Title: Daily Blessings
By Hillel Broder
Ben Yehuda Press
Why are you studying daf yomi? This is a question one is likely to hear from the type of clever person who likes to stand out from the crowd and pour cold water on whatever seems too trendy or popular. They may be extremely learned and suggest that you study some area of Torah with more focus and depth than the broad and unrelenting pace of a page of Talmud a day. Or they may just suggest that since you’re unlikely to remember much, if any, of what you learn, you may be better off doing nothing. It’s an argument that ignores a truth that many learners of the daf can feel inside, that the daily encounter with the Talmud lights up neural pathways, sparking memories of things learned over a lifetime of study, introducing new understandings or connections, and sometimes even framing the experience of the day in ways that seem too serendipitous to be coincidental.
That experience of the daf yomi framing individual interpretations and personal epiphanies is captured beautifully by Hillel Broder’s ambitious new collection of poems “Daily Blessings.” In addition to taking on the serious commitment of studying the daf each day, Broder also wrote a poem for each page of Berakhot, the first tractate.The poems in this collection merge Broder’s own thoughts and frames of reference – particularly his interest in mysticism and Chassidic thought – with the Talmud’s discursive content to form a map of the poet’s consciousness in dialogue with (and in thrall to) the Torah.
The poems here are short, most no more than a page, and frequently averaging only four or five words per line, but they compress a multitude of meanings and moods into a small space. They also perform double duty. For those unfamiliar with the Talmud, Broder’s lines can seem like good contemporary poetry, resonant with emotion and suggestive of multiple interpretations. But for those familiar with the page of Talmud from which Broder is drawing inspiration, the poems can also serve as a commentary that can reveal significance that a less sensitive reader might have passed over.
For example, the poem for Berakhot 24 begins “one who raises his voice / is of little faith, unless / his heart can’t hear his own whispers.” Without any knowledge of the Talmud, the idea that someone who yells a lot is short on faith sounds like a clever insight, and the image of a heart that can’t hear whispers is intriguing and evocative, though not necessarily clear. After all, what does it mean to whisper to a heart? However, the poem gains perspective in light of a teaching from the day’s daf: “It was taught in a baraita: One who sounds his voice during his Amida prayer is among those of little faith. Rav Huna said: This was only taught in a case where one is able to focus his heart while praying silently, but if he is unable to focus his heart while praying silently, he is permitted to sound his voice.”
The Talmud’s language could easily be glossed over as if Rav Huna is making a technical distinction between different types of people, those able to focus their hearts and those who are unable. But Broder’s wording in the poem draws the reader’s attention and raises new questions. What does it mean for the whispered prayer to be unheard by the heart? Is such a prayer tossed off and rote, or maybe it is a very desperate prayer to realign the heart with the words of the prayer? And, perhaps most difficultly, the poem leads to introspection: are my own prayers coming from my heart, or is my own heart detached from the words I pray?
Ideas like this abound and Broder often draws his poetic inspiration from the most allusive imagery in each day’s page of Talmud. In Berakhot 3, Broder writes: “heaven’s roars echo in ruins / muted, like pigeons cooing, / like housewives whispering / to nurslings and husbands.” In these short lines Broder is weaving together at least three different strands of the Talmud’s multiple discussions on that page. There is the reference to how the night is divided up. (“[A]t the first [night] watch, the ass brays; at the second, dogs bark; and at the third, the babe sucks at the breast of its mother and a woman converses with her husband). The opening words of “heaven’s roar” refer to what God is doing at each watch (“R. Isaac b. Samuel said in the name of Rab: The night is divided into three watches, and at each watch the Holy One, blessed be He, sits enthroned, roars like a lion and exclaims, ‘Alas for My children, for whose iniquities I destroyed My house, burnt My Temple, and exiled them among the nations of the world!.’”). And the mention of ruins alludes to Rav Yose’s experience praying in a ruin, where he reports to the Prophet Elijah, “”I heard a bat kol (heavenly voice) moaning like a dove, crying” over the Temple’s destruction.
While the poems are not linked, certain themes and images do reoccur. Blessings and prayer are constant topics, which is unsurprising given the tractate’s title “Berakhot” literally means “blessing,” but other ideas, both deep and mundane, are on display. On the more mundane side, Broder seems to relish when the Talmud makes mention of food. These poems discuss bread (whose blessings are a major topic in the tractate) but also leeks, fish peppercorns, gourds, olives, and Egyptian beer.
More profound are the references to mysticism. Broder’s interest in mysticism was on full display in his first poetry collection, “Counting Spheres,” which was a meditation on Sefirat Ha’Omer, the 49-day count between Passover and Shavuot that is rife with kabbalistic interpretation. In this collection, Broder’s talks about people “waiting for the secret of your face to emerge” (Berakhot 58) which sounds like a quote from the Zohar. In Berakhot 4, delves into the mystical concept of bringing unification through seemingly opposing forces: “sin brought redemption / in natural guises; / humiliation of David / and his nation wrought / greatness.” While the source of inspiration here is less explicitly mystical (the Talmud is considered “revealed” rather than “secret” Torah), many mystical references work their way into the poems, suggesting that the line between the revealed and the secret is not so impermeable.
Ultimately, “Daily Blessings” serves a successful argument not only for studying the daf yomi, which seems to be only growing in popularity, but also for thinking creatively and poetically about one’s religious life and studies. Even if Hillel Broder has not kept up with his poem-a-day pace for the other tractates, this collection highlights the benefits of the daily daf as both religious and creative endeavor.