Sunday, October 5, 2014

What Is Daf Yomi and How Does It Work?

Daf Yomi is the practice of studying one page of the Talmud daily in a seven year cycle. By "page," we mean two "normal pages" front and back of one sheet of paper, also known as a folio. One page a day for a total of 7.5 years. And at the end, we throw a big party known as the Siyum HaShas! Agudath Israel of America throws the "main" American party, but you can find local siyums and larger ones in Israel and other countries. [I would link you to Agudath Israel's website, but there is none. I'll save you from that hour of confused Googling I had about a year ago.]

Some other Daf Yomi-related words to know
Daf: Page, as we said above. A page in the sense of a folio.
Amud: One half of a folio; or what you would normally call "one page."
Seder: Order. Plural is sedarim. Groups tractates on a similar topic together. For example, we are about to start Seder Nashim (women), which includes seven tractates dealing with women, marriage, divorce, vows, and family life. These six groupings are transferred from the groupings of the Mishnah,  the foundational text of the Talmud.
Masechet: Tractate, which basically means book. It's a subsection of the Talmud determined by the tractate of Mishnah it covers, which is broken down roughly by the subject matter. The plural form is masechtot
Siyum: Means "completion," but usually refers to a party or meal thrown to celebrate the completion of something religious, generally a tractate of Mishnah or Talmud.
Shas: Another name for Talmud (or Mishnah by itself?). It's an acronym for shisha sidrei, 6 seders/orders.
Rashi: Rashi's commentary on the Talmud is printed on the inside margin of the Talmud page. Rashi is primarily interested in "what is the plain meaning of this word or phrase (the pshat)?" If a person studies only one commentary on Talmud, it is the Rashi. Even if you don't "study the Rashi," you can often find useful information there when you have a question.
Tosafot / Tosefot / Tosafos / Tosefos: A commentary written after Rashi's that is printed on the outside margin of the Talmud page. It was written by many people, the baalei haTosefot, and seeks to harmonize the Talmud across tractates, which is contrary to Rashi's "localized" notes. Even though the Tosafists respected Rashi (and included his sons-in-law and grandson), they don't hesitate to correct Rashi when they disagree with his interpretation.
Gemara: Talmud is made up of both Mishnah and Gemara. Gemara is a later commentary/elucidation of the Mishnah, and both are included on the Talmud page. The words Talmud and Gemara are often used interchangeably. 

What is studied in the Daf Yomi?
For the most part, the Talmud Bavli (Babylonian Talmud) is the basis of Daf Yomi. However, there are a few masechtot of Mishnah that don't have a corresponding tractate in the TB. In those few cases, we temporarily shift to the Talmud Yerushalmi (Jerusalem Talmud). 

There is a greater push for studying the Talmud Yerushalmi. There are Yerushalmi Yomi calendars and programs, but they aren't standardized and coordinated with each other like the Daf Yomi cycle. However, because the Yerushalmi is shorter than the Bavli, the cycle lasts 5 years.

Who learns Daf Yomi?
Men and women both study Daf Yomi, though many more men do than women. However, there are men out there who don't think any orthodox women study Daf Yomi (or Talmud in general), and there are many of those who believe women are halachically prohibited from doing so. Those conversations can get awkward fast, as I learned from the perplexed and/or horrified stares I sometimes got when this would happen during my full-time study last year:
"Oh, so what do you do?"
"I'm learning Gemara."

How do you learn Daf Yomi?
While traditionally studied in Hebrew, you can learn the Daf in English (as I am doing now). It's not perfect, but Daf Yomi is a quick overview of the Talmud. It is not in-depth study, nor is it intended to be an in-depth study. And don't feel bad if (when) you fall behind, because that happens to most people at one point or another. And some people, like myself, live perpetually behind.

Many people attend an in-person class on the Daf, but there are literally dozens of podcasts and online shiurim you can listen to at your convenience. Most last approximately an hour, but there are shorter versions available. Rav Etshalom's Daf Yomi shiur (also available as a podcast) was highly recommended to me, and it averages 15-20 minutes. Shiurim fill in the gaps in the text and help you make the connection to related ideas in other parts of the Talmud, in halacha, or in history.

I used to be afraid of Daf Yomi. But then I saw the blogger Dov Bear post a question on Facebook last year (paraphrased from memory): "How many and which tractates have you *actually learned*? Daf Yomi doesn't count." I had never realized how cursory the Daf Yomi study program really is, especially for those who struggle with Hebrew and Aramaic. So don't be afraid of tackling Daf Yomi, even for just a short masechet. Give it a shot and see what it's like!

How to learn Daf Yomi in English
Locate an English version online, which will likely come from the older Soncino version. The English isn't so "modern," but it's usable. You can find it for free as a PDF at or in Kindle versions on Amazon (a complete list of the masechtot available on Amazon is available here).

The English versions available online don't have the Rashi (and certainly not Rashi translated into English), but you'll often learn more about Rashi's statements in the shiur. If you want to study the English version of Rashi (and Tosefot?), you will need to get actual Talmud books. The new Koren series (or the older version, Steinsaltz) is the most common method today for English learners. Each Koren masechet is released in time for its position in this Daf Yomi cycle. The Koren is written by Rabbi Steinsaltz, and thus, is basically an updated version of his older set (with more bells and whistles and explanations, I'm told).

Each day, read the appropriate Daf and listen to a shiur or podcast that is easy for you to understand. If you aren't following the discussion because of many Hebrew or yeshivish words, look for another. There are many you can understand without Hebrew or yiddish knowledge. Most people listen to the shiur after reading the Daf, but there is no rule that says you must do it that way. Learn in a way that makes sense for your brain.

You may want to switch up the shiurim you listen to or listen to a longer shiur when a Daf particularly interests you. You can also find shiurim that cover an entire topic or the entire tractate in order to get a feel for the forest instead of focusing solely on the trees.

I've created a page here on the blog to bring all these resources together for beginners who wish to learn Daf Yomi in English. You can click "Learn Daf Yomi in English" in the header above (or in this sentence).

Where are we in the Daf Yomi cycle now?
You can always find the current page or mesechet on a Daf Yomi calendar. They're available all over the web. You can even add the current Daf to your Google calendar with Calendar ID:

Tomorrow (Monday, October 5, 2014) is the first day of Tractate Yevamot in the current Daf Yomi Cycle. This is the first tractate of the Seder Nashim (women), which deals with marriage and divorce.

Yevamot is one really interesting tractate in the Talmud Bavli. It's very difficult, primarily because you'll have to figure out family relationships that more closely resemble a soap opera more than life today. Bigamy, incest, and levirate marriage, oh my. It lays the foundation for the laws of marriage and divorce that follow in other tractates of Seder Nashim. 

Want to learn something else? 
There's a great calendar that compiles many different learning cycles on one calendar. But be warned, the website is very basic and not always as functional as you might want in 2014. 

If you want a simple yearly study of Torah, consider the following ideas:
Parsha study each week will get you through the Torah in one year. We're about to start Bereshit, so what better time to begin??
Studying approximately 2 chapters of Neviim and Ketuvim (NaCh) a day will allow you finish the entirety of Tanakh in one year (if you also read the Parshas each week).

What are you waiting for? Get learning!

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