By the age of 46, however, I wanted to see the Talmud’s breadth. I began Daf Yomi (literally “a page a day”), a cycle of learning one folio page (two sides, a and b) of the Talmud a day. It’s a seven-and-a-half-year project, undertaken simultaneously across the globe: the same page each day, no matter where you are. (One afternoon, on Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor, a stranger walked by me in the café car, saw my open Talmud, said “32b,” and kept walking). The pace of the project is staggering. A friend described Daf Yomi as forgetting one page of the Talmud a day.
Every once in a while, I’d encounter a text that had a jarring run-in with modernity. When I encountered, for example, a quip about what women should study—“Women’s wisdom is solely in the spindle”—I laughed. I can barely sew a button on a shirt.
But my 21st-century spindle is Twitter. It can spin anything. And it has.
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As part of my Daf Yomi project, every morning I tweet an insight from the daily Talmud page and then a corresponding relevant quote I’ve found online, amusing myself with the juxtaposition of old and new. On Nidda, page 9a, I tweeted this from Rabbi Judah, “Who is an elderly woman? … Any woman about whom her friends say she is an elderly woman,” next to Arthur Baer’s keen observation about women at a party: “The ladies looked one another over with microscopic carelessness.” On Keritot 12a, I tweeted “A person is deemed more credible about himself than 100 people” beside Ann Landers’s astute advice: “Know yourself. Don’t accept your dog’s admiration as conclusive evidence that you are wonderful.”
Talmudic scholarly insults are also great to tweet, such as this one from Bekhorot 58a, starring my champion: “Ben Azzai says, ‘All the sages of Israel appear to me as garlic peel, except this bald one.’” Arrogance and humility live side by side in the Talmud, so when a scholar issued a retraction or caught his own errors, I almost always tweeted it. It was, however, more fun when scholars caught one another’s mistakes or mishaps, such as when Rav Sheshet said of a colleague, “He must have been falling asleep when he said this.”
When I first started, distilling a complex, ancient Babylonian legal debate into 140 characters seemed ridiculous. But then Twitter became a vehicle for determining foreign policy and waging political and culture wars. The Talmud looks almost simple in comparison. And while I was tweeting, others were learning and producing daily haikus, limericks, and artwork on the daily page. One woman wrote a stunning personal memoir of studying Daf Yomi. Others wrote thematic literary essays or blogged about science and medicine on the Talmud’s pages. These timeworn and sometimes tedious texts were being reinterpreted and explained in fresh, creative ways by unexpected students.