My Jewish Standard Dear Rabbi Zahavy Column for February 2020 - Beginning Talmud Study and Playing Golf

My Jewish Standard Dear Rabbi Zahavy Column for February 2020 - Beginning Talmud Study and Playing Golf

Dear Rabbi Zahavy,

As I approach retirement and anticipate having more time on my hands, I have decided to take up two new pursuits: studying the Talmud and playing golf.

For Talmud study, I was thinking of learning at the rate of one page per day via the Daf Yomi program, as relatives as well as friends at my synagogue have advised. Perhaps you know of it?

As for golf, a couple of outings a week seems ideal, and again both friends and relatives insist that they will tolerate my incompetence and help.

But there seems to be so much involved in just getting started that part of me thinks both pursuits may be too elusive.

Am I taking on too much in my golden years?

Bewildered Beginner in Bergenfield

Dear Bewildered,

Not at all! I applaud with all my heart your ambition to expand your emotional, intellectual, and physical qualities at a time in life when many of us face the awful prospect of living out our later days in quiet desperation. I’m with best-selling author Daniel J. Levitin, who in his book, “Successful Aging,” enthusiastically commends those who set out to tackle bold new challenges in their mature years.

Go for it!

In fact, you already have started — by seeking assistance from relatives and friends. So, in offering my own advice, I’ll do likewise through the insights of two special advisers, my own sister, Dr. Miryam Wahrman of Teaneck, and my longtime golfing friend, the golf writer and editor Robin McMillan. Each has experienced what you are facing now. It is true that while Miryam is talmudically enlightened (or so she tells me), Robin still has trouble breaking 100 on the golf course, but both enjoy their avocations immensely. This, I think, is your true goal as you approach retirement.

Talmud study today can draw on rich resources in both print and online. When I started into the Talmud, in sixth grade at Manhattan Day School, we had relatively little. Our teachers diligently read with us from the printed texts and we had some mimeographed exercise sheets for homework.

How times change. You now can easily own your own printed Talmud. Some students today buy one volume at a time, while others spring for a complete set. Either way, making a substantial investment in “equipment” — this pertains to golf, too — can provide one incentive to continue your program and help you resist any temptations to drop out.

My sister Miryam bought the whole Koren Talmud set when she recently began her study of the daily daf, so when your letter arrived, I thought it useful to ask her why.

“My daughter and son-in-law, Drs. Abby and Eliyahu Cooper, inspired me to pursue the ambitious 7.5-year project of Daf Yomi,” she explained to me only last week. “Although they have very demanding professional and family responsibilities, they have just completed the last cycle of Daf Yomi, and celebrated at the massive Siyum Hashas at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey.

“They accomplished this impressive feat using the ArtScroll edition of the Talmud. Together with my husband, Dr. Israel Wahrman, we have undertaken now the scholarly journey and intellectual endeavor of Daf Yomi using a variety of tools, including the ‘Sefaria’ site and the ‘Talmud in English’ (via Halakhah.com) app on our smartphones. We also invested in a brand new Shas, the 42-volume Koren Talmud, which provides English translation, along with commentary by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz.

“This recently completed edition,” Miryam added, “adds valuable insights to the text, with sections on ‘Halakhah,’ ‘Background,’ ‘Language,’ ‘Personalities’ — my personal favorite — and copious other notes and color illustrations that illuminate difficult passages.

“As I learn the text, I can also find out more about Talmud luminaries (such as Rabbi Yohanan of Tiberius, author of the Jerusalem Talmud), and learn new words with foreign origins (such as ‘itztagninim,’ or astrologers). I find these sections to be essential to my understanding and appreciation of some of the deeper layers of the Talmud.

“There also are daily online lectures that inspire. One example, from hadran.org.il, is a daily shiur podcast by noted Talmud scholar Michelle Cohen Farber. These resources make a very ambitious learning project feasible and exciting.”

Now, if I may interject, about getting a tutor. With such a good set of book-tools, you may not need a teacher every day to lead you through the texts. But as a rule, it will behoove you to find a rabbi (either an actual rabbi or a peer colleague-teacher with some experience) to guide you in your ongoing study program. When frustration sets in, as inevitably it will, a human coach can be your best asset (and friend).

And how then to complement your Talmud study with getting started in golf? My experience in each has been similar in that so many more resources are at your disposal today. When I was a teenager, my dad, Rabbi Zev Zahavy, taught me to play golf. I recall we spent a lot of time on the fundamentals: getting the proper grip on the golf club and mastering swing mechanics, or at least trying to. Of course, no YouTube or phone apps were around to help back then.

When I came back to the sport at age 38, I spent hours watching VHS tapes of the famous professionals teaching the fine points of the sport, but the fundamentals already were there.

In your case, Bewildered, you will need to confront the “equipment” question. To wit: Which clubs to buy? And how? Over a delightful lunch across the Hudson, I asked my golf rabbi, Robin, for his counsel. He was born in Scotland, so his reply was typically practical, but did not swing, shall we say, toward extravagance.

“The biggest difference between golf equipment today and what was available when I was growing up, which was about when Arnie was passing the mantle to Jack,” Robin began as he tucked into a vegetarian tagine, “is that almost every golf club is literally manufactured specifically to forgive the failings of beginners and those who have trouble playing really well. And that covers about everyone. So Bewildered should not be bothered by choice. Something will work.

“But golf clubs can cost a lot when you get into the space-age materials and such. I wouldn’t advise splurging four big figures on a spanking new set with a myriad of bells and whistles when a good basic set of clubs will do just as well.

“To make things even easier for new golfers, those who are licensed by the national association, the PGA of America, to teach the game also are certified to fit you with the best golf clubs. They’ll try to steer you towards shiny new clubs, but they also are sympathetic to the needs of new golfers.

“I’d advise Bewildered in Bergenfield to cruise a few sporting goods stores, and just pick up and waggle a few clubs to find out what feels good. Take a golfing relative and friend to waggle with you. Take names and numbers. Then, when it’s getting time to buy, go to a club or a golf center — same thing but without the golf course — and talk to the certified PGA of America professional who is based there, or an assistant. To be brutally honest, you are the reason they can make their mortgage payments. It’s their business to help you.

“Bergen County has five public golf courses (Overpeck, Rockleigh, Valley Brook, Darlington, and Orchard Hills). Your local PGA pros can fit you with clubs and give you a lesson or two — as many as you want, really — but also will be able to tell you the best time for a beginner to come out to the course. It likely will be later in the day when traffic is lighter, and the only golfers likely to notice your inexperience are a few hardy souls just getting off their shift. Probably duffers too, I might add.

“But the days are getting longer, and twilight golf is the best golf of all. It’s calmer, and cheaper — even with the discounts usually afforded local residents — and verging on the spiritual. As the months and years go on, play and practice will make any time feasible. But for now, Bewildered in Bergenfield really is choosing the perfect time to take up the game.”

So, there it is. Your “getting started” advice in two multifaceted demanding enterprises: Talmud study and the sport of golf. In both endeavors, when equipped with the proper tools, the job is feasible.

I trust and hope we’ve offered you some sensible guidance to getting launched in both orbits. Just keep in mind that the Talmud cautions that “All beginnings are difficult.” But through persistence, you can overcome obstacles and succeed at your new activity. As golfing great Lee Trevino said after being commended for making an amazing “lucky” shot, “The more I practice, the luckier I get.”

Tzvee Zahavy has been a distinguished professor of Jewish studies, religious studies, Talmud, halakhah, Jewish law codes, and Jewish liturgy at major U.S. research universities and seminaries. He has published many scholarly and popular articles and books about Judaism and Jewish life. He received his Ph.D. from Brown University and his rabbinic ordination from Yeshiva University. Go to www.tzvee.com for details of the rabbi’s publications.

The Dear Rabbi Zahavy column offers mindful advice based on Talmudic analysis and wisdom. It aspires to be open and meaningful to the adherents of all the varieties and denominations of Judaism. You can find this column in the Jewish Standard usually on the first Friday of the month. Please email your questions to him at zahavy@gmail.com

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