Is One-page-a-day Daf Yomi Talmud Study Good for the Jews?

On Tuesday night March 1, 2005, 21,000 Orthodox Jews at the sold-out Continental Airlines Arena (and many others elsewhere) completed the seven and a half year cycle of reading the 2,711 pages of the entire Talmud, one-page-a-day, aka, Daf Yomi.

It is legitimate to ask, was this ritual really effective? Was it good for the Jews?

Years ago, we asked the Rav, Rabbi J.B. Soloveitchik when we were studying for Semicha at YU whether we should spend some time attending a bekius shiur. That was a Talmud class where the teacher covered a lot of text quickly. It was meant to expand a person's breadth of knowledge of the Talmud at the cost of addressing one's energies in deep analysis.

The Rav was adamant that we should not spend any time on that endeavor. He said that there was only one way of learning properly. That was to seek a proper deep insight into the text according to his methodology and pace. He told us with a tone of sarcasm that a bekius shiur is worthless. It is not real learning.

In our family we always decided on our ritual practices based on the guidance of the Rav. We inevitably asked -- WWRD? What would the Rav Do? -- and acted accordingly. With regard to Daf Yomi today, we have to ask and hazard an answer as to what the Rav would do.

We are sure that he would never oppose the idea of a page of Talmud study each day. So that possibility is off the table. If the question is framed, Should one study Talmud Daf Yomi or not at all? -- the answer would be resounding, yes to Daf Yomi.

But that oversimplifies the question.

Learning Talmud is the epitome of studying Torah. In turn that is the apex of all the commandments. However it is not like the other commandments. Real learning leads to cognition, to knowledge and to expertise. The highest goal of Talmud study is to become a lamdan--a learned master of the Talmud.

With that in mind we ask the following questions.

Can anyone become a lamdan through Daf Yomi study alone? All, yes all, Talmudists, Gedolim, and Lamdanim will have to admit that this is not possible. It often takes weeks of intensive study to get through the study of the Tosafot, Rishonim and Achronim (i.e., the major commentaries) on a single side of a page of the Talmud.

What is the retention rate of the average Daf Yomi students? If they do not become lamdanim what do they get out of the daily study? Well we really have no measure. The 21,000 people in the Continental Arena did not take any exams or demonstrate any expertise. We can be sure that some of them after seven and a half years absorbed a great deal while others retained little and remain ignorant of the bulk of the contents of the Talmud.

Did everyone who accomplished the goal feel good about themselves? Hard to generalize, but we would guess they did. Even those that do not run the whole race feel a sense of accomplishment just by participating in a marathon.

This time allotted to Talmud study is quite a hefty way for a person to say to oneself and one's family and community: These are my values and I will invest my time and energy in them.

So of course Daf Yomi is good for the Jews. But because it is not "real" learning, and it does not produce "true" lamdanim, let's not give ourselves such a big pat on the collective back.

The Rav would say that there is a whole lot more to do to make contemporary Orthodox Jews into authentic Talmidei Chachamim -- scholars of the Torah.

Tzvee is a musmach of the Rav with whom he learned for four years from 1969-1973. We originally blogged this entry on 3/3/2005.


Anonymous said...

"What would the Rav Do? -- and acted accordingly."

Oh how I wish he were alive today -- and reading your blog.

Anonymous said...

As some famous rabbi said, if I may paraphrase, "More important than the *daf* is the *yomi*."

Theophrastus said...

I am not certain that you are representing Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik's opinion correctly. First, you were studying for semicha at REITS, whereas Daf Yomi is aimed at a broader group. Second, from your description of the bekius shiur in question, it sounds as if it moved quite a bit faster than a typical daf yomi (which, at least in the incarnations I have seen it, typically last 1-2 hours a day, every day for 7 and a half years.) Third, I very much doubt that R. Soloveitchik would have engaged in lashon hara against R. Meir Shapiro, who is also regarded as one of the Torah greats of our period; much less have used sarcasm to address R. Shapiro. Fourth, I note that a prominent member of the Soloveitchik dynasty, R. Yosef Soloveitchik (son of R. Aharon Soloveitchik and nephew of R. J. B. Soloveitchik) apparently gives daf yomi shiurim at Yeshivas Brisk (where he is rosh yeshiva) in the Old City of Jerusalem.

You raise a point about retention, but it is hard for me to believe that nothing at all is retained by daf yomi participants. Indeed, I have even met learned rabbis who keep copies of the Bavli in their offices because they need to remind themselves of the text; apparently not even those who learn intensively retain everything. One hopes, at least, that those learning in daf yomi and for semicha at least retain the principles of "how to learn"; that is they learn those principles of Talmudic logic that many recite each morning at Shacharis.

You mention that it takes weeks to get through a single amud; if you mean by this an average of just two weeks, then one can do a simple calculation and see that to complete Shas Bavli the first time will take (2711 daf) x (2 amud/daf) x (14 days/amud) = 75,908 days = 210 years. So, let me close by wishing you a long life with an extra 90 years allotment to your 120 years so that you may have time to master Shas.

Saulius said...

How about requiring 30 minutes a day learning mussar, before learning gemarah at all.