Religion & Beliefs

Finishing the Talmud, One Haiku at a Time

Before Shavuot, a holiday dedicated to learning, one Daf Yomi-er reflects on her creative daily ritual Read More

By / May 13, 2013

Before I began studying Daf Yomi—or daily page of Gemara—I used to measure time and the seasons of my life in haircuts. In August of 2008, I shaved my head and set off for a year’s travel in New Zealand, allowing my recently-shorn hair to grow out during my backpacking ramblings. Each year, as Pesach rolls around, I make sure to get in a haircut, signaling the end of winter and beginning of warm days to come. Now, eight months into the Daf Yomi cycle, I measure time in pages of Gemara. Berachot 2: I was in the midst of a physically and emotionally challenging chaplaincy internship. Shabbat 88: I was traveling in one of the most remote places in the world, exploring fjords by overnight boat. Shabbat 149: my 30th birthday, Shabbat, Boston, surrounded by friends and loved ones.

Just as Daf Yomi distinguishes one day from them next, marking the passage of time, we are approaching the culmination of the counting of the omer, the 49-day-period from Pesach to Shavuot. Each night, we count the number of the day out loud, raising each of the preceding 49 days to a higher level of holiness and awareness, increasing our anticipation for day 50, during which we receive the Torah anew. On that day, I plan to stay up to the wee hours of the morning with a grateful eye toward all the Torah I’ve received and all of the Torah, and all the pages of Gemara, that I have yet to learn.

This Daf Yomi that accompanies me everywhere, keeping me busy on trains, planes, and overnight cruises, refers to the page of Gemara one learns daily as a part of a 7-and-a-half-year cycle. More than 90,000 people attended the siyum hashas that marked the completion of the most recent Daf Yomi cycle at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey this past summer. If one just keeps plugging along a page at a time, in fewer than eight years, one will come to learn all of the 37-volume rabbinic text known as the Gemara, in which the rabbis discuss and debate how to apply the oral law. The breadth of these texts is incredible, ranging from a detailed encyclopedic guide on dream interpretations—if you dream of eggs, then your requests hang in the balance; if you dream of a goose, you’ll become the head of a yeshiva—to the ins and outs of the criminal justice system and what constitutes an offense punishable by death.

This project is both a collective experience as well as an individual one. Sometimes as a kid I used to revel at a blank television screen, imagining all of the television shows that continued on, drama and lives unfolding, even while my personal television set was turned off. My experience of Daf Yomi is similar. When I am tuned in, I am part of this great unfolding, privileged to this other world whose stories continue one after another, day after day. As long as I keep my set turned on, my Gemara opened in front of me, I get to keep one foot in that world and one foot in this, but as soon as I close my book, the stories of that world are lost to me.

Yet, each person’s experience of Daf Yomi is completely unique and tailored to that person’s needs, goals, and of course, time availability. There are hundreds of online podcasts and in-person classes to guide one’s learning. One can learn the original Gemara in Hebrew and Aramaic, follow an English translation, or any number of possibilities somewhere in between.

My daily practice consists of a mix between using the online podcast of Rav Yitzhak Etshalom as well as learning from the Steinsaltz Gemara, which has an incredibly reader-friendly commentary running along the sides of the page to help explicate the complicated ins and outs of the text. I love Rav Yitzhak Etshalom’s podcast because he’s fast, sharp, and sticks closely to the text while explaining just enough so that I understand the major concepts. But, on the days when I find myself without Internet, perhaps in the air for 8 hours, electronic devices turned off, I turn to Steinsaltz.

After I complete each daf, I jot down a list of topics of note and then attempt to distill some small piece of that day’s learning into a 17-syllable haiku. For years, haikus have been my go-to literary form in which I can translate content into a creative nugget. My haiku craze began while working at Trader Joes years ago when I wrote haikus on various food items to teach other employees about our products. However, the literary form has since taken me from smoothies and granola bars to the parshiot of the Torah and now finally to Daf Yomi. Even in just one page, the daf covers a vast amount of terrain, perhaps beginning with the halachic minutiae of how to prepare food for animals on Shabbat and concluding with a story about the laundry practices of Rabban Gamliel from which we learn that white clothing is more difficult to wash than colored clothing.

It would be impossible for me to hold and remember all of the content in one daf, let alone in 37 volumes worth of Gemara. It is through my daily haiku writing that I integrate and internalize one aspect of that day’s learning and ensure that if nothing else, I have 17 syllables to take away with me. It can be an incredible challenge to stick within the form, confined by only 17 syllables. And, yet, there is something meditative and truly satisfying when I finally land on exactly the right combination of syllables and sounds that contain within them a powerful nugget of an idea.

Sometimes I find myself looking at my bookshelf, eyeing different volumes of Gemara, wondering which one I’ll be learning while I have my first child. Will it be in Suka, or perhaps Beitza? Where will I be in the cycle when I graduate rabbinical school in two years? First real job? Second child? The next big move? When I look at those slim, travel-sized volumes, neat and ordered on my bookshelves, I see the next seven and a half years spread before me. I can guess at some of the events that will mark these pages, but the one thing that will remain constant amid change and transition will be my daily practice of Daf Yomi, grounding me in time.

My Top 5 Haikus:

Brachot 45
what’s the halacha?
go see what the people do:
a world of practice

Brachot 58
the world inundates us
all the time; look for wonder
in quiet places.

Shabbat 30
the fear of the thing:
so consuming it prevents

living—just let go.

Shabbat 82
delving deep into
wiping and constipation
this too is torah

Shabbat 113
let it not be an
exercise in wordplay. make
it matter to you.

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