Daf Yomi: Sign up now for the biggest simchah on Earth

This online daily study plan could be the most positive thing to happen to Jewish-themed Google searches, says Yoni Brinbaum

June 06, 2019 15:58

Google the words, "largest mass Jewish event worldwide" and the algorithm produces some very disturbing results. The first three alone are Wikipedia entries for "list of genocides by death toll", "pogrom’"and "timeline of antisemitism". By way of contrast, replace the word Jewish with Muslim or Christian, and the top results relate to the annual gathering for the Hajj in Mecca and record-breaking millions attending Catholic Mass in far flung corners of the globe. So, here’s the critical question. Will an equivalent mass Jewish event ever take place with the power to change these negative algorithms? Could something happen in the Jewish world on a scale able to top the Google search results?

Believe it or not, there are grounds to suspect that this may happen at the start of next year. For the past seven years, thousands of Jews worldwide have taken part in a daily study programme known as the Daf Yomi. Initiated in 1923 by the inspirational Rabbi Meir Shapiro of Lublin, the programme involves the daily study of a double-sided page of Talmud. As there are 2,711 of these pages in standard editions of the Babylonian Talmud, every seven and a half years the worldwide cycle is completed, leading to mass siyyumim, or celebrations of completion. The largest and most dramatic of these will take place on January 1st 2020 at the MetLife Stadium in New Jersey and is expected to attract nearly 95,000 people. As mass Jewish events go, that’s pretty impressive by any standards. Here in the UK, Wembley Arena will play host to a grand British siyyum a week later.

I have been a major fan (of Daf Yomi, not the Mets) for many years and am privileged to give a Daf Yomi shiur at Barnet United Synagogue. Time and again, I have witnessed the manner in which this remarkable initiative has deepened people’s connection to their faith, and the Jewish people, in unimaginable ways. Why talk about it now, seven months before the event? Because Daf Yomi is a major commitment. And if you are interested in joining what has been described as the world’s ‘"largest Jewish book club"  — you had better start preparing now. 

So here’s what you need to know. The Talmud is the single most important repository of Jewish teachings which guide the manner in which Judaism is lived, experienced and practiced today. It is the home of the famous rabbinic debates and discussions, buttressed with innumerable personal stories and anecdotes, which bring Jewish law and lore to life. Although it is often difficult to understand and contains extensive legal discussions on the finer points of Jewish law, studying the Talmud rewards you with incomparable insights into the Jewish story and the richness of our collective Jewish heritage. Most importantly of all, the Daf Yomi project is a wonderful Jewish unifier. When launching it in 1923, Rabbi Shapiro described how as a result of his idea, a Jew could travel for 15 days from Israel to America (by boat!), learn the Daf each day, and enter a shul in New York to find a group of fellow Jews learning the very same page he had studied that morning. "Could there be a greater unity of hearts than this?", exclaimed Rabbi Shapiro. 

Knowing the time commitment before you think about taking the Daf Yomi plunge is important, however. To study with any real level of understanding, you need to dedicate about 45 minutes a day to it. I would also strongly advocate joining a daily Daf Yomi class in a local shul, or if that isn’t possible, choosing an online one, something you can experiment with in advance. Outstanding English translations of the Talmud, such as those produced by Artscroll and Koren, have also helped make the text more accessible than ever before.

This weekend we celebrate Shavuot, which commemorates the Sinai experience and the start of our relationship with the Torah. Many have the tradition of staying awake all night in order to study. Come next January, an estimated 200,000 people worldwide will take part in the single greatest mass Jewish event on the planet, centred around that very tradition of learning we share. This is obviously a cause for celebration, as well as an opportunity to change depressing Google algorithms. But far more significantly, it will hopefully inspire more people to expand their commitment to Jewish learning beyond that of the annual Shavuot experience. 

This is our Talmud, our text and our tradition. We should all own it. My only piece of advice is — start planning now!

 Yoni Birnbaum is the rabbi of Hadley Wood Synagogue

June 06, 2019 15:58

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