I recently completed learning a tractate of the Talmud and had a siyyum, a celebration of learning, which doubled as my 50th birthday party.
Twenty-plus years ago, I learned Jewish texts in a yeshiva in Jerusalem for a few years, and since then I have learned Jewish texts every day. But this is the first time I completed an entire tractate of the Talmud. (The Babylonian Talmud is divided into 37 tractates totaling 2,711 daf, or 5,422 pages.)
What made my learning of this tractate different from my other learning of Jewish texts is that I only learned this tractate during downtime. This included, for example, the 30 minutes from the time my children had to arrive before their basketball or lacrosse games until the game began, as well as learning when my children were not on the field or the court. The latter was not a way to make friends with other parents!
I also learned when my children were in their dentist, orthodontist and doctor appointments, during the commercials and halftime of the NFL football games I watched on TV, while waiting to get a haircut, and dozens of other downtimes that added up to well over 100 hours per year.
In short, when most people check Facebook on their phone, I opened a Talmud, and in just under two years, I completed a tractate. Thus, theoretically, learning this tractate did not take up any of my time. It just required desire, effort and about $80 for the two Artscroll volumes.
When learning this tractate, I didn’t outline the back-and-forth of every discussion like I did when I studied Talmud in yeshiva; and if I didn’t understand why a response refuted a statement, nor understood the logic behind a proof, whereas in yeshiva I had to expend a lot of time and brainpower to figure it out, this time I utilized the Artscroll side of the page to spoon-feed me the explanation. This style of learning is called a be’kiut (“broad”) approach to learning rather than a be’iun (“in-depth”) approach.
The tractate I completed is entitled B’rachot and it focused on when and how to say the Shema and the Amidah, blessings before and after eating and drinking, Kiddush, Havdalah and special blessings. However, what I mostly learned and enjoyed is the following:
1. Reading the original version of the story of numerous Jewish stories I’ve heard over the years and seeing that the original is sometimes a little different. Rabbi Akiva’s “This too is for the good!” is one such story (page 60b).
2. Learning about everyday life 1,500-plus years ago in Babylonia. This was relayed through the rabbis’ discussions about latrines, snakes, bathhouses, ovens, lanterns, burial, rodents and stories of snakes in latrines.
3. Learning about the lives of the rabbis. I was not previously aware that Elijah visited many of the rabbis.
4. Seeing maps, diagrams and pictures of flora, fauna, coins and archaeological remains — all in the Steinsaltz edition of the Talmud — illuminated the content of the Talmudic text.
5. Understanding the discussion upon which a Jewish law rests. The first half of the tractate focused on determining the time frames for saying particular prayers, so now I know why most of the laws are what they are.
6. Exposure to ancient Jewish teachings about medicine, science, astronomy and demons. I know better than to make fun of the teachings that are not in congruence with modern science because there are numerous examples of how, over time, modern science keeps updating itself, getting closer and closer to ancient Jewish teachings. Two popular examples include how many stars are in the universe (B’rachot, 32b) and the length of a lunar month (Rosh Hashanah, 25a).
7. Being amazed when a rabbi had his argument turned against him and the only option seemed to be concession, but then through “mental gymnastics,” he ends up proving his point.
8. Sensing the great respect the rabbis had for each other while arguing against them. This is diametrically opposed to today’s political climate. I’m sure there’s a lesson in here somewhere.
9. Exercising my mind trying to follow and understand certain statements in a Talmudic discussion. One of my favorites, for example is, and those who have learned B’rachot may recall, the discussion where Rebbi Yishmael was lying down and Rebbi Elazar ben Azaryah was standing up, but then when it came time to say the Shema Rabbi Yishmael stood up and Rebbi Elazar ben Azaryah laid down. By moving the way they did, they demonstrated that they held by Hillel’s opinion. Just as importantly, no one could mistakenly think one of them held by Shammai’s opinion (page 11a).
10. It’s cool reading text that was written over 1,500 years ago in not one, but two ancient languages. Though I will not say how often I had to look on the Artscroll side of the page for the translation of an Aramaic or Hebrew word.
I wrote this article not to brag; after all, more than 100,000 Jews learn a daf of Talmud every day and complete the entire Talmud every 7.5 years, which is a much greater feat. Rather, I wrote this piece to share a little about the Talmud and to encourage others to add to their studying of Judaism. I learned this entire tractate in just my downtime — often in stanzas of two to five minutes — in just under two years. Therefore, not having time cannot be used as a valid excuse for one not to learn more about Judaism.
The next tractate I intend to learn is Bava Metzia, which focuses on property law, but this time I intend to learn it more be’iun (in depth). I can hardly wait for my son’s Sunday basketball game to begin. JN
Joel Hoffman is ordained as a rabbi but works as a math and science teacher at a special education high school.