Along the Talmudic Trail
How learning Talmud every day, rain or shine, indelibly altered my view of reality.
For the last 15 years of my life I have dedicated every morning to learning the secrets of Jewish wisdom contained in the Talmud. Page by page, in a systematic fashion, a small group of us would meet at dawn with our intrepid teacher and learn the truths contained in these 5,422 pages. At the pace of one page ("amud") per day, we completed the cycle in 15 years – just as the "Daf Yomi" (same Talmud, twice the pace) geared up to complete its 11th cycle in 2005, with tens of thousands participating in celebrations at Madison Square Garden and around the globe.
As I look into the rear-view mirror, I see that I am in no way the same person who began this Talmudic journey. It is not just that 15 years of life have coursed through my veins, leaving me 15 years wiser and 15 years more experienced. No. The cumulative affect of learning Talmud every day, rain or shine, sick or tired, vacation or not, has indelibly altered my view of reality.
But before I explain, let's understand: What is the Talmud?
The Torah was given to the Jewish people at Mount Sinai, written down letter for letter by Moses. Yet this written law is embedded with riddles in every word. "Slaughter animals as I have commanded you," God declares, but the text does not spell out "how."
Hence the Oral Law. This was given as well to Moses by God, and transmitted without being written from one generation to the next. After the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 CE, Rabbi Yehudah the Prince put the Oral Law into writing, to preserve it from being lost. Called the Mishnah, this served as the basis for an expanded text known as the Talmud – an epic project completed in 500 CE in Babylonia, modern day Iraq. (see: The Oral Tradition by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan)
From there, Jewish scholars in every generation have illuminated the Talmudic text, and today studying Talmud is like having a conversation with the greatest Jewish minds of all-time: Rebbe Akiva, Reish Lakish, Rashi, Maimonides, the Vilna Gaon, the Chafetz Chaim and literally thousands of other brilliant commentators.
It is this text, its 38 volumes of eternal insights, that structured my existence over the last decade and a half. Prior to that, I was about as far from Jewish observance as one could be living in the insular suburbs of the American Midwest. To explain:
Traveling the World
From a young age I knew I wanted to get the most out of life. In university I took courses in every possible realm of knowledge, studied four languages and explored curriculums as dissimilar as Classical Greek Mythology and Weather Prediction. I wanted to know it all, experience it all, and live it all.
Upon springing free from university life, I sought a job where I could make enough money to experience something beyond my wildest imagination and get paid for it as well. That meant traveling the world – which I did as a Tour Manager for some of the world's most prestigious tour operators, and traversing the globe on my own dime (though at considerable discount due to my privileged travel industry connections and position).
I learned a lot, but had my share of getting burned along the way.
I learned a lot, but had my share of getting burned along the way. As I passed life's quarter-century mark, I took some time to introspect and consider the wisdom of my ways. I yearned for answers – that mountaintop vista, killer application, perfect career, or unified field theory that was going to show me all the riches and wonders and solve all the mysteries of existence. And to my disappointment and astonishment, an MBA turned out not to be the full credit answer, either.
It was then that I realized I could never hike all the trails, drive all the roads, visit all the sights and taste all the experiences life had to offer. It dawned on me that I was mortal like everyone else and the sands of time were slipping through my young fingers. I had experienced a lot, but I did not have the 1,000-year lifespan that my wanderlust and thirst for knowledge of this world required. What to do?
A funny thing happened along the way. I literally bumped into a yeshiva, a Jewish college of studies, and was asked if I would like to study the Talmud. I did not know Hebrew (or Aramaic, for that matter), but it did not matter. As I worked out the issues of whether God existed, and debated if He actually wrote the Torah, one thing was certain: The Talmud had an allure. It absorbed me from day one and gave me a fulfillment that I could not find anywhere under the sun.
And as I struggled with the great philosophical and theological questions of all time, a friend gave me life-altering advice. "Just learn Talmud," he said. "Your existential questions will be resolved." And with that, my mind quieted and my study began in earnest.
It took one year of intense study to get to the point of where I could even contemplate maintaining a pace of one page per day. Rabbi Yonason Berger, who has innovated a brilliant Gemara Marking System for understanding Talmudic structure, gave me the confidence that I could go all the way and complete the cycle.
Learn Talmud, he said, and your existential questions will be resolved.
In 1923, Rabbi Meir Shapiro, a great scholar and member of the Polish parliament no less, proposed the idea of the entire Jewish world learning the same "daf" (two-sided page) of Talmud every day ("yom"). Thus the Daf Yomi was born, building solidarity with Jews worldwide by literally putting everyone on the same page. At that rate it takes seven-and-a-half years of daily commitment to complete the Talmudic cycle.
But by the time I started my journey through Shas (a Hebrew acronym for the Talmud's six sections), I was getting married and my learning time was limited. I decided not to rush the process and chose the pace of one page per day, covering half the material of the Daf Yomi regiment. Though it would take me two cycles to complete, I wanted to gleam all that I could and did not want to fake myself out by covering ground with a superficial understanding. This stuff was rocket science and I was only in the process of becoming familiar with its style, vocabulary, code and ideas.
But my most important weapon was the ArtScroll Schottenstein Talmud. It is a brilliant English translation that weaves historical context, scientific research, and commentary from centuries of Jewish scholarship. This epic project (like my own) was 15 years in the making, at a cost of $20 million. ArtScroll has created a revolution by making the Talmud accessible as never before. The Library of Congress has its copy, and the edition is finding its place in prestigious universities and law schools around the world, not to mention tens of thousands of private homes.
I was a sight on cramped planes with my large tomes, tapes, headphones, walkman, package of batteries and pencils. But the show must go on...
Breakfast for your Brain
The majority of my cycle was learned with Rabbi Baruch Gradon of the Los Angeles Kollel. He is a no-nonsense Englishman whose detached and yet personal style was honed from learning in the world-class yeshivas of Gateshead and Lakewood. Rabbi Gradon instilled in us the power of consistency. In the rare event he could not make it to class, he arranged for another rabbi to take his place. I think only the disastrous Northridge 8.0 earthquake in 1994 interrupted a day of study.
Our class was a train leaving the station faithfully at 6:25 am, and whoever was on board enjoyed the ride. (The analogy is rather literal for an actual Daf Yomi class held every morning on the Long Island Railroad for commuters to Manhattan.) If by chance I missed a class, I had 24 hours to make it up. The next day the train was leaving one station further down the line. This constant dilemma sometimes had me preparing for the next day in the wee hours of the morning. But without this commitment, I would fall behind and never catch up – an option I would not let happen.
A lot of people ask what topics the Talmud covers. Well, for starters there's agriculture, astrology, biology, business, carpentry, chemistry, child-raising, cooking, cosmology, economics, engineering, finance, genetics, geology, happiness, history, kabbalah, law, linguistics, literature, marriage, mathematics, medicine, military science, music, philosophy, physics, planetology, psychology, social science, synergetics, theology, transportation and zoology. And in heavy concentrated doses. Like a year's supply of Starbucks in a demitasse. Whoa!
I had turned from the Road of Experience onto the Highway of Understanding.
But these are not mere factoids. Talmudic knowledge is wisdom for living. I learned the ways of the world and saved countless hours by doing so. I cringe to think where I would have been and what endeavors I would have experimented with had I not turned from the Road of Experience onto the Highway of Understanding that the Talmud has in endless supply, categorized and immediately available.
Through Talmud study, I avoided the myriad of bumps and bruises that come with the trial-and-error method to figuring out life. In the Garden of Eden, Adam had before him the choice of the Tree of Knowledge – representing all of life's experiences, and the Tree of Wisdom – containing all the wise teachings of the world. Which should he eat from? The answer is to eat from both. Just make sure to start off the Tree of Wisdom, in order that you know how to get the most out of your experiences. Adam, the first man, confused the order. By learning the Talmud today we are correcting that mistake and growing wiser still.
It is a uniquely Jewish ideal to learn everyday early in the morning before the world wakes up. We start off the day looking at the world through God's mind, which is what the Talmud is really all about.
My family was deeply affected by this 15-year experience. When my kids were even too young to remember, they had to get themselves ready for school because I was off at Talmud class. They each wrote me a letter as I neared my goal and we compiled a book of their thoughts and 50 congratulatory emails and faxes. My oldest son wrote, "Thank you for giving me the merit of helping you finishing Shas." One daughter wrote, "I would love to marry someone who would finish Shas just like you!" I guess I sent a message, without overtly trying.
Jewish tradition says that one of a wife's top priorities is to kick her husband out of bed in the morning to go learn Torah. My wife Rochel, never let a faulty alarm clock serve as an excuse. She held down the fort, drove 50 carpools to each one of mine, and smiled through it all. I may have learned the books, but we grew together. All of my Torah is truly hers.
So as I near the end of my first pass through the Talmud, I long to begin again. That is what actually occurs the night of the worldwide celebration. Be it in Madison Square Garden in New York, the 80,000-seat MetLife Stadium in New Jersey, Disney Hall in Los Angeles, Yad Eliyahu Stadium in Tel Aviv, or in countless satellite hook-ups around the world, we will finish the last tractate and immediately start the first page of the first tractate Brachot (Blessings) together. In Talmud, as in all of Jewish thought, there is no end without a new beginning.
It takes time, determination, and a good backside.
I never really imagined I would reach the goal line. But believe me, if I could finish this masterpiece, anybody can. I have no ear or tongue for language, just desire. It takes time, determination, and a good backside.
I am forever inviting people to join our class and/or increase their own learning on whatever level they're at. Invariably the standard retort is, "I just don't have time." The Talmud says that the Ark in King Solomon's Temple took up no space. It was located in the Holy of Holies which was 20 cubits wide. From each end of the ark to either wall was 10 cubits. So where was the Ark? It physically took up no space. So too with Torah study. It does not take up any physical space in one's life. Whatever one is going to accomplish in life will be accomplished, and you will not be held back by adding more Torah study. It will only add.
There is a huge hole in our soul that needs to be filled daily, or else we just don't feel whole. We try all sorts of strategies to fill the void – food, drink, relationships, championing causes, making money, sports, watching sunrises and sunsets, awesome vacations, mind-numbing entertainment, and countless exhilarating activities. But it is all for naught, because this hole is in the shape of Torah and nothing else will do.
Torah is the lifeline of Jewish values, and learning Talmud is how we incorporate those values and transmit them from one generation to the next.
As I stand in the end zone, I am reminded of the story of the man who went to the Kotzker Rebbe and announced with great pride: "I went through Shas, the entire Talmud." At that the Kotzker looked at him and said, "Very nice. Now tell me, did the Shas go through you?"
Talmud study is all about changing oneself. Becoming wiser, more Jewishly committed, more connected to the Source of it all. They say that prayer is man's way of talking to God, and Talmud study is God talking to man. After 15 years, I'm starting to really listen.