EH 3:18).
- Niddah 30b notwithstanding.
- Also see Horayot 3b
- I freely acknowledge there are those would place me in this category as well.
- My memory is erratic. I can remember learning something and be but I often forget exactly where it was. Thankfully, I’ve learned how to track down these citations and Twitter searches have been immensely helpful.
- Many people have asked me which I like better between the Artscroll and Koren Talmuds. In my opinion, both the Koren and Artscroll are useful tools for Talmud study, but they serve different purposes. I think the Koren is better when it comes to precision in translations and defining items and idioms in their historical context. I find Artscroll superior when it comes to walking the reader through the analytical arguments in the Talmud. For someone who has no background in how to study Gemara, I think the Artscroll will be more helpful in terms of building the skills necessary to follow the arguments. Those who have more experience with Talmudic dialectic may appreciate Koren’s superior accuracy in language and details. The point is to remember that like any tool each has their specialty. The ultimate goal ought to be the study of Talmud and studying with either is better than not studying at all.