About a year ago, as the recently-concluded 7 ½ year Daf Yomi cycle (cycle 13) was drawing to a close, Dr. Alyssa Gray had an idea. She was doing daf yomi herself, which is the sequential study of the entire Talmud, one page per day. She wanted to use the eventual completion of the cycle as a way to celebrate not only the completion of the Talmud, but also how the Talmud can enrich Reform Jewish life and practice. How better to do this than with a siyyum involving the students? She reached out to Rabbi Benjamin David ’04, who was also doing daf yomi. The two had interacted over the years about the interpretation of particular passages, as well as about how to bring the learning of Talmud to a wider Reform Jewish audience. They agreed on the idea of organizing a siyyum involving the students, and worked together to plan the event, which took place on January 16 at the New York Campus.
Rabbi David encouraged the students to engage in the daf yomi practice and explained how the process of reading all 63 volumes of the Babylonian Talmud, including 6,200 pages and more than a million words written more than a millennium ago, could be integrated meaningfully and manageably into their day. He told the students that he was inspired to embark on this journey of daily Talmud study by his teacher, Rabbi Aaron Panken, Ph.D., z”l, past HUC-JIR President, who supervised his rabbinical thesis on Honi the Circlemaker.
“I was committed to spending about 15 minutes a day to my study of each page, using the Koren edition with texts in English, Hebrew, and Aramaic. The daily study soon became ingrained practice,” he explained. “After 18 months, I was in too deep, there was no turning back. I carried my Talmud tractate with me each day – to work, to camp, on the plane to the CCAR convention. It was like being in a relationship, and it connected me to people wherever I went who were studying the exact same text that day. My studies have provided me with a constant stream of content for my teaching and sermons over these 7 ½ years.”
Rabbi David added that he has found a meaningful way of bringing Talmud study to the Reform Movement through his teaching of monthly Talmud classes to his congregants at his current synagogue and at his previous congregation, Temple Sinai in Roslyn, NY, for the past 15 years.
Dr. Gray described the daf yomi experience as akin to “becoming a daily discipline, much like exercise, that we make the time to do.” Following their remarks, Dr. Gray and Rabbi David engaged the students in symbolically marking the culmination of their daf yomi study by studying the very last lines of Niddah, the last tractate of the Talmud, which stresses the importance of continually studying God’s laws. Dr. Gray then recited the Hadran, the prayer that follows the completion of study of a tractate of the Talmud and/or the entire Talmud. She and Rabbi David then engaged the group in symbolically beginning the process all over again by studying the very first lines of the Talmud’s first tractate, Berakhot, which asks from what time the evening Shema is to be recited. Much like the immediate transition from Deuteronomy to Genesis on Simchat Torah, this move from the last tractate to the first shows that the study of Talmud always moves in a continuous cycle that never ends. Rabbi David led the students in a discussion of how this text reflects the place of prayer in the rabbinic era, how the rabbis made Jewish practice accessible for the people after the destruction of the Temple, and how this text informs our thinking about how we organize time in our day according to our values. The siyyum concluded with Dr. Gray’s leading the group in reciting the Kaddish D’Rabbanan, the prayer traditionally recited after studying Jewish text, and shehecheyanu.
For more about Rabbi David’s daf yomi experiences, read his piece for Tablet.