Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Siyum HaShas (Completion of learning the Babylonian Talmud)

Last Shabbat the group that I learn daf yomi (daily page of Talmud) with finished the tractate of Niddah and started Brachot, finishing the seven year task of learning the entire Babylonian Talmud and starting all over again. We finished approximately a month behind schedule, which is a bummer. It would have been nice to complete the shas together with all the other groups all over the world. In any case, we are planning, G-d willing, to have a festive meal in honor of the siyum some time soon.

There are disadvantages to this style of learning, as many have pointed out. The Talmud itself points out that one is supposed to review what he learns in order to remember the learning! Learning a page of Talmud in the confines of a one-hour lesson every day is difficult enough. Finding the time to review the page is even more difficult. I do recall days when I had to think really hard in order to remember what was discussed in the previous day's lesson. After finishing the seven-year cycle, I cannot say that I am well versed in Talmud. Far from it! I realize that I've only scraped the surface. Each and every page of the Talmud is a source of endless discussions among the commentators.

Critics of the daf yomi have also presented the Jewish learning version of the "butter vs. guns" dilemma. Perhaps the time spent learning Talmud would be utilized better learning tanach, halacha, or mussar? That is a question that everyone has to decide for himself. "A person learns Torah only in a place that his heart desires."

There are also advantages to learning the daf yomi. In the past I have learned with a chavruta (a learning partner). These arrangements usually started off nicely, but as time goes on they fell apart. One day a week there is a reason that I have and can't show up for the chavruta, one day the chavruta doesn't show up, and so on. After a while the chavruta just breaks up. I've had the same problem with lessons that are not given on a daily basis and lack predefined goals: Sometimes you can't make it; sometimes the Rabbi can't make it. In contrast to this, if you don't show up for the daf yomi, the learning continues. When the Rabbi can't show up, he sends a replacement. The daf yomi framework is durable and withstands the absence of whoever doesn't show up for the class.

I think the daf yomi experience had a positive effect on the family. My children see that their father has a fixed time every day that is set aside for learning Torah. Sometimes I have to leave the house to go to the shiur (lesson) when the rest of the family would prefer that I did not (i.e. someone needs help with their homework, etc.). The value of learning Torah is impressed upon the family in a way that a thousand lectures would not be able to do.

Although I have not become well versed in Talmud, I feel that I know how to learn a lot better than I did seven years ago. In addition, when I gaze at the 20 volumes of Gemara on the shelf in my living room, I feel a sense of familiarity with each and every volume. They used to be a source of guilt for me, twenty accusing fingers pointing at me saying, "Sure these books look nice on the shelf, but face it, there are tractates here that you have never even opened! Who are you trying to fool, having these books in your living room?" Like I said, I’ve opened them all, put an effort to learn almost every page (yes, there were pages that I missed). Now I can look at the Shas on the shelf without feeling guilty.

Now I have a problem with all the other books on the shelf: What's that set of Maharal doing on the shelf? When are you going to open it up? The Nach set still doesn't look worn! The Tur and the Shulchan Aruch also look very nice. Perhaps one day I'll learn these books as well.

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