This week marked the conclusion of the 13th cycle of Daf Yomi, drawing massive celebrations across the Jewish world. Over the past 20 years the Daf Yomi phenomenon has grown exponentially with each passing cycle. How did this revolution occur and how has it reshaped the modern Jewish world?
Jews have always enjoyed a built-in Torah curriculum based on the weekly section of Torah reading. The accompanying practice of reviewing the parsha with commentaries—known as Shtayim Mikra—assures a common Torah-study experience. In 1923, the “Daf Yomi” that was conceived by Rabbi Meir Shapiro, a leading Polish rabbi, by allocating one double-sided page of Talmud per day, created a common curriculum within Talmud as well. It is likely that the current success of Daf Yomi was unimaginable even to this visionary rabbi.
Roots in Chasidut
It is both noteworthy and ironic that this revolution emerged from the world of chasidut. Rabbi Shapiro, a leading chasidic rabbi of his era, was an ambitious dreamer who, in addition to Daf Yomi, founded the legendary Yeshiva of Chachmei Lublin whose beautiful grounds and unprecedented physical amenities for students attracted the top Torah scholars from central Europe. On the night of Rosh Hashanah 1923—as the first cycle of Daf Yomi commenced—the Gerrer Rebbe announced his intent to participate, and this declaration lent validity to this embryonic project.
It is somewhat ironic that chasidut is responsible for the single greatest platform of Torah study in the modern world. Initially, chasidut, by broadening religious experience outside the study halls, threatened the centrality of Torah study. If the Divine presence can be encountered everywhere—even in mundane or menial activities—Torah study may potentially lose some of its allure. Though in subsequent incarnations chasidut re-established the primacy of Torah study, it always validated a greater diversity of religious experiences beyond Torah study and it is therefore fascinating to trace Daf Yomi back to its chasidic origins.
However, in many respects, Daf Yomi’s popularity is precisely a function of its chasidic roots. Chasidut marked an attempt to incorporate a broad range of Jews who had become alienated from the “establishment” that they felt excluded from. Many of these were under-educated Jews who couldn’t appreciate the complexities of a Torah study experience pivoted upon the type of Talmudic analysis that was beyond their reach. Daf Yomi has effectively “liberated” Gemara study from the beit midrash while extending it even to novices. In fact, Daf Yomi is far more popular outside of the beit midrash than it is within, as most yeshiva students prefer a slower pace to allow more exhaustive analysis.
Ultimately, outside of Chabad’s activities, the Daf Yomi is the single greatest success of chasidut—in attracting a broad array of Jews into the world of Torah and Judaism. We should not let the rapid popularity of Daf Yomi across a range of Jewish communities blur the chasidic roots of this phenomenon.
As he presented the concept of Daf Yomi to the first Agudah convention in Vienna in August 1923, Rabbi Shapiro exclaimed, “What a great thing! A Jew travels by boat and takes Gemara Berachot under his arm. He travels for 15 days from Eretz Yisrael to America, and each day he learns the daf. When he arrives in America, he enters a beis midrash in New York and finds Jews learning the very same daf that he studied on that day, and he gladly joins them. Could there be greater unity of hearts than this?”
Aside from the ideal of Torah study, Rabbi Shapiro envisioned daf yomi as a mechanism for Jewish unity. In the latter half of the 19th century and the early stages of the 20th century, rapid advancements in transportation changed the way people traveled. In this newly mobile world, Jews across Europe and even across the oceans were interacting far more frequently than they had in the past. This development enabled the idea of a “virtual” and Torah-based community of Jews united by common Gemara curriculum—as is implicit in Rabbi Shapiro’s hopes. Of course, over the past 60 years, civilian airplane travel has only increased the contact between Jews all over the world, and Daf Yomi has become even more of a “unifier.” This communal identity is a primary motivator for Daf Yomi participation; the notion that you are “keeping pace” with Jews around the world whom you have never met incentivizes Daf Yomi persistence.
Over course, over the past 25 years a new development has fueled the Daf Yomi surge: the internet opened a window to a broad spectrum of Daf Yomi-based shiurim to enrich the daily study. Effectively, Daf Yomi, in addition to creating virtual communities, has also created virtual rebbis and virtual talmidim, many of whom have never or possibly will never actually meet one another.
The interaction between the Daf Yomi phenomenon and the advances in transportation and the internet symbolizes the manner in which Torah itself interacts with the unfolding human spirit. Change and technology themselves aren’t toxic; they sometimes present challenges but also offer great opportunities. It is important to remain engaged with emerging technologies to discern their latent potential to enhance the world of religion.
Of course, for many English speakers, the ArtScroll revolution has provided fairly accessible English-based renditions of the Talmud, without which the process would not have blossomed so remarkably.
Daf Yomi Spinoffs
Perhaps one of the more noteworthy consequences of Daf Yomi are the “yomi” spinoffs. The notion of a joint daily dose of Torah has provoked dozens of Daf Yomi “imitations” or adaptations such as: Mishnah yomit, Rambam yomi, Tanach yomi, and even emunah yomi. These programs are all derivatives of the original “daf yomi” concept. Ironically, even a program hatched in response to, or even in protest of, Daf Yomi ultimately is itself a derivative of Daf Yomi. The program known as Amud Yomi allocates only one side of the Talmudic page for daily study, allowing for more extensive analysis. This model has become popular among yeshiva students more interested in extensive analysis and less in “covering ground.” Even though this program of amud yomi was conceived as a superior option to Daf Yomi, it is driven by the same ideal that Daf Yomi advanced: daily, disciplined, pre-allocated Torah study. Ultimately, Daf Yomi’s greatest revolution is the attitude adjustment of how we “view” Torah study. Do we study solely when interested and when we possess available time and resources? Or do we study on a daily basis, regardless of health, weather and myriad other factors—out of a sense of duty and responsibility to Torah? Daf Yomi has reinforced the experience of disciplined commitment to Torah study rather than Torah study based purely on interest and availability.
Contact With the ‘Beyond’
Over the past 100 years, Tanach study has mushroomed in popularity—in particular in Israel. Our return to land and historical relevance has reinvigorated the book of history and prophecy. Without question, part of Tanach’s appeal is its relative ease of access; even beginners can quickly acquire a basic understanding. By contrast, Talmudic logic is labyrinthine, and its grammar is antiquated and forbidding. Yet it is precisely the complexity of Gemara learning that evidently captures our imagination. Daf Yomi study may not penetrate to the deepest levels of analytics, but provides a “taste” of the encounter with the infinite word of God. It is specifically this “daily dip” into the vast ocean of Talmud that renders the Daf Yomi experience so exhilarating.
Rabbi Moshe Taragin is a rebbe at Yeshivat Har Etzion, located in Gush Etzion, where he resides.