By Yonina Bendheim Jacobson
A few Shabbatot ago, while speaking about Parashat Korah, the rabbi of our shul took the opportunity to exhort all of the members of the congregation to “stay in [their] lane[s].” He implored them to limit their aspirations to their determined lot, to be happy and content with their place, and to work on themselves spiritually, wherever they were.
Asking the congregation to think about their life aspirations in the context of Korah’s terrible sin felt jarring, as did the notion of staying in a predetermined lane. Instead, I found myself contemplating the road that I actually have been traveling for the past two years. That road is the busy multilane highway—bustling with exits and entrances, bridges and tunnels, U-turns and detours—known as the Daf (daf yomi). Here’s what I have learned while driving.
Almost two years ago, on Sukkot, I read—actually, consumed—Ilana Kurshan’s book If All the Seas Were Ink. Upon finishing it, I decided that I would try to follow in the lane Kurshan had paved for me and start to learn the Daf.
Although it was not the beginning of the cycle, I started right after Sukkot with Masekhet Makkot. If you are going to get into Gemara, there is no better on-ramp than the Daf. It’s more like taking the freeway than driving up the coast. You don’t have time to take in the view. The pages and their contents are rapidly moving by, and you had better just find your space, move in, and flow with the traffic.
Set Your Speed Limit
For those of us who listen to podcasts, speed—or the lack thereof—can be an issue. If you are a native New Yorker like me, it is likely that you will find yourself in the fast lane (a.k.a. 2× speed). That seems to be my “Goldilocks” speed—just right for getting through the day’s learning at a rapid clip, while still being able to digest the information. This also gives you the opportunity to review the Daf twice, if you want to, without too much time being spent.
The Long Haul
This isn’t a race. You are in this for the long haul. So settle in, pack some snacks, and get into the mindset. Ironically, committing oneself to a seven-and-a-half-year drive can be liberating. The knowledge that so many other people, known and unknown, are on the journey with you is truly exhilarating. If you are doing the Daf virtually, you will get to know the people in your online shiur or your podcast, and they will start to feel like family. Often, in conversations you are having around the Shabbat table, you will discover someone else who is on the same journey as you, and whole new avenues and connections open up. The Daf truly is a world unto itself, and the knowledge that you are connecting and learning together with such a large cohort is inspiring.
Not to mention, of course, that you are traveling the same road that your ancestors traveled.
Of course, it’s not all about free-flowing information and ideas, and learning about what’s on the two sides of the page assigned that day. Sometimes, I have the challenge many of us face of trying to reconcile my life as an Orthodox woman and my life as a woman in 2019. This challenge is brought to the fore even more as I navigate the Daf and often come across assumptions, assertions, and permissible behavior about and toward females that truly rankle. “Well, this is why they don’t want us to learn this,” I’ll say to myself. Or “Some of these statements are made just to get to the extremes of an argument,” or “That was then, this is … oh yeah, the rabbi of my shul just told me to stay in my lane.”
In addition, while on this parallel spur, I am generally listening to a daf yomi shiur being taught by a male teacher to male students. (Note: This is just what I have settled into. There are options to learn the Daf from women, and there are shiurim given to both genders.) Often, while listening, I feel like I’m eavesdropping. I am there listening in on what actually goes on when the rebbe is talking to his talmidim, but he has no knowledge of—and is thus in no way acknowledging—my presence or my gender. From this vantage point, I have been witness to any number of insensitive and frankly disturbing off-the-cuff comments that could easily have been avoided. “Well, don’t listen, then,” you might say. But the point is that I am getting a glimpse of what young, impressionable men who are the future of Orthodoxy are being taught, and at times it isn’t pretty. This brings me to the next point, which is directed to driving instructors: Consider the alternate route.
The Alternate Route
Here’s an example: Our learning for the day led us to a portion of the Gemara in which a comment is made that the rabbanim used to set the table for Shabbat. Great! A perfect opportunity for an educator of fine young minds to milk that idea for all it’s worth. I can imagine saying, “Your role as future husbands will involve much more than taking out the garbage, as these role models in the Gemara exemplify,” or, “You see, doing your part around the home is nothing new.” Instead, to my chagrin, the comment went something like this: “There is a debate about whether this is mentioned here because it was a common occurrence, or because it was a distinctly uncommon one. So there is certainly a leg to stand on for not doing work in the house, but I wouldn’t tell your wife that.” What a missed opportunity to take that alternate route! In this instance, not only did the rebbe fail to spot an opening in which he could have inserted a modicum of parity into a truly unbalanced system, but he also managed to perpetuate the old trope of placating the testy and nagging wife with a wink and a deception.
Another missed opportunity that I encountered was that I wanted to join the Daf in shul on Shabbat, since I couldn’t listen to a podcast. In my shul, the Daf shiur is given between Minha and Ma’ariv (an inconvenient time for women), and in the men’s section. To join, I needed to parade through the men’s section, and then sit in one of the pews, as everyone but the Daf people were streaming out to seudah shlishit. I had no interest in making the de facto statement I was making, being the lone woman in this space. I felt uncomfortable and ill at ease. This was another juncture where an alternate route would have alleviated the issue. An easy fix would have been to have the Daf (ideally given at an easier time for women, but even if not) in a more neutral space, like a classroom.
Passing on the Right
I think I will.
Of course, there are prices to be paid. One cannot seriously commit oneself to a multi-year project—and hope to get something from it—without thinking that there will be some sacrifice. For me, it comes as a trade-off for other types of learning that I might have wanted to do and that would have come more easily to me. The Daf also weighs on you until you lift it off yourself for the day, only to have it return the following morning. But the trade-off is well worth it. Every day, I arrive at an understanding of either something that I had no idea existed before, or one that I knew only tangentially. Often I arrive at the source of something that I had learned years before, but had never seen rooted in its original text. The Daf has served a crucial role in rounding out and strengthening my Jewish knowledge, particularly my Gemara literacy.
Additionally, nothing can replace the joy I feel when my younger children come into the car when I have been listening and say “not the Daf again!” If they grow up thinking that the Daf is the default radio setting in our lives, I will feel that I have succeeded in some small way.
Bumps in the Road
When undertaking a seven-and-a-half-year commitment, there are bound to be unpredictable potholes, and instances that will force you to yield or reevaluate your route. Whether it be a crisis at work, a family issue, or a simhah that needs your attention, you will likely find that you will miss a day or two (or a week) at some point during your journey. Do not be disheartened and do not give up. You can make up the lost learning and get back up to speed. You will feel accomplished, knowledgeable, Jewishly literate, and, above all, thirsty for more when you reach your destination. So buckle up, stay alert, and beware of other drivers who may want to cut you off. It’s going to be a great ride.
Yonina Bendheim Jacobson is an attorney and educator, She lives with her husband and children in Lower Merion, PA.
Listening to a daf yomi shiur being taught by a male teacher to male students, I often feel like I’m eavesdropping.
If my children grow up thinking that the Daf is the default radio setting in our lives, I will feel that I have succeeded in some small way.
You will feel accomplished, knowledgeable, Jewishly literate, and, above all, thirsty for more when you reach your destination.