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In Defense of the Denigrated Daf

By Rabbi Yoel Domb

Rabbi Rothstein has decided to boycott the Siyum haShas in order to "shake our community out of its attachment to a practice that, as many admirable qualities as it has, is ultimately destructive for implementing study of Torah as a central value of the Jewish religion." While it would be presumptuous to assume that the boycott will effect any change in the routine of some tens of thousands of enthusiastic students of the Daf, it should still engender a response if only to encourage others to pursue this regimen and to rebut some of the arguments raised in his essay.

I presume the author does not behoove to pass judgment on such a great sage as Rabbi Meir Shapira for his magnificent vision of Jews the world over poring over the same folio, debating Talmudic issues together as they would discuss the weekly parsha. I am sure he knows that many Gedolim endorsed this method of learning despite the inherent weaknesses which he points out, such as a superficial understanding of the Daf at best, and at worst "davening" through the Daf hurriedly, sometimes with somnolent participants being spoon-fed ideas which they can barely comprehend at their level of concentration. Even the author realizes the advantage of having a communal text which bonds people to Torah, and he is only suggesting that we adopt a more user-friendly text than Shas in order to accomplish that goal.

However, I think there are a number of arguments in favor of Talmud study even in a diluted and superficial form. A Tanakh or Mishnah class might achieve a higher level of comprehension for some people, but their staying power could only be temporary. People who want to get animated by their learning need the give and take of the Talmudic discussion and its meandering logic. Even a good Mishnah shiur would lack that element, because the Mishnah is written in a concise way which discourages the in-depth analysis of material, and much of it consists of long lists of dissimilar halakhot which require more mental gymnastics than Talmud to correlate. The Talmud leads inherently to problems, questions and dilemmas and this attracts people's attention--they need a thorny topic to debate and a controversial issue to flesh out. Arguably these can be found in Tanakh as well, but how are people going to get excited about the continued diatribes of the Nev’iim Aharonim against idolatry? I do not think people fulfill Talmud Torah better simply by comprehending a "light" text more deeply, and I doubt they would have a similar feeling of accomplishment on completion of such a text.

Moreover, nowadays we can find many helpful aids to assist our study of difficult Talmudic texts and enhance our understanding beyond the superficial level. The latest cycle of study spawned a number of outstanding projects--notably, the "Havruta" series which offers phrase-by–phrase commentary and footnotes with incisive comments from Rishonim and Aharonim for more in-depth study. The ArtScroll Shas has literally revolutionized study for linguistically challenged students, and its commentary is superb: clear, organized and pellucid, with footnotes which whet a scholar's appetite to pursue further sources. On the web one can find the remarkable contribution of Kollel Iyun HaDaf--with Daf insights, commentary, translation and background material to make Talmud more accessible than ever before. When studying Hullin we had the excellent illustrations and comments of Rabbi Amitai Ben David and Rabbi Lach (Sichat Hullin and CHullin Illustrated) which rendered this once abstruse tractate both enjoyable and approachable.

Certainly there are some who cannot invest the time needed to gain a comfortable knowledge of the Daf, but those people would probably find it hard to follow any text at a reasonable level, and even if they do not understand every hava amina in a brief shiur they can glean a lot of gems from the conclusions and discussions which cannot be found anywhere else. This is the main body of Jewish literature, this is the fulcrum on which millions of Jews have toiled and pored, and this is the fundamental obligation of Talmud Torah even for the layman, according to Rambam's own definition (Hilkhot Talmud Torah 1:12). Why should we assume that today's laymen, when disconnected from all physical and electronic disturbances and equipped with the aforementioned advantages, cannot attain and maintain a comprehension of Talmud commensurate to previous generations?

Above all, Daf Yomi is a commitment which essays to reach what seems to many an unattainable goal--learning the whole of Shas. Whether one knows Shas or whether Shas molds one's personality (as the author would like) is a secondary issue, because the religious demand is to learn lefi kokho(each according to ability) and not to deal with lofty ethical yardsticks. If everyone would just join a shiur and study, I am sure that Shas will become part of us, and ultimately we will have the will to want to study all the rest of the Torah, and to attain many other worthy achievements.

Rabbi Yoel Domb is a ram and teacher of business ethics at Machon Lev (Jerusalem College of Technology) and a research fellow at the Center for Business Ethics.

The opinions expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the thought of ATID. They are presented here out of a conviction that compelling ideas, frankly stated, are an important element in engaging the community of Jewish educators in critical thought about our holy work.

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