Is Daf Yomi the Answer?

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

by R. Gil Student

Few things animate the intellectual discussions of the yeshivah world more than a debate on the best way to learn Gemara. Each yeshivah, and sometimes each shiur within a yeshivah, has its own unique method to understanding the text and commentaries, and its own approach to balancing the competing needs of breadth and depth, speed and analysis, bekius and iyun. During this season of celebrating the completion of the Daf Yomi cycle, most people have set aside their firmly held opinions on this matter in order to politely celebrate the accomplishment of completing Shas at the lightning-fast speed of one page a day. I’d like to pierce that bubble, albeit gently, and only in order to gain deeper appreciation of the Daf Yomi experience and particularly the Dirshu Daf Yomi experience. Let’s take a deep dive into the subject of breadth, an iyun into bekius.

I. Breadth or Depth?

Particularly in this new era of technology, with both its grave challenges and great benefits, is there any need for bekius? Some will see this question and shake their heads in disapproval, perhaps even taking offense at the notion that technology can replace human achievement. Others will nod their heads in agreement, thinking about responsa databases, Torah libraries searchable with keywords, a digital Otzar Haseforim that fits into your pocket. The Gemara (Horayos 14a) describes a debate on whether a “Sinai,” a scholar with great breadth, is preferable to an “Oker Harim,” a brilliant analyst. The great yeshivah in Pumbedisa needed to choose one type or the other for its rosh yeshivah. The conclusion was that Sinai is better; breadth is better than depth. Has technology changed this balance? Should we now prefer an Oker Harim when you can easily Google for related texts and halachic rulings?

I was thinking about this as I attended the Dirshu Daf Yomi Siyum HaShas in Tel Aviv as a guest of Dirshu, observing the celebration and speaking with some of the attendees. It was an electrified event, full of impassioned speakers describing the necessity of effort and exertion in Torah study. Rav Dovid Hofstedter, the founder and president of Dirshu, made the crucial but uncomfortable point – people remember things which they struggle to acquire. When we work hard to learn Torah, when we sweat and toil over the text, we retain it longer and better.

Like any middle-aged Orthodox man, I know many people who learn Daf Yomi. I see the nobility and transformation of participants in the program, but beyond that I see something less obvious, but more important.

The Gemara (Shabbos 31a) says that one of the first questions asked of a man when he reaches heaven is whether he set aside regular times for learning to Torah. The daily Daf is the ultimate kevi’us, permanently on the schedule every day throughout the year, regardless of personal circumstances. As a friend of mine says, “You have a wedding? The Daf don’t care. Are you feeling sick? The Daf don’t care.” The daily dedication is literally heavenly. We see this in a sixteenth-century debate over the validity of a purported midrash about the most important verse in the Torah.

II. The Daily Sacrifice

Rav Ya’akov Ibn Chaviv, in the introduction to his magisterial Ein Ya’akov, quotes an elusive midrash of whose origin he was uncertain. According to this midrash, Ben Zoma says that a fundamental verse of the Torah is Shema Yisrael (Devarim 6:4). Ben Nanas says that an even more comprehensive verse is “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Vayikra 19:18). Shimon Ben Pazi says that an even more comprehensive verse is “The one lamb you shall offer in the morning” (Bamidbar 28:4). While the first two verses seem reasonable as comprehensive statements of Jewish faith, and indeed we find other midrashim with similar sentiments, the third verse about the sacrifice seems less than fundamental.

Rav Ya’akov Ibn Chaviv, an exile from Spain who settled in Salonica, connects each verse to R. Shimon HaTzadik’s three pillars of the world – Torah, worship and kindness (Avos 1:2). A few decades after Rav Ya’akov’s passing, Rav Shmuel Yaffe of Constantinople (Yefeh Mareh, Nedarim 9:3) thought this interpretation was forced. Indeed, he finds the third verse so baffling that he suggests this “midrash” was invented by a creative student. However, his contemporary, Rav Yehudah Loewe (Maharal) of Prague (Nesivos Olam, Ahavas Rei’a, ch. 1) rescues this midrash from obscurity and places it in its rightful place of a fundamental idea of Judaism.

The daily lamb sacrifice, the korban tamid, was brought every morning in the Temple in Jerusalem. It is a mark of consistency, of persistence. Every day, without fail, this worship was performed. The secret to Judaism, indeed to life in general, lies in following through, day in and day out. We pray three times a day, observe Shabbos every week, and continue with all the mitzvos day after day. We don’t take a vacation from the mitzvos because, among other reasons, we recognize that a break in consistency disturbs our religious balance. This crucial and noble trait of consistency, Maharal teaches, is the message of the daily sacrifice. There are few things in life more representative of this midrash than Daf Yomi, the daily regimen that requires unwavering commitment. Daf Yomi learners masterfully exercise this aspect of the daily sacrifice.

Daf Yomi changes lives in that it focuses someone’s life on daily Torah learning. The regular schedule not only guarantees learning but affects, perhaps invades, all other times of the day. Rav Hofstedter made this point in a memorable way: In Daf Yomi, you don’t learn a Daf a day; the Daf is your day. When learning Torah becomes an integral part of your day, your day is built on the Torah. Beyond that, a Daf Yomi learner acquires a taste of Shas, taking a tour of the entire Talmud. You might not remember most of what you have learned, but you have encountered it all. At one point, you have seen every topic, asked every question in the text, repeated every Talmudic saying. You might have forgotten the details but you have absorbed the attitudes. Your days are filled with the conversations of the Sages.

III. The Need for Breadth

Learning Shas in itself is a great accomplishment but it will not solve the problem Rav Ya’akov Kamenetsky saw in the yeshivah system. Rav Kamenetsky corresponded with Rav Elazar Shach over his worries for the future of Torah. For good reasons, yeshivos focus on learning Talmud in depth. Students learn to dissect the text, explore the early and late commentaries, analyze the underlying concepts. This study moves slowly, covering maybe a few dozen pages of Talmud per year, depending on the yeshivah. However, Rav Kamenetsky worried that a Torah scholar – not even a great one – must be fluent in every page of the Talmud, every Rashi and Tosafos in Shas. From where will future poskim, halachic authorities with full command of the Torah, emerge if yeshivos teach so slowly? After lengthy correspondence, Rav Kamenetsky and Rav Shach reached a conclusion and Rav Shach declared publicly that yeshivah students should, in addition to their in-depth study, devote time each day to cover substantial ground. They must learn both iyun and bekius, in-depth analysis and broad study, in order to cultivate the next generation of Torah leaders (Reb Yaakov: The Life and Times of HaGaon Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky, pp. 158-159).

In truth, a lack of well-roundedness leads to faulty in-depth study, as well. Rav Chaim Soloveitchik used to say that you do not have a right to suggest a sevara until you have learned all of Shas. You may not propose a conceptual analysis without the requisite breadth to know whether your idea makes sense across subjects. Words of Torah are poor in one place and rich in another (Yerushalmi, Rosh Hashanah 3:5), meaning that the Torah interlinks across sections. The explanation for a passage in Shabbos might be an idea mentioned in Nidah. Until you are familiar with all areas of Torah, you cannot be fully familiar with any specific area.

We discussed above two types of Torah scholars, Sinai and Oker Harim. But these are only relative areas of expertise, not sole descriptions. An Oker Harim must still have mastery of the entire Torah and a Sinai must be more than a mere tape recorder. Rashi (Horayos 14a s.v. U-mar) describes an Oker Harim as someone who does not have all the texts on his fingertips “that much.” He must still have a breadth of knowledge but might not excel at immediate recollection. Similarly, the Sinai selected as rosh yeshivah was not as good at creative analysis as his colleague but still exhibited that ability (Rashi, ad loc., s.v. Rav Yosef). Without breadth, there can be no depth.

IV. Knowing All of Shas

The magnitude of this requirement can be overwhelming but the implications are humbling. A Torah scholar needs to know everything, the entire Torah? No, not just a Torah scholar. Every Jewish man needs to know the entire Torah but a scholar suffers doubly, because not only he, but the Torah he teaches, will be lacking if he does not know Shas. The Shulchan Aruch Ha-Rav (Hilchos Talmud Torah 2:1) makes clear the requirement to know the entire Torah.

Daf Yomi is a step in the right direction because it familiarizes participants with all of Shas. But how do you get to really know Shas, to become fluent in it, as Rav Kamenetsky insisted? For the past two decades, Dirshu has led a program of study to assist and encourage participants to master Shas. Through a combination of exams and incentives, including periodic cumulative exams of everything learned to date, Dirshu provides a program in mastering Shas. You read that correctly – throughout the Daf Yomi cycle, participants take cumulative exams so that at the end of the cycle, they are tested on all of Shas. The impressive results of participants show the extent of human capacity when properly directed and motivated.

We underestimate our own abilities. We look toward the end zone rather than the next ten yards. The Dirshu program requires enormous commitment and effort, but the consistent day-to-day study and review leads to fluency in Shas. This is not only humanly possible but occurring on a widescale basis. Well over 200 such masters of Shas celebrated at the Dirshu Siyum in Tel Aviv, one of several siyum events across the world. At the event, roshei yeshivah from the most respected Torah institutions in Israel – including the Mir, Ponevezh and Chevron – exuberantly praised the accomplishments of Dirshu in encouraging budding Torah scholars to reach their true potential.

V. Reach Your Potential

The Gemara (Pesachim 50a) says that R. Yehoshua Ben Levi died or came very close to death. When he was revived, he said that he had seen an upside-down world – the lowly in this world were high there, and the high here were low there. Rav Moshe Di Trani, known as the Mabit (Beis Elokim, introduction), interprets this report about Torah scholars. He explains that everyone is born with certain abilities. Someone who is a top scholar in this world may actually be fulfilling only a fraction of his capability while a low student may be surpass-ing his natural abilities. In Heaven, we appear based on our relative accomplishments, how much we achieve compared to our abilities, rather than our external achievements.

But if so, how can anyone know their natural limits? The Mabit says to learn as much and as well as you can, and then to push yourself even more. We are all slowed down by laziness. We need to compensate for that just to reach our expected goals. To exceed those expectations, we need to go even further. We need to commit, to engage, and most of all to push ourselves beyond what we think we can accomplish. Only then can we hope to reach and even surpass our natural capacity for Torah knowledge.

It is all about learning and then reviewing again and again. Rav Avigdor Nebenzahl (Sichos, Devarim, p. 61) quotes Rav Shmuel Auerbach as distinguishing between prayer and learning Torah. In prayer, the key is to find something new, to uplift the heart so every prayer contains hopes and thoughts that are original. In learning, the key is to repeat the same Torah over and over. And yet, the yetzer hara convinces us to do the opposite, to repeat our prayers by rote and to discard as useless our efforts in learning and reviewing Torah without adding an original thought.

The Dirshu programs for Daf Yomi of Shas and Daf HaYomi B’Halacha (among its other study programs) offer avenues to learn more than you think you can, to push yourself beyond what you think you can do, and to retain and master that Torah. The people celebrating their completion at the recent Dirshu Siyum HaShas show that what seems humanly impossible can be accomplished with the right push to consistency and accountability. As Rav Kamenetsky said, the people who follow this path will be the next generation of Torah scholars and halachic authorities.

Daf Yomi transforms your day. Dirshu transforms every moment. At the Tel Aviv siyum, Rav Nissan Kaplan lauded the constant review required by the Dirshu programs. Not only does it help you retain your learning, it directs every free minute you have in advance of exams. Dirshu tests not only make you accountable for your learning, they help you become accountable for every moment of your time. If the question is how you, a successful learner, can reach the seemingly impossible accomplishment of knowing all of Shas, the answer is Dirshu Daf Yomi. It has been done, and you can do it too. It will change your life for the better and help you reach, and perhaps exceed, your natural potential.

(This article appeared in a number of Jewish newspapers this past week)

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link of New Jersey, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student serves on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and as Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He also serves on the Editorial Board of Jewish Action magazine and the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

Leave a Reply