by Leah Granof Geffen
For the past week, hundreds of Jewish communities around the world have been ceremoniously celebrating a major milestone – the completion of the daily study cycle, (commonly known as Daf Yomi) of the Babylonian Talmud. At 2,711 pages, it takes seven and a half years for participants who are committed to learning a page a day of Judaism’ most central text to finish the entire commentary.
While some Daf Yomi celebrations, like the one in New Jersey’s Met Life Stadium have attracted upwards of 90,000 people, it was a much smaller ceremony in Jerusalem that is being hailed in some circles as an even more remarkable achievement: the first ever exclusively women’s group to complete an entire Daf Yomi cycle.
Although both men and women particularly in Orthodox sectors commonly engage in many different types of Jewish learning, formal Talmud study has long been the dominion of men. One aspect of that changed 24 years ago, when a group of women who learned regularly around a dining room table inspired the founding of Matan, an institution dedicated to furthering high level learning among Jewish women, particularly through its Advanced Talmud Program.
When Matan founder, Malke Bina was first approached by the Advanced Talmud Program’s director, Yardena Cope-Yosef eight years ago to start a Daf Yomi group, she doubted its ability to succeed.
To her delight, last week’s ceremony proved her wrong. Almost a hundred women gathered in a demonstrably emotional ceremony to celebrate the group’s success by learning the last page of Talmud together and then establish their commitment to continuing the cycle again by starting with the first page. In all, close to 25 women are currently learning in Matan’s Daf Yomi group. Twelve women have actually completed the entire cycle, taught in total by 30 women instructors – many of them “homegrown” in Matan’s Talmud program.
“This is revolutionary event because it’s women teaching women,” Bina emphasized.
The women met 5 days a week – convening every morning at 8:10 and learning the other two days of the on their own. Instructor Ayelet Libson, herself a graduate a of Matan’s Talmud program, taught in the Daf Yomi for three years. She described the incredible diversity in lifestyle background and Jewish educational levels of the women who bonded during their unlikely journey together. The participants include working mothers, professionals, students in higher education, retirees and grandmothers.
“It was a very special experience that women from all different types backgrounds came together as a cohesive group; They have accompanied each other through major life events,” she said.
Many of the women who initially joined the learning cycle were not expecting to get to the end. “I don’t think most women envisioned learning the whole Shas (Talmud),” Libson said. They began by coming one day and then the next. It took some women days and others years to decide they wanted to commit.”
Once committed, however, the women took their obligation very seriously, making sure to find a way to learn that one page regardless of where in the world – or in life – they might be. Naomi Hochstein, an American born lawyer living in Israel for 46 years remembered the ordeal of carrying the extremely heavy books onto airplanes during frequent trips abroad. “I bought one of the first IPads on the market solely so I could download and carry the Talmud with me,” she said. “The discipline is as important as the content,” she said.
For Hochstein, the female instructors played a major role in her enjoyment in the group. She noted that Matan’s mission is not only to educate women, but to give them the tools to educate other women.
“Men that give the Daf Yomi are not trained to do this, but these women [our teachers] were taught how to teach Talmud in particular,” she explained.
“Women have always learned, they have always found a way with their fathers, brothers and willing teachers. The uniqueness of this it that it was women learning together and being taught by women,” she added echoing the theme that had permeated the ceremony.
Although the official title of the ceremony Siyum HaShasi translates as finishing the Talmud, many of the women present agreed: it’s only the beginning and that you can expect to see even more women’s celebrations seven and half years from now.