July 22, 2024
Search
Close this search box.
Search
Close this search box.
July 22, 2024
Search
Close this search box.

Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

Some Thoughts on My First Gemara Siyum: Masechta Brachot

Inspired by the celebration of the Daf Yomi Siyum HaShas this past January, like many others, I joined my husband in learning a daf each day, since January 5. I was certainly unsure and doubtful of what my experience would be, and frankly, was initially not at all confident that I was up to the task. I imagined I would either find the material too difficult to understand or not find enough time within each day to do the daf. But I plowed on, certainly not thinking or even imagining I’d arrive at this day, preparing to make a siyum on the first masechta. The main message and inspiration, however, that I took with me from MetLife Stadium on New Year’s Day was from Rabbi Aryeh Malkiel Kotler, of Lakewood: “The person who learns even a masechta inherits an entire world.”

And an entire world it is, with the ability to enhance and reorder my life as well. I found that my 12-minute commute to work in the morning after dropping off my children at day school was an ideal time for me to start learning and could infuse my whole day with thoughts of Torah. Twelve minutes might not be long enough to hear a whole shiur in the car, but it is possibly enough time to hear one or two mishnayot and a little exposition. Another 12 minutes back to pick up the kids in the afternoon got me halfway through a 45-minute shiur, and then I could pick it back up later with my phone or a sefer when the children went to bed.

After I finished the daf each day, I greatly enjoyed, via WhatsApp, the “8-Minute-Daf” as a review and summary, by Rabbi Eli Stefansky. Sometimes my husband and I watch this small video together. It’s amazing how much of the material he’s able to concisely pack into eight minutes. Recently he apologized for “going over,” extending to a shocking eight minutes and 48 seconds, because of his need to expound on the many interpretations of dreams in Daf 57.

The first week, I started out listening and sampling a number of different Daf Yomi shiur podcasts, sometimes listening to more than one shiur in one day to identify the nuanced differences in the various presentations by each instructor. However, by around the middle of the first week, day 5 to be exact, I had settled on a favorite shiur, Rabbi Moshe Elefant’s, on the OU’s AllDaf app. I found his pacing to be accessible, slow enough that I could catch up when needed, with all the Rishonim stories and vignettes beautifully rendered that I didn’t want to miss. And of course I could always pause the app to look up a word when necessary. Rabbi Elefant’s transitions are measured and consistent. When not in the car, I found it useful to follow along with the translation on my phone, using Sefaria.org, and less often I was able to use the Artscroll translation that we have in large hardbound and small paperbacks in the house; I prefer the Artscroll translations and commentary, but it’s not always possible to have it on me. But enough about the mechanics; on to the thoughts themselves.

The first point I want to make, upon completing Masechta Brachot, is that the world of brachot encompasses a foundational part of my birthright as a Jew, and much of what is in there is known already by frum Jews through daily and weekly davening and/or general daily observances and acts, like eating and drinking, even if they might not remember or ever have known what page of the Gemara the halachic discussion is found. Reading through it is like visiting a place I’ve been before long ago in my childhood, or looking at the source material for our lives.

The way the Gemara is written illustrates that Judaism is a religion of living and breathing documents; sometimes the daf heaves with a “machloket,” a plethora of differences of opinions from our Babylonian rabbanim. Other times it calms with the phrase “this is not difficult,” or addresses a matter of “settled halacha.”

The information is clearly imparted regarding what it takes to make a mezuman for benching, for example, and presents many halachot on which bracha to say upon arising, or over food, fragrances and natural phenomena. Information regarding the origins of the brachot of the Shemoneh Esrei and the Birkat Hamazon are varied and often inspirational. Among the first questions of the masechta are regarding the recitation of the evening Shema, including the exact distinctions between night and day, expounding on the separation of night by (three, according to most opinions) watches. These expositions are as complex and useful as they are poignant and beautiful. The answer regarding what the earliest time of day the Shema can be recited, for example, is “when one is able to distinguish between techelet (blue) and white” (Mishnah 2). This immediately sent me back to the first paragraph of the introduction of Ilana Kurshan’s book, “If All the Seas Were Ink,” which I read when it came out in 2017. It is a remarkable memoir cast in the frame of learning the Daf Yomi; she describes getting up in the morning’s half-light and trying to distinguish the color of her toothbrush between her turquoise one and her husband’s white one. Anyone who loves the daf would certainly love the poeticism of this book, and how Kurshan is truly able to illustrate her life within the learning.

Also included throughout the “food section” of Gemara Brachot are interesting comments on the benefits and drawbacks of eating various foods, and their brachot, and/or medical conditions that certain foods can exacerbate or treat. Some of the material seems like unscientific health advice, sometimes utterly random to my ears, yet they are delivered with so much kavanah that I always want to know more. Example: Apparently lentils and mustard are good for you, but only if you eat them once a month. But turnips and large cucumbers are super-bad. (My son would certainly agree.)

Another surprising thing about the daf is how it is immediately relevant to my life. For example, in learning Daf 39a, dealing with brachot regarding certain boiled vegetables, like root vegetables or potatoes that cannot generally be eaten raw, I learned that one does not say the same bracha for such a food eaten raw because it does not have its appropriate taste until it is cooked. The same day I learned this, I was sitting in Moshe Kinderlehrer’s office around lunchtime, when he opened what appeared to be a Ziploc bag of sliced green apples. “Crrrunch.” The sound the food made was not of apples. He’d already made a Shehakol on the cottage cheese he had just eaten, and also planned to have some other fruit as part of his lunch, but it appeared he’d just taken a bite not out of an apple but some kind of raw (semi-inedible) vegetable! (Weeks later, I learned it was raw, sliced kohlrabi! Ha’adama!)

Positioned within halachic guidelines on brachot are divergent comments and stories relayed by the assembled commentators, some of which directly relate to the text being discussed, and some of which appear, seemingly, completely at odds with the material being presented. However, it is these moments of digression that give us a glimpse into the Olam Hazeh (this world) of the Babylonian Talmud, transposed with the Olam Habah (the next world), a place from which old stories of our people are told over, and tell us of the angels and demons who live among us. I was truly fascinated by the stories of mazikim (demons), who brush up against us, particularly when we’re learning Torah, and are the reasons why the cuffs of the shirts of talmidim in yeshiva get frayed so quickly. “They are more numerous than we are and they stand over us like mounds of earth surrounding a pit.” (6a) And I enjoyed glimpses of everyone’s favorite seder guest, Eliyahu HaNavi, showing up in various guises to help and protect travelers on their way.

While I have enjoyed learning and reviewing the matters of settled halacha, it is truly these stories of visitors from Olam Habah coming back to us to visit that ignite my imagination and keep me engaged and excited about what will appear in the next day’s daf. While I do truly feel that I have inherited a world while learning Masechta Brachot, I also feel I have come home.

By Elizabeth Kratz

 

Leave a Comment

Most Popular Articles