In Jerusalem, the world of Talmud study fetes its newest superstars — women
Reporter's notebookAll the women who'd completed the Talmud stood up, to cheers

In Jerusalem, the world of Talmud study fetes its newest superstars — women

An event marks the culmination of a 7.5-year daily gemara cycle — and a crescendo in decades of efforts by teachers to wrest Jewish texts from men’s-only clubs

Marissa Newman is The Times of Israel political correspondent.

The women's siyum HaShas in the Jerusalem Convention Center on January 5, 2020 (Courtesy)
The women's siyum HaShas in the Jerusalem Convention Center on January 5, 2020 (Courtesy)

If the plaza outside the Jerusalem Convention Center were a manuscript read from on high, the restless, long lines of people scoring the space on Sunday evening could be seen as uneven script, penned in a rush of inspiration. Over 3,000 people were eager to enter and they weren’t hiding it. They were young, middle-aged, elderly. Most were Orthodox Jewish women. And for all, this was to be a first.

As the crowds filed into the sold-out hall, the anticipation steadily grew. Teenage students filled out the balcony. English and Hebrew mingled in the air. As the lights dimmed to reveal a video peopled by the speakers at the event, cheers and whoops and unabashed fandom rippled wildly through the crowd.

This was no pop concert or red carpet event; it was a celebration of a religious and intellectual achievement. And though standing ovations were plentiful, as per a Jewish tradition of reverence for scholars they preceded the performances as each speaker took the stage.

The women who successively stepped into the limelight were teachers of the ancient Babylonian Talmud, the seminal, 2,711-page text of Jewish thought and law. They were celebrating the end of the 7.5-year cycle of a daily study of a double-sided page of the Talmud, known as daf yomi, instituted in 1923 by Rabbi Meir Shapiro of Lublin, Poland. The cycle is credited as a powerful democratizing force for the Talmud, bringing it to the masses, and hailed as a powerful unifier for Jews, as every day thousands from across the world linger over the same ancient words.

For centuries, the study of the complex, legalistic and mostly Aramaic-language Talmud was traditionally reserved for men and strongly discouraged if not prohibited by rabbinic edict for women. But in recent decades, the study of gemara in general, and the daf yomi in particular, has been also claimed by Orthodox women and educators. Almost universally accepted in modern Orthodox circles, the practice remains mostly taboo among ultra-Orthodox women, though Sunday’s event spotlighted several from that community who have taken up the esoteric texts.

“It’s no longer a locked book in front of us, but rather every single person can learn,” said Michelle Cohen Farber, the US-born co-founder of the Hadran organization that arranged the mass event, who hosts a daily podcast on the daf.

Michelle Cohen Farber (screen capture: Facebook video)

Billed as the first-ever global event of its kind, the women’s siyum hashas (completion) was also a culmination of a decades-long effort to spread intensive women’s study, and was livestreamed to Jewish communities around the world.

“This is a formative moment for us all,” added Farber, whose project began as a daily class in the central town of Ra’anana to a handful of women. “Shehihiyahu v’kiyemanu v’higiyanu lazman ha’ze,” she said, using a classic blessing of thanksgiving.

Rabbi Benny Lau, founder of the six-year-old Israeli 929 initiative modeled on the daf yomi —  which sees thousands read a chapter of the Bible per day in a four-year cycle — indirectly acknowledged in his remarks some of the criticism of the daily practice, namely that a daily review of the texts was too superficial to give it its due.

“This study of the daf hayomi doesn’t presume to reach the heights of Jewish scholarship or the depths of inventiveness,” said Lau. “It’s… the adoption of a language. Of turning a foreign language into a mother tongue. The ability to open a page of gemara, to distinguish between its paragraphs, is a great gift that 100 years ago Rabbi Shapira gave the Jewish people.”

Young Jewish women study Talmud at the women’s Beit Midrash (Seminary) in the Jewish settlement of Migdal Oz, Gush Etzion, on January 2, 2019. (Gershon Elinson/Flash90)

After 13 7.5-year cycles, there are now “thousands of women, who come and say, we are coming to learn this intimate language, the deepest, most synchronized with the Jewish pulse,” he added.

But another language permeated the hall on Sunday evening, between the murmurs of attendees and caught in the accents of many of the speakers: English. It was a testament to the American roots of the movement to bring Talmud study to Orthodox women, which began some 60 years ago by Modern Orthodox scion Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik of Yeshiva University.

Esti Rosenberg, the founder of the Migdal Oz seminary, took a moment at the event to thank Soloveitchik, her grandfather, and her late father Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, also a pioneer of women’s Torah study.

“I think it was not so much what they thought about women. It’s what they thought about Torah study. I think they could not imagine that there could be people in the service of Hashem [God] who don’t learn Torah,” she mused.

Chaya Lampert, a teacher from Ma’alot in northern Israel and alumna of the Soloveitchik-founded Maimonides school in Boston, traveled some 2.5 hours on Sunday to accompany her teenage students to the event. Though the school where she teaches does not teach Talmud, the students were given the option to attend. Nine signed up. Ahead of the siyum, they signed up as part of the program to study a page of gemara, for the first time. When they opened it, she said, they discovered that much of the material was familiar from other religion classes.

“I wanted them to see women who learned gemara in a very serious way,” she said.

סיום הש"ס העולמי לנשים

עושות היסטוריה!הצטרפו אלינו לסיום הש"ס העולמי לנשים בשידור חי מבנייני האומה בירושלים ???? >Making History! Join us and watch the global Siyum HaShas for Women LIVE from Binyanei Hauma, Jerusalem ???? >

פורסם על ידי ‏הדרן – קול נשי בשיח התלמודי Hadran‏ ב- יום ראשון, 5 בינואר 2020

As for whether she would take on the study of daf yomi, she said: “It still seems very ambitious to me, but maybe it will inspire me to do it.”

The nine girls from northern Israel were among 3,091 who registered ahead of the event to study a daf, which added up to well over a full Babylonian Talmud, or 8.5 years of an individual daf yomi practice.

To the end, and back to the start

To thunderous applause, they got up on stage, nine representative women who completed the entire Babylonian Talmud in the past 7.5 years. Some had done it twice; one had completed her fourth round. Another woman had recently spent weeks ill and unconscious but after recovering made up for lost time in the hospital and stood there, miraculously, among her peers.

Nine women who have completed the 7.5 year Babylonian Talmud cycle, at the Jerusalem Convention Center on January 6, 2020 (Courtesy)

The hosts invited all women in the crowd who completed the Talmud to stand up and recite the traditional concluding prayer with them.

To astounded clapping, some 30 women, of different generations, quietly stood up in a crowd of 3,300.

They had done it: Every day. In sickness, health, good times and bad. For seven and a half years. Dipping into the minutia of Jewish thought even at the most inconvenient of times, finding comfort and inspiration in a convoluted legal conundrum, a perplexing story, or a searing debate.

Together, they said a prayer thanking God for the opportunity. They also thanked their relatives, husbands and children for giving them the time. The final text of the Niddah was read, and then back to the beginning — a lesson on the tractate of Brachot.

What was it, I wondered, that quality they all seemed to share? Not merely the intellectual infatuation and impossible work ethic, but the contentment and sincerity and apparent lack of pretense? What drove them, as many speakers underlined, to daily seek the embrace of the divine through the texts and funnel it into even the most mundane moments of day-to-day life?

Walking out of the hall, humming the song blasted over the speakers as each speaker took the stage, it crystallized: “Enlighten us in Your Torah, and let our hearts cling to Your commandments, unify our hearts to love and fear You, so that we should not be ashamed, and not be humiliated, and we should not stumble, ever,” were its lyrics.

It was a song drawn from the morning liturgy, a prayer that begins “You have loved us with an eternal love,” a plea to the divine for clarity and understanding of the Torah.

It was love.

Passing on the tradition

This was evident in the host of the evening, Rachelle Fraenkel, a Torah scholar at Nishmat, whose son Naftali was kidnapped and murdered along with two other teenagers in 2014 by Hamas terrorists in the West Bank.

“A small number of us were able to complete the Babylonian Talmud in the 7.5 years, but this joy and festivities and excitement belongs to all of us,” she said, referring to all Jews, including the massive New Jersey gathering last week to celebrate the cycle, which drew some 90,000 people.

Rachelle Fraenkel addresses the women’s siyum haShas in Jerusalem on January 5, 2020 (screen capture: Facebook video)

Invoking Ecclesiastes 12:13, which likens the words of the Jewish sages to spurs (kadorbanot) or well-fastened nails — underlining the texts’ inherent sharpness and the role of Torah in keeping people in line — she cited a midrash on the phrase offering another, softer explanation for the word.

“It’s like a ball that girls play with (kadur shel banot), that is passed, that is transmitted. It [paints] a picture of a group of girls, standing shoulder to shoulder, happy and excited and playful, passing the ball from hand to hand — not letting it fall. This is how it was passed: Moses received the Torah from Sinai and passed it Joshua and Joshua to the elders and the elders to the prophets and the prophets to the great assembly… and no word was lost,” she said.

Urging the crowd to join the daily gemara study, she tilted her head almost conspiratorially.

Mourning candles in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square, following the June 12, 2014 murder of Naftali Fraenkel, Gil-ad Shaer and Eyal Yifrach. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

“We started [the daf yomi cycle] today. But between us, so no one should hear, if daf hayomi is not suitable for you now, for now, there is a daily mishna, or a daily Rambam, or 929 [daily Bible study]… The important thing is that the [Torah] studies enter your veins, that it become part the pulse of your home, that we breathe it in deep, that we live it.”

She paused and smiled widely at the crowd, excited and playful.


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