Daf Yomi: a completion of seven-and-a-half years of daily Talmud study

Religious and secular women, from a wide range of ages, gathered together in Jerusalem to celebrate this triumph.

NO LONGER is Gemara study just for men: A sea of women celebrate the Siyum Hashas at the Jerusalem International Convention Center in early January.  (photo credit: MORAG BITON)
NO LONGER is Gemara study just for men: A sea of women celebrate the Siyum Hashas at the Jerusalem International Convention Center in early January.
(photo credit: MORAG BITON)
More than 3,000 women recently gathered on a Sunday at Jerusalem’s International Convention Center in honor of their much-celebrated completion of seven-and-a-half years of daily Talmud study known as Daf Yomi.
This festive event, which celebrated the study of a single page of Gemara every day until completing the entire Talmud, included a mass singing orchestrated by Koolulam of a song written by Yoram Taherlev and composed by Hanan Yovel called “May the Sun Pass Over Me.” The message was clear: No longer is Gemara study just for men.
Women are now taking back the right to be active participants. Women from all over the world are now taking part in the study of Talmud in their search to gain halachic (Jewish legal) knowledge that has mostly been reserved for men. Religious and secular women, from a wide range of ages, gathered together in Jerusalem to celebrate this triumph. In their minds, there’s no reason why women shouldn’t be just as well-versed in Jewish law and customs as men.
“This is a historic event. Throughout the years, it was customary that only men would study Gemara. The time has come for Jewish women to become acquainted with their intellectual prowess,” said Michelle Cohen Farber, one of the founders of the Hadran women’s Daf Yomi Talmud study group.
Cohen Farber, 47 and a mother of five, made aliyah from the US 27 years ago. Together with her husband, Rabbi Shaul Farber, she established Netivot, a synagogue in Ra’anana, and then seven-and-a-half years ago she decided to hold a daily Gemara class in her home.
Since that day, a group of women has been meeting daily in her home to learn one of the 2,711 pages that make up the Talmud. Gradually, more women joined, some of whom join Cohen Farber at her home, while others listen to audio files that have been uploaded to the Internet. They are always looking to expand their network and include many more women in their women’s Daf Yomi group.
Dr. Ruth Calderon, the founder of Alma-Home for Jewish Culture, talks about her attraction to the Talmud as a young woman. “It was not easy for me to find a community that would accept me as a secular woman who wanted to learn Gemara,” Calderon explains. “Only after I finished my IDF military service did I find a place that accepted me as I am. Eventually, I began studying Talmud at the Hebrew University and at the Hartman Institute, but I still felt like I was missing out on something that others who’d been studying Gemara from a young age could feel.
“When I began participating in Daf Yomi study sessions, I felt like I was finally able to begin catching up to colleagues who’d spent their youth learning in yeshivas. It was like I was in an intensive Aramaic ulpan class that granted me entrance to this new world of Gemara. I immersed myself in the characters, institutions, landscapes and tensions that exist in this unique world of wise scholars. In the early years, I would mostly learn on my own. Then I began joining groups of men, where I was always highly attentive to the fact that I was the only woman participating.”
SHARON, 29, from Tel Aviv, who prefers not to give her full name, is less conciliatory. “The Talmud is one of the greatest assets belonging to the Jewish people,” says Sharon. “It belongs to Jewish women to the exact same extent that it belongs to the men. That’s why I’m here.”
“One of my first memories from my childhood in Vienna is of my grandfather sitting in the living room with a tractate of the Talmud open in his lap,” says Dana Rubinstein, 40, a mother of four from Ra’anana and a lawyer, is also studying Jewish philosophy.
“Every time one of his grandchildren would pass next to him, my grandfather would invite us to sit with him for a brief hevruta [one-on-one learning]. He didn’t distinguish between his grandsons and granddaughters. We were all included. All he cared about was did we have a Gemara kop – a head for learning. I grew up in New York and went to Ramaz, where the boys and girls studied Gemara together. That’s where I acquired the skills necessary to learn Gemara. It’s an incredibly rich and diverse world that deals with a wide variety of issues. Surprisingly, this type of learning can reach very deep places.”
“I’ve seen for myself how much learning Talmud enables us to develop our intellectual capabilities and connect us with our Jewish heritage,” says Mia Segal, 18, from Jerusalem, who’s currently learning at the midrasha [seminary] on Kibbutz Ein Hanatziv. “I think every Jewish girl should have the experience of learning Gemara. I believe that spending a year learning Jewish texts before I begin my IDF military service will give me a base that I can continue building upon for the rest of my life.”
At a program called Hevruta, which meets at the Hadassah Har Hatzofim campus, male and female college students come for an opportunity to learn a little Talmud every morning before classes begin. Eden Wiselman, 28, from Kibbutz Beit Ha’emek in the Western Galilee, is pursuing a degree in Jewish Education at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. She’s been participating in Hevruta’s daily classes with her study partner for three years now. Neither of them had much background in Jewish texts when they began.
“I grew up on a religious kibbutz, so of course I knew all about holidays and Jewish rituals, but I had never really ventured far into the world of Jewish text study,” says Wiselman. “I fell in love with learning Gemara from the first moment I opened up one of the big tractates. This has given me so many answers to questions I had as a child. After I completed my army service, it was clear to me that I wanted to continue my learning, so I went to Ein Prat, where the students learn Tanach [Hebrew Bible], philosophy, literature, Jewish thought and Gemara.
“At first, I was super frustrated, since I didn’t understand the lingo and the way of thinking. But I’ll never forget the first time when I felt a light bulb go on in my brain. We were in class discussing a Mishna that deals with the question of whether something qualifies as pikuach nefesh [saving a life], in which case one must break Shabbat to find help.
“I remember this chill came over me as I contemplated all of the various arguments that were raised, and how they were written in a specific style. I was awed by the ability of one page to include so many minute details, while simultaneously dealing with the macro issue at hand. It was the first time I’d really connected intimately with a page of Jewish text in front of me.”
WHEN SHE finished the program at Ein Prat, Wiselman enrolled in the Jewish Thought department at Hebrew University and joined Hevruta. “Most secular Jews who open a page of Talmud expect it to be a list of dry halachic rules. What they soon discover is that it’s actually an emotional, social, political, self-contradictory and noisy world.”
Gal Elnir, 30, from Jerusalem, runs the Maboa Program at Ein Prat, alongside teaching Gemara at Hevruta and Alma. Elnir, who is secular, had never had any connection with Aramaic or Jewish text study until after she completed her military service, when she joined the four-month-long Maboa program. Nowadays, after spending these last few years learning and teaching, she feels a close connection with the Jewish texts.
“Secular Jewish women face a different challenge from religious women, many of whom have an affinity for Tanach and Gemara from their childhood,” says Elnir. “Unfortunately, much of secular Israeli society is actively opposed to learning Jewish texts in school, and therefore most Israelis today grow up with no background whatsoever.
“I was never given the choice of studying Talmud since I didn’t even know it existed. The fact that batei midrash [study halls] for women exist has allowed me to delve into this fascinating world. I believe that the butterfly effect can have a strong influence on secular Israeli society, though it is difficult to overcome the secular desire to get rid of anything religious.
“Many secular Israelis claim that they feel no connection to the Jewish religion, since they’ve not been taught to see that Judaism is built upon our history, culture and identity. This was not true a few generations ago, when Agnon, Bialik, Alterman and Nomi Shemer wrote about Jewish topics.”
When Elnir decided she wanted to learn in the midrasha in Migdal Oz, she approached director Esti Rosenberg and told her, “I am secular but I want to learn in your beit midrash. I still can’t believe I had the audacity to tell her that. After a year, I joined their advanced Gemara studies program. I don’t know how I managed these long hours of Gemara study, since I was also studying at the university and working. There are so many midrashot now where women can study Gemara: Bruria, Migdal Oz, Nishmat, and Ein Hanatziv, just to name a few.”
For Elnir, one of the biggest questions is where she fits in as a secular Talmud scholar. “Firstly, I need to accept that the Talmud belongs to me just as much as it does to any other Jew, regardless of their level of religiosity. At first, it’s hard not to view the text as an anthropological object. But as I delved deeper into the texts, I discovered that there is a place for me there.”
Asked what drew her to Talmud study, she replied, “I felt uncomfortable with my lack of knowledge of Jewish history. I’ve always loved books and heated discussions – and language that involves intellect and humanity. It was certainly not love at first sight – I had to overcome many obstacles on my journey before I began to feel love for Talmud study.” 