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Be a Daffer!

12/09/19 14:33:14


Daft – Silly, foolish, frivolous, merry – A chiefly British informal word. Synonyms: Bats, batty, bonkers, loony, psycho.

Daf – Paper, leaf, page. Originally Sumerian word (about 5,000 years ago) for clay tablet, later wooden panel, board. Today a Hebrew word for page, leaf or plank.

Most recently dafdefan used for web-browser stemming from dafdef for page through, browse.

Daf Yomi – Page of the day, a daily form of learning of the Talmud (Gemara) consisiting of two sides or both sides of the page. There are 2,711 pages of the Babylonian Talmud and it takes 7 years to complete.

Daf Yomi – A daft idea? Or a devilishly smart way of covering the most celebrated and comprehensive compendium of Jewish wisdom? I’ve been studying the Daf Yomi for almost seven years now; the current Daf Yomi cycle concludes in early January 2020. Even though I’ve studied Talmud or in ‘Yeshivish talk’ I’ve been learning Gemora since the age of 13, I had never systematically studied a page a day and navigated my way through the entirety of the Talmudic Sea. In fact most literate and learned Jews and rabbis haven’t gone through every page of the “Shas”, acronym for the six-part series of the Gemara or Talmud.

It was the genius of Rabbi Meir Shapira of Poland (and famously head of the Lublin Yeshiva) in Elul, 1923 who proposed and propelled this idea He was motivated not only by his love of learning and desire for Jews (originally the religious youth of Poland) to discover parts of the 63 tractates or books of the Talmud not traditionally studied, but also as a way to unify Jewish people. As he explained: “What a great thing. A Jew travels by a boat and takes Gemara Brachot under his arm. He travels from Israel to America and each day he learns the daf. When he arrives in America… he finds a Jew learning the very same daf he studies on that day and he gladly joins them… Can there be a greater unity of hearts than this?”

Having carried my Talmud (it comes in handy travel editions or you can simply get it online) from Melbourne to Mumbai, Johannesburg to Jerusalem, it’s not only let me connect to a diverse range of Jews it’s also kept me focused on my identity in the most bizarre of places…

Still sounds batty or daffy? Why would you want to be learning in the middle of an exotic holiday or in the midst of the punishing schedule of a busy life? Precisely because it takes me to places that are even more exotic or reminds me that my busy-ness isn’t always that productive or meaningful.

The Talmud is an exhilarating adventure into the Jewish mind. It has shaped Jewish thinking for over a thousand years – sometime around 200CE Rabbi Judah the Prince (Yehudah Hanasi) began the arduous task of organising the huge amount of information known as the Oral Law or Tradition. This was the collective wisdom and interpretation of the Written Law (or Torah) that had been transmitted orally for generations.

The Talmud is different from any other work – it’s highly legal ,focussing on general principles and the minutiae of Jewish Law or Halacha, It’s got a lot to do with the fact that we’re a nation of lawyers and a querulous, argumentative people ; it’s absolutely jam-packed with legal argument, abstruse and arcane debates about the price of peas and the status of a deranged goring ox. But it’s lot more than just a book of extended legal arguments (that can sometimes go on for ages and pages). It’s more than just an intellectual exploration although it has some of the most breathtaking and taxing philosophical speculation imaginable. It’s a book of mystical exploration, a roller-coaster ride through astronomy, biology, anatomy, sexuality and folklore.

It’s got some ripper stories, brilliant proverbs, sublime sages, prickly characters. It’s a guide to ethical living and a guide to God, it’s also a great introduction to angels, demons and devils…

It’s a call to be the best you can and it’s a warning, that human beings can be as base as the beasts.. It has inspired the greatest minds; its been told (probably apocryphal) that when Albert Einstein was asked shortly before his death what he would do differently if he had his life again; he unhesitatingly replied “I would study the Talmud”.

It’s been tough getting through the Daf every single day especially when I’ve been acutely busy, torn by family or personal issues, sick, or simply wanting time- out. I’ve sometimes skimmed the page superficially and had to cram and catch-up on a few occasions. And yes, it’s sometimes been deadly boring or infuriatingly technical…

When my good friend encouraged me to embark on the Daf Yomi, I was a little reluctant – where would I find the time – and a bit sceptical – do I really want to study all those obtuse laws of holiness and purity? Looking back now it’s been one of the best decision I’ve made in the last decade. It has widened and deepened my knowledge of Torah. It has positively  impacted on my practise as a communal Rabbi, it has expanded my awareness of the world and helped me bring together so many disparate pieces of information. It has changed me and become a life-long friend.

The Talmud today is being studied by men and women (no longer just a guy thing), religious and irreligious, Jews and non-Jews (it’s apparently a best-seller in South Korea). It’s a treasure that belongs to all Jews.

For the past seven years, a small group of us have been studying the Daf Yomi together at Caulfield Shule most mornings. We’ll be celebrating the conclusion or Siyyum of Shas with a Kiddush on Saturday 14 December. We’re all contemplating whether we’ve answered the seven-year itch and enrich or whether we will answer the siren call to begin all over again...

Join us for Kiddush on the day. Join the next cycle starting in January 2020.


Shabbat Shalom.

Rabbi Ralph

Mon, 18 January 2021 5 Shevat 5781