In 2005, I was at the Jacob Javits Center to mark the end of my experience with daf yomi at the 11th Siyum HaShas.
It was one hell of an undertaking. In many ways, my stubborn determination to see it through to the end was a guidepost in my own tumultuous life. It carried through my active duty overseas service, my first marriage, college, the birth of my first two children, three cross-continental moves, divorce, and grad school. A few months after finishing it, I met my wife and soulmate, Leah.
As a Jew with a non-Jewish upbringing, I think completing daf yomi brought me a confidence as a Jew that I didn’t have before. The program, designed to make Talmud approachable to Jewish laypeople, for me, achieved its goal.
As the new cycle starts, there are many of my friends, particularly Reform and some Conservative Jews, who are committing to study. Most of them will not complete it. Many will find it frustrating, perhaps far too challenging of their take on Judaism. Others will be surprised by how boring it can be. This is all fine. Whether we complete it or not, we will learn something we didn’t know before. The most important thing is to grab some small piece of a tradition that belongs to all of us, even if you’ll never practically apply anything you learn.
As someone with a weird ability to retain anything I’ve ever read, daf yomi was pivotal in my ability to write The Kosher Backpacker. If I didn’t remember the details, I remembered the basics enough to know where to jump off for research, particularly in later works like Shulchan Aruch.
Of course, being a wilderness blog, this isn’t about daf yomi specifically, but combining my commitment with a 3 week thru-hike of the John Muir Trail.
Looking back, I can marry specific tractates to life events. The seemingly unending Bava Batra when my oldest child was born. Erchin with my second child.
For my predictably north to south hike of the JMT in 2001, I started right towards the end of Kiddushin, and ended the hike on Bava Kamma.
At the time, the undertaking involved printing these pages and supportive material at home on a horribly temperamental inkjet printer and trying to keep them safe inside a huge freezer bag, along with my siddur.
Precipitation wasn’t much of a problem, not as much as it was on weekend trips on other trails, particularly in Alaska, but sweat certainly was. Climbing out of Yosemite Valley, for instance, was problematic.
There were a couple of days that I almost forgot to read, and then I’d remember right before sleep almost overtook me in my tent. I’d fumble quickly for my flashlight and hastily read, perhaps not absorbing it as much as I should have.
For the longest time, my memories of that hike have been linked mostly to the scenery and the others I met. As I recall, I had a “camp stove” discussion one night about yichud with a trio of UCLA students. They were curious about what I was reading (one of the men was Jewish), and it prompted an interesting and long philosophical discussion about men and women being secluded together, and postulating about the implications for wilderness travel. Remember, at the time, there was no such thing as a smartphone, so it was just a handful of stinky bums, sitting by a High Sierra lake, opining about concepts on a crumpled piece of paper I carried in my bag.
When I was standing atop Mount Whitney at the end of my hike, the Talmud was far from my mind, but not for long. I realized I had a gap in my printouts for the trip home!
Now, of course, I am able couple the natural beauty of my traverse of Ansel Adams country with my traverse of a significant part of our tradition.
I wish great success to everyone who undertakes daf yomi for the years to come. I hope you can connect your daf yomi learning to lived experience as I have been able to.
How do I start daf yomi?
In recent years, I started acquiring the beautiful ArtScroll Schottenstein Edition Talmud Bavli. That’s an expensive undertaking, even if you buy a tractate at a time as you approach each, and it can take up some serious book shelf real estate. Sefaria.org has a great number of resources, as does the Orthodox Union, including mobile app resources.
Future editions of the Kosher Backpacker trail guide apps will also have the daf yomi calendar built in.
Hikes to pass the Talmud By…
Given the technology of today, you don’t have to schlep a mess of printouts to the woods, but you’ll still want great trails to maximize your daf yomi and wilderness experience.
Benton MacKaye Trail
Named after the Massachusetts forester who proposed the Appalachian Trail, this 300 mile ramble in the southeastern United States doesn’t carry the traffic of the AT, but still maintains the spirit of the region.
More information here.
The Long Trail
Vermont’s premiere hiking trail runs the length of the state. It’s the oldest long distance trail in the country. With the many ups and downs, it’s a good place to think about your place in the world. Just be careful not to end up too tired to read your pages.
More information here.
The Israel National Trail
What better place to study Talmud Bavli than the Jewish State? Give your daf yomi a resonance that no other place on earth can provide.
More information here.
Last modified: January 10, 2020