Running Commentary

On my 28th birthday my parents gave me an Ipod. At the time I was a student living in Jerusalem, and I used to spend every morning jogging the streets of my city. In Jerusalem the street names are organized thematically, so that each neighborhood depicts a particular period in Jewish history, set of characters, or field of scholarship. The streets in leafy Rehavia are named for medieval parshanim—Rashi, Radak, Ibn Ezra; the narrow streets of Baka are named for the twelve tribes; and in the German Colony, where I live now, the streets are named for nineteenth century European rabbis. Jogging in Jerusalem is not just a form of exercise; it is a lesson in Jewish history.

And so I was already used to learning while jogging when I received the gift of an Ipod. At the time I was jogging about 45 minutes each day, which offered me a fair amount of listening time. This was just about a year after the internationally televised Siyum in Madison Square Garden, where Jews from around the world gathered to celebrate their completion of Daf Yomi – a program involving the study of a page of Talmud a day, completing the entire corpus in seven and a half years. And so I decided – that’s what I’ll do with my IPod! I decided to download daf yomi classes, and listen to a lecture each morning on that day’s page of Talmud. I didn’t know it then, but my life would never be the same again.

I started with Masechet Yoma, because that is what the international daf yomi community was up to when I began. One of the first passages I learned was about two priests who race one another up a ramp to the Temple altar because whoever gets there first will get to do Trumat HaDeshen, that is, to clear off the ashes from the previous day’s sacrifices. Just as one priest begins to gain on his fellow, he stabs him with the knife used for slaughtering animals, and the lagging priest falls to his death. I thought this was an appropriate passage to learn while jogging, even if I’ve never been quite that competitive.

For the past four and a half years I have learned a page of Talmud every day. I don’t always learn while jogging, because usually I want to have the book open before me. Often I go to a class held at a local synagogue at 6:15am, in which a rabbi teaches the daf to a group of about a dozen middle-aged men, and myself. Other days I learn over dinner, careful not to drip tomato sauce over discussions about the sprinkling of blood on the altar. And sometimes I learn just before bed, falling asleep with the rabbis still arguing in my head about just how late a person can recite the bedtime Shema.

I have never missed a day of daf yomi, including the day of my wedding – and incidentally, I married a man from my daf yomi shiur, and now we learn together. Learning Torah has been a constant in my life, giving structure and meaning to my days. During particularly tough periods, on days when I found it hard to remember why I bother to get up in the morning, I found that my daily Talmud study was an anchor, if not a liferaft. I love the notion that with every day that passes, you are not merely one day older – you are one day wiser. What a healthier relationship to time, viewing time not as a mark of age but as an opportunity to grow in wisdom. This is in fact the Jewish view of time: The rabbis teach in Pirkei Avot that five is the age for studying Torah; ten is the age of studying Mishnah; fifteen is the age for studying Talmud, and the list goes on.

I often feel that my life unfolds against the backdrop of the Daf I am learning. My learning is a source of inspiration — I write poetry based on the Talmud I learn, and have a blog devoted to poetic reactions to the daily daf. It has changed the way I see the world, and what my interests are: I’ve become fascinated by Jewish life in the early centuries of the common era, when the Talmud was compiled – a time when Jewish life was struggling to regain its foothold after the calamitous destruction of the Temple. The key players in this period have become as familiar to me as dear friends: Ben Azzai, who loved learning Torah so much that he couldn’t be bothered to get married and sacrifice precious learning time to raise a family; Rabbi Eliezer, who left his family’s huge farming estate to go learn Torah in Jerusalem, against his father’s will; Rabbi Joshua, who developed his love of Torah in the womb, because his mother used to pass by the Beit Midrash when she was pregnant with him; Rabbi Akiva’s son, who spent his entire wedding night studying Torah with his bride, and then lied to his father about what they had not done. In my eagerness to get to know these individuals better, I began translating a series of biographies of the sages of the Talmud, which should be available in English in within the next two years. Every time I sit down to translate, I marvel at my good fortune that in translating these books, I am essentially being paid to study Torah – it’s better than Kollel!

I am fascinated, too, by the possibilities that are open to me as a woman studying a text that for 1500 years has been analyzed primarily by men. What does it mean for me as a Jewish woman to read Talmud, a text whose heroes are primarily men – not to mention men who considered themselves experts in women’s psychology and anatomy? I am exhilarated by the notion of reading these texts through a woman’s eyes, especially as someone who regards herself as an independent self-sufficient adult, a role the Talmud could not imagine for women. I am intrigued by how the rabbis struggle to balance leaning Torah with making a living, which was the authentic form of being Jewish during the Talmudic era, very unlike the Haredi lifestyle of today. I am interested in the rabbis’ interactions with non-Jews, with aristocratic Roman matrons, with heretics and non-believers. And as an editor, I am fascinated by the organization of the Talmud, which is probably one of the most intensely edited books in all of world literature, its stories reworked again and again into tight literary units in which no detail is extraneous, and little is transparent. Any page of Talmud assumes that you know every other page – there is no clear beginning – so the only way to begin is already to know everything, which is why it’s difficult to begin, but once you have, it’s impossible to stop.

When finishing learning a tractate of Talmud, which I did just this past week, it is traditional recite a prayer known as the Hadran: Hadran alach v’hadrach alan. In classic Talmudic wordplay, the word Hadran, from Hadar, can have two meanings. And so the phrase can mean “may we return to you, and may you return to us:” may we have the opportunity to study this tractate again (because inevitably we’ll forget some of what we learn), and may it come back to us (because we hope that some of what we learn with stay with us). This speaks to me in terms of the power of learning to make the world endlessly interesting – there is always more to learn, which means that there is always a reason to keep living. But Hadar also means “beauty and glory” as well as “return.” So the prayer can also mean: “Our beauty is from you, and your beauty is from us,” which conveys the notion that we, with our own individual life experiences and our own unique perspectives, can enrich the study of Talmud; and that Talmud can enrich us.

The Hadran prayer goes on to contrast those who study Torah with those who are drawn to idle pursuits: “We are running and they are running. We are running to the World to Come, and they are running to the den of iniquity.” Whether jogging or learning, I don’t always know where I am heading; but I know that with every passing day, I am further along.

6 thoughts on “Running Commentary

  1. Will says:

    This was extragavantly beautiful, although I'm worried that your translation of חכמים might dissuade me from reading it in the original! Missing you & the Jerusalem crowd . . .


  2. R says:

    So beautiful. I was just thinking that it was too late to make an erev shabbat phone call to you in yerushalayim, so I would catch up with you on the blog instead. I am so glad I did.


  3. Tamar Orvell says:

    Breathtaking. My six mornings/week in the Daf Yomi group at Alma in Tel Aviv similarly revive me, and trumps the finest Swiss-made alarm clock. Last erev shabbat, at dinner with native Israelis all, someone used the term Hadran in a musical context (encore). When I asked the derivation of the word that sounded to my ears Aramaic, they glared, yet a quick check in Even-Shoshan explained exactly what you write in this post. For that teeny aid in detecting Aramaic I can thank my Talmud. And, for this blog, you! QUESTION: You say that you load up your iPod to listen to a lecture each morning on that day’s page of Talmud. Would you share the URL? Thanks!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.