The Column: Fifty shades of Talmud

The most difficult challenge I’ve ever undertaken was studying Talmud. I say “studying” like it was a college course on Derrida or Russian, both of which I found significantly easier. At least they have punctuation.

I took a Talmud class 20 years ago in Jerusalem. We met three times a week and, in a year, we got through 10 pages. It’s that hard.

So why are so many Jews suddenly taking it up? Here in the Bay Area, there are now dozens of classes, with hundreds of students. Some have been going on for years; others are just launching this fall. This is hard, hard stuff that takes a lot of commitment — 71⁄2 years of daily study to get through the Daf Yomi, a page-a-day cycle followed by Jews around the world.

What’s going on?

First, new translations have made Talmud more accessible to English speakers. In 2005, ArtScroll came out with its 73-volume Schottenstein Talmud, in English and the original Aramaic/Hebrew, and this past May, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz published the first volume of his much-anticipated new English translation of the Talmud. While slogging through the original text is absolutely required for real understanding, having the English in front of you makes it a lot easier.

The immediate impetus, however, might have been widespread Siyum HaShas celebrations Aug. 2, organized to mark the completion of the latest Daf Yomi cycle. More than 90,000 people, mostly Orthodox men, jammed into the stadium formerly known as the Meadowlands in New Jersey for the biggest and most publicized party; smaller ones took place worldwide.

A Talmud party! Woo-hoo! Yet it seems to have touched off a phenomenon. Last month, the JTA Jewish news service wrote about newbies who, in the wake of the New Jersey gathering, joined the new Daf Yomi cycle that began the next day.

“It did spark a lot of interest,” says Rabbi Joey Felsen, who heads up the Jewish Study Network, which launched a Daf Yomi group 71⁄2 years ago in Palo Alto. Six men finished that cycle, and more have joined the new group, which meets every day at 5:30 a.m. (before morning prayers, natch).

For those who can’t quite stomach the hour, Felsen launched a second Daf Yomi group in the evening, made up entirely of new students. Other Talmud groups meet in San Francisco.

And it’s not just the Orthodox. Reform Temple Isaiah in Walnut Creek has held a Thursday Talmud class for more than a decade; this month, it’s launching a second weekly class, on Sundays.

“It’s not dry,” says Rabbi Shalom Bochner of Berkeley’s Conservative Congregation Netivot Shalom, where he started a weekly Talmud class soon after he arrived 31⁄2 years ago. “The fun is the constant question and answer, the back and forth. It’s like a strange board game that has its own logic.”

Bochner’s group is on page 38a of the 64-page tractate “Berachot.” That’s about half a page a week.  “We’re on the 75-year cycle,” he says. But he has no doubt his regulars will stick with it.

“There are so few topics that excite people to this level,” he says.

The mother of all Bay Area Talmud classes might be the one started by Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan 22 years ago in San Francisco, a project of Reform Congregation Emanu-El. It’s drawn an average of 20 people a week ever since.

When Wolf-Prusan parted ways with Emanu-El two years ago and joined Lehrhaus Judaica, his Talmud class followed him. In the fall of 2011, Lehrhaus joined with Kevah, the Berkeley-based catalyst for adult Jewish text learning, and Steinsaltz’s New York–based Aleph Society, to create the Bay Area Community Talmud Circle, a consortium of grassroots-generated study groups.

Last year they ran six groups. This month, the second year is launching with 11 cohorts in Berkeley, Marin and San Francisco and on the Peninsula.

Apparently, the Bay Area was the only place in the country to take up the Aleph Society’s challenge of creating community-wide Talmud study groups.

“They were pretty surprised there is so much interest in Talmud in the Bay Area,” Wolf-Prusan says. “We’re not known for our frumkeit.” (That’s “religiosity,” for the Yiddishly-challenged.)

Full disclosure? Last winter I joined a Kevah Talmud group. Who knows where it will lead.

Come on in, the water’s fine.

Sue Fishkoff is the editor of j., and can be reached at [email protected]

Sue Fishkoff

Sue Fishkoff is the editor of J. She can be reached at [email protected].