Rosh Hashanah marked 100 years of Daf Yomi. I have seen surprisingly little written about this important milestone. The thoughts below on this momentous occasion reflect my personal, subjective thoughts and I would love to hear your feedback and critique.
On September 11, 1923 the Gerrer Rebbe, Rav Avraham Mordechai Alter, learned the first daf of masechet Brachot. This rather unremarkable event, taking place 100 years ago on Rosh Hashanah 5684, changed the course of Jewish history – and much for the better. Three weeks earlier Rav Meir Shapiro, then the Rabbi of Sanok, Poland and a member of the Sejm, the Parliament of the Republic of Poland, speaking at the First World Congress of Agudath Israel in Vienna, proposed the study of the Daf Yomi, whereby Jews, wherever they may be, would study the same page of Talmud, one page a day, finishing the Talmud in seven-and-a-half years.
Had the Gerrer Rebbe – with a following of some 200,000 people - not taken up Daf Yomi it is likely this idea, suggested by a 36-year-old rabbi no less, would have been one of many proposals made and supported at a convention that never see the light of day. The idea of Daf Yomi had first been suggested three years earlier by Rabbi Moshe Menachem Mendel Spivak in the publication of Agudath Israel but did not gain traction. A conservative movement – and Orthodoxy in general and Agudath Israel in particular surely fit that description – does not take to change easily, especially radical change.
And while it might be hard to imagine for many today, the notion of learning Daf Yomi was a most radical idea. Never before in Jewish history had the goal of a day’s study of Talmud been to study a page of Gemara a day. And for good reason. For starters, the pagination of the Talmud was determined by Daniel Bomberg, a non-Jew who published the first Talmud in 1523. The vagaries of a rather primitive (by our standards) printing press is a rather artificial, even non-sensical, marker for Talmud study. Daf Yomi, a delayed but direct result of the printing press, is one of the many, many changes wrought by this great invention.
Some pages of Gemara are much longer, some are much harder than others, so insisting on a page a day is rather bad educational policy. Add to that the fact that many a page end in the middle of the sentence, and almost always in the middle of a topic, Daf Yomi is a most inconsistent way of learning.
But the above ignores what seems to have been the overarching goal of Daf Yomi, namely, to bring Jews together. After the tragedy of World War l, the dislocation of many a Jewish community and scores abandoning the traditional Jewish way – no one could even begin to imagine the horrors of World War ll – bringing Jews together through the study of Talmud had goals beyond Talmudic understanding.
“And now, with the permission of the assembled, I would like to put forth my personal proposal that beginning with the forthcoming Rosh Hashanah everyone should study a daf of Gemara each day, beginning with the first daf of shas. Imagine to yourselves how marvelous it will be. A Jew is on a ship, and under his arm he carries a masechet Brachos. He is to sail on a two-week journey from Israel to the U.S. Each day he opens his Gemara and studies the daf of that day, and when he arrives in New York, he discovers to his great delight that many other Jews are studying the very same daf as he. Joyfully he sits down with them and enters into a lively Talmudic debate. Another Jew leaves the States and travels to Brazil or Japan, and he first goes to the beis medrash, where he finds everyone learning the same daf that he himself learned that day. Could there be greater unity of hearts than this?"
It is unlikely that anyone – including Rav Meir himself – could have imagined the success of Daf Yomi. It is – save for the Shabbat Torah reading – the Jewish world’s (and maybe the non-Jewish one too) biggest book club with thousands, actually hundreds of thousands, of Jews around the world studying the same Talmudic page each and every day. Men, women, young and old, orthodox and non, Hebrew speakers, people who can’t even read Hebrew, are studying the discussions and debates of rabbis who lived 2,000 years ago. The amount of Torah study happening because of Day Yomi is staggering. There are millions of hours of Torah study each week, perhaps close to a billion hours of Torah study a year, much of which would not be happening if not for Daf Yomi.
Such is beyond fantastic.
The Talmud is far and away the most important Jewish text we have. It is the basis of all of Jewish law, much of Jewish philosophy, theology and belief, opens us the world(s) of rabbinic thinking and contains much ancillary information about the world in which our Talmudic Sages operated. Its countless debates, willingness to challenge any and all views, its demand for precision, clarity and analysis of issues from every possible angle are such an intellectual delight that even as the winds of modernity swept through Europe, taking many great Talmudic scholars away from observance, many continued their study of this most marvelous text.
Yet the idea that all would study Talmud was unheard of before the 20th century and even Rav Shapiro was addressing the intellectual elite, not the masses. In generations prior no more than 5% - and likely quite a bit less – of men studied Talmud and the amount of women who did so was likely less than almost nobody.
It seems that is how our Talmudic Sages wanted it. There is little doubt that the Talmud was written by rabbis for rabbis. Its complex style, multiple allusion which only a scholar would know, its run-on sentences – from Mishna to Mishna is just one long run on sentence often covering many pages– make it unintelligible without a personal teacher. It is for good reason Jewish history has given the greatest of all commentators the name Rashi not only an acronym for his actual name, Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, but for Rabban shel Yisrael, the teacher of Israel. His commentary allowed Talmud to move from impossible to comprehend to just difficult.
But it is not just its style that makes it clear it was written for the rabbinic scholar. Its content does the same. The sharp language and no holds barred approach the rabbis had towards their colleagues, language that can be a turn off for the average person, as no doubt would be the disparaging comments at times directed against the “am haaretz” a category that surely included most Jews of the Talmudic era. The sometimes outlandish cases, understandable from a scholarly perspective, but head scratching for the average person, has tragically led some to poke fun at the Talmud. Even the jokes of the Talmud would only be understood by the scholar. And surely such stories as Rav Kahana hiding under his teacher Rav’s bed as “that too is Torah and learn it I must” (Brachot 62a) would not have made it into a text available to all. Living in a world of manuscripts there was little fear that any of this would go “viral”.
The “democratization” of Talmud study is linked to the post World War ll growth of the Day School movement. The notion that all would go to school through their teenage years is another of the radical changes of the Jewish world and is a product of Jews living in the wealthy west, where schooling is mandatory for all. In the shtete it was the norm that almost all went to work around the time of their bar-mitzva.
As the Day School movement grew and flourished Talmud became a core subject of study first for boys and then – excepting Bais Yaakov type schools – for girls too; in some schools as an option and in many others mandatory.
That the study of Gemara at such a mass scale is not something anyone could have predicted. As late as Siyyum Hashas in 1982, Felt Forum an adjunct to Madison Square garden that seats some 4,000 people was more than large enough the celebrate the completion of the 8th Daf Yomi cycle. That MetLife Stadium with a capacity of over 90,000 people is not big enough to hold all who would come and celebrate today speaks volumes.
While historians of the future will discuss and debate what came first, there can be little doubt that the tremendous growth of Daf Yomi coincided, and perhaps was made possible, due to the ArtScroll translation of the Talmud.
Translating the Talmud was and is a double-edged sword, though one not often discussed. It is interesting to read the blistering attacks against Talmudic translations issued at the time. Those who cannot learn Talmud in the original should not study it, many argued. Just as the Sages of old instituted a three-day fast when the Torah was first translated into Greek, there is good reason to lament a Talmudic translation.
In medieval times the fear was due to ever-present anti-Semitism. It was not only Christians who censored the Talmud, so did Jews worried about the passages with negative views of non-Jews. Today thankfully that fear has been replaced by the one that no translation can be fully faithful to any text. And Talmud study must be as accurate as possible. Due it its complexity and with so much of Talmudic study requiring reading between the lines its study always required a personal teacher. A translation seemingly eliminates much of that need but with possible negative results. It is only due to the success of the Daf Yomi that these voices have been muted.
While one can argue the merits of Talmudic translation, there is little doubt that for the average person having a translated Talmud is a great gift which has allowed so many to join in Daf Yomi. There is little need for a mature working adult to put in the great effort needed to properly study in the original. Just as there is little reason to study Aristotle in Greek or the Rambam in Arabic sufficing as we do with translations even if they are slightly inadequate, so too it is for the vast majority regarding Talmud.
However, for those who have the time and ability to master the Talmud in the original it is a different story. Sadly, translations have become a crutch. It is not uncommon for people who have studied for years in yeshiva to still use ArtScroll (or Koren) to look up a word, to see what the commentaries say or even to actually make a laining on the daf. The days of having only an original Gemara and a Jastrow (do people even know what that is anymore?) are long gone.
One can make a compelling argument that why not take advantage of this great convenience – after all we no longer take water from the well, or use a horse and buggy or even send snail mail – but Torah study is different. Traditionally, Torah study emphasized the effort invested not the result attained. “We toil and they toil” we say at a siyyum. While in the world at large it is the bottom line that counts, in Torah study it is the toil that matters most. It is process not conclusion that is primary, a most apt description of Talmud study itself. Only through toiling in Torah can one attain greatness. We have gained much quantity but lost some quality.
While Daf Yomi is great for fulfilling the mitzva of learning Torah it is far less successful at the mitzva of knowing Torah. For the vast majority of people who learn Daf Yomi the pace is just too quick and the material too complex to actually develop any mastery of the material. And with so much emphasis on Daf Yomi the in-depth Gemara shiur that used to be a staple of many shiurim is a thing of the past. No longer is one exposed to the depth and intricacies and hence much of the beauty of the Talmud. It is little wonder that most yeshivot do little to encourage – and some actually discourage – the study of Daf Yomi.
One could argue that better to spend the hour learning Halacha, practical Jewish law - or perhaps Tanach. That may be true but is irrelevant. It is the day in day out study with nary a day off – ever – not even on Tisha B’av (something I have never understood) and tremendous sense of accomplishment that gives Daf Yomi its power.
Much has changed in the past 100 years. What hasn’t changed is the need for Jewish unity. This past year has been perhaps the most divisive since the destruction of the Second Temple. And the events of this past Yom Kippur are too tragic to recount. As the Rambam rules “Peace is great, for the entire Torah was given to bring about peace within the world, as it states (Mishlei 3:17): 'Its ways are pleasant ways and all its paths are peace."
There is something beautiful about picking up the Gemara knowing that hundreds of thousands of Jews from all walks of life are studying the same page on the same day. This is especially so today when one can actually learn the daf with people all over the world. May this unity serve as a model for all and help bring peace to our people so that the Sukkah of peace will be spread upon us.
If you enjoyed the thoughts above you may be interested in reading my thoughts on the 13th Siyyum Hashas which took place on the secular "Rosh Hashanah", January 1, 2020 here
 Many of these were not full Gerrer Chasidim, but nonetheless looked up to him for spiritual leadership, likely making him the most important rabbinic figure of pre-war Poland.
 While the Bomberg edition set the basic template still in use today, variations abounded – until the printing of the Vilna Shas in 1880 from which no subsequent edition dares deviate. Even the Steinsaltz Talmud followed the Vilna Shas but what in the Vilna Shas was one page in the Steinsaltz edition was two. Nonetheless, this was too radical a change and the Koren/Noe edition of the Steinsaltz Talmud uses the traditional pagination.
 These include the invention of Rashi script, the division of the Bible into chapters, not to mention the tremendous social and intellectual upheaval this caused, so much so that many rabbis feared that – like Google today – that this new technology would replace rabbis.
 In such a vast corpus all kinds of attitudes are expressed including some very positive ones towards the average person (see for example Sanhedrin 7a) – but no doubt the discussions were rabbi to rabbi.
 In the “Modern Orthodox” world at least, the debate as to the appropriateness of women studying Talmud came to a definitive close when Rav Soloveitchik gave the first women’s Talmud shiur at Stern College on October 11, 1977. Interestingly, the fact that at Maimonides, (the school the Rav founded in 1937 in Boston) women had always studied Talmud seemed to have had much less impact.
 While I do not have hard data my sense tells me that Daf Yomi is more popular in North America than in Israel. This is reflected when comparing the crowds to celebrate the siyyuim in America and Israel where in the latter there was no need for even their much smaller stadiums to be converted to a Beit Midrash for the siyyum, and the fact that many prominent people from Israel come to New York to join the celebrations there.
 I was told that when Rav Soloveitchik was asked how he comes up with such illuminating explanations for many a Talmudic passage he responded that he was taught how to read between the lines.
 This is not much different from the very serious and correct concern of people asking their halachic questions to Rabbi Google.
 This is not just some nice Jewish philosophy but is a legal ruling appearing as the last of the laws of Chanukah.