A guest post by Y. Bloch It’s true what they say. It’s been a quarter-century, but I still feel intimately connected to my first. I was preparing to become a bar mitzva, and my father felt that to become a man in the eyes of the Jewish world, I needed to make my first conquest: Sukka.
Sukka (rhymes with looka) is a Talmudic tractate which discusses Sukkot, the most important Jewish holiday most people have never heard of. Sukkot is light on the histrionics and historicity; instead, quite literally, it’s “the time of our rejoicing.” Sukka deals with the festival’s three central mitzvot: a) chilling in a flora-roofed shelter; b) singing and dancing with the fruit and fronds of the Four Species; c) holding an OG House (of God) Party. Sukka has a great balance of lore and law, of history and hermeneutics. It’s not one of those twiggy treatises that’s an easy layn for those looking to seal the deal quickly, nor is it one of those intractable tractates that endlessly ponders arcana. Sukka, quite simply, has it all.
I bring this all up not only because of my own quadranscentennial, but because myriads of enthusiastic Talmudists will begin studying Sukka tomorrow, as part of the Daf Yomi system. The idea behind Daf Yomi (not to be confused with Daft Yomi, which involves silently studying Talmud while wearing metallic headgear) is shockingly simple: one folio, one double-sided page, every day of the year. Using this method, it takes about 7 1/2 years to study every tractate in the Babylonian Talmud (with some extras). This ancient practice dates back to the Coolidge administration, when Rabbi Meir Shapiro of Poland first noticed that many tractates were sadly neglected. Yeshivot kept coming back to the same few chapters in the same few treatises, leaving huge expanses of the Sea of Talmud uncharted and unknown. R. Shapiro, launching the project at a conference in Vienna, believed that Daf Yomi would unite and edify world Jewry, saving tractates like Sukka from obscurity.
But has it worked? On the one hand, hundreds of thousands of Jews participate in Daf Yomi at some point; on the other hand, if the point was to broaden the exposure of yeshiva students to obscure material, it has been an abject failure. Daf Yomi became so popular that it is viewed by the yeshiva elite as balebatish, fine for the common folk who only have an hour or so to dedicate to daily Talmud study, but not for the full-time scholars.
So let’s review what we expect from a yeshiva curriculum. Scripture? Good luck even finding a volume of the Prophets or Hagiographa; as for the Pentateuch, that’s for Sabbath sermonizing, not serious study. Halakha? Don’t be silly; that’s kid stuff, relegated to a half-hour of independent study before breakfast or supper. Even a rabbinical student preparing for ordination has no reason to open two out of four volumes of the Code of Jewish Law, and on each of the handful of subjects he’ll be tested on, he’ll only need to know a few dozen chapters out of the remaining 1,100. Philosophy? Most of it is probably heresy, so let’s look at only a few pre-approved books; more than an hour a day will certainly mess with your mind. Essentially, yeshivot, which are supposed to be institutions of higher Jewish learning, ignore three-quarters of Jewish writing. But what about the Talmud? That’s their bread and butter, right?