Daf Yomi: His story or her story?

Women have slowly been entering the world of the daf yomi. Once hooked, great efforts are made not to miss a single day.

Women talmud (370) (photo credit: Debbie Cooper)
Women talmud (370)
(photo credit: Debbie Cooper)
During the first week of August, there were various celebrations of the completion of seven and a half years of daily study; in other words, learning 2,711 pages of the Babylonian Talmud. Who was celebrating and why were they celebrating? Needless to say, the vast majority of the celebrants were male. After all, the Talmud has been relegated to the male domain since its completion.
Beruriah was the only outstanding woman scholar among the sages; Rashi later perpetuated the story of her demise by succumbing to sexual temptation. This would clearly dissuade other women from attempting such pursuits as the male hegemony sent out a message loud and clear: women are not welcome here, whether in the beit midrash (study hall) or in the yeshiva or in the rebbe’s courtyard.
One can observe how modernity has slowly made inroads and changes regarding these attitudes and biases. In the world of academia, women began to study Talmud. As a result, in 1982 Judith Hauptman, now an eminent professor in the field, became the first woman to receive a doctorate in Talmud; her degree was earned at the Jewish Theological Seminary and others followed her lead.
Some religious elementary schools, even in Jerusalem, required all of their pupils, male and female, to study Talmud. Progressive religious girls’ high schools like Pelech require their students to choose between three and five units of study of the subject for their matriculation exams. A generation of modern Orthodox girls have a familiarity with Gemara about which their mothers could only have dreamed.
At the same time, women realized that they could study Talmud at their own pace, without the burden of exams, slowly but surely familiarizing themselves with this world and its unique thought process.
Consequently, some decided to choose the path of study of the daf yomi, the daily page that was instituted in 1923 in Vienna by Rabbi Meir Shapiro. Thousands of Jews religiously learn the page of the day, either on their own, with a partner or in a group. There are no set rules, just don’t miss a day. When one cannot join the group study, the page can be learned on one’s own. Study can occur in the morning, afternoon or evening; there are no time restrictions, but one must manage to fit the page in each and every day.
Women have slowly but surely been entering the world of the daf yomi. Once hooked, great efforts are made not to miss a single day.
Some women studied on their own, some studied with men and others studied in groups of women. In Israel there were at least three organized study groups of women: at the Matan Institute in Jerusalem, in Beit Shemesh and in Alon Shvut. These groups were small but serious and devoted. In Jerusalem, the size of the group ranged from eight to 15 women. One of the initiators, Yardena Cope- Yossef, remarked upon the process involved, of expanding one’s conceptual world and the gradual internalization of the pace and mindset of the Gemara.
The 12th completed cycle of study of the daf yomi worldwide occurred this month; the largest celebration took place on August 1 in New Jersey, where over 90,000 men crowded MetLife Stadium. While the women’s celebrations were not held in sports or concert arenas, they were also impressive. Each woman who completed this cycle was, in her own way, making history. A few were on their second or third round, but most were having a new and exhilarating experience.
This was not a matter of competition nor an attempt to prove oneself, but rather a personal commitment to studying pages, bit by bit, that together represent the traditional Jewish text that had been a monopoly of the male domain for centuries. For each woman who celebrated her accomplishments this month, the daf yomi is now part of her story; we shall see what transpires in the next round.
The author is a professor of Jewish history and the outgoing dean at the Schechter Institute as well as academic editor of the journal Nashim. She has published books and articles on Sephardi and Oriental Jewry and on Jewish women.