I have a cousin in New York whom I call on occasion, and at times when I call to speak to him his wife tells me he’s “out doing the Daf.” I’m a little embarrassed to ask her what that means, so could you possibly shed some light on this for me? Much appreciated.
“The Daf” literally means “the page,” and is referring to a world-wide movement call the “Daf Yomi,” or “Page a Day” of the Talmud. A “page” in this case really means two pages, as a daf is both folios, or sides, of a page of Talmud.
The Talmud, mainly a commentary to the Mishnah, is the main body of the Oral Law of the Torah. The Mishnah was redacted by Rabbi Yehuda the Prince in around the year 200 CE. Although the Oral Tradition was meant to be passed down by memory and not written, Rabbi Yehuda saw no choice but to commit it to writing due to Roman persecution forbidding the study of Torah and putting the entire tradition in jeopardy if not recorded for future generations. The Mishnah was divided into six Orders, or sections dealing with different areas of Jewish law. It was reviewed and ratified by all the leading scholars of his generation.
The next three centuries were spent reviewing, analyzing and expounding on the Mishnah by the leading scholars of our people. In Jerusalem, in the fourth century CE, the first edition of Talmud appeared, called the Jerusalemite Talmud. It was written very concisely and in very pure Aramaic. Another hundred or so years of analysis were spent by the larger body of scholars in the Babylonian exile, leading to a far more vast and intricate edition of the Talmud, known as the Babylonian Talmud. It was redacted by two leading sages, Rav Ashi and after him Ravina, near the end of the fifth century CE.
The Babylonian Talmud became the main subject of study in Jewish scholarly circles and yeshivot from then until today. The Talmud consists mainly of intricate and complex legal analysis, but also contains many sections of legal decisions as well as Aggadic discussions of Jewish philosophy, history and meaning. The Talmud has been described by historians as the “portable homeland of the Jews.” It provides unlimited intellectual stimulation, insight into the deeper side of Judaism and the pure joy and ecstasy of learning.
In August 1923 a monumental step was taken forward in the study of Talmud among the Jewish people. The first “K’nessia Gedolah” or Great Assembly of the organization called Agudath Israel took place in Vienna with the presence of the leading sages of Israel and thousands of leading delegates. A great luminary, the legendary Rabbi Meir Shapira, made a suggestion at the plenary session to begin a worldwide movement called Daf Yomi, that Jews around the world would all study the same daf of Talmud. He claimed the best way to unify Jews around the world is that they would all be involved in the same area of Torah. A Jew from Pinsk visiting South America could find Jews to discuss the same page of Talmud he was learning. Jewish unity would be raised many levels. In addition, many remote areas of Talmud not usually studied except by the greatest scholars would become familiar to the rank-and-file Jew, raising the scholarship of the entire Jewish nation. Rabbi Shapira received a standing ovation by the 6,000 delegates for his idea, and Daf Yomi was born.
Today tens of thousands of Jews study the Daf daily around the world, in classes, on the phone; classes even take place daily on the subways of New York. Here in Dallas, there are several groups which meet and study the daily Daf together at various times of the day. Every 7-1/2 years a great worldwide celebration takes place upon the completion of the entire Talmud by klal Yisrael, having studied all its 2,947 folios or 5,894 pages. This is the holy brotherhood your cousin is a member of — you should be very proud of him!
Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried, noted scholar and author of numerous works on Jewish law, philosophy and Talmud, is founder and dean of DATA, the Dallas Kollel. Questions can be sent to him at email@example.com.