A wonderful program of Gemara study called Daf Hashovua
IF you were to take a survey and ask people which times of the year they associate with Torah study, many would obviously answer Shavuos. Others would add Chanukah and Purim too, which have deep links to Torah shebe’al peh. Some sophisticates of machshavah might mention Shevat, when Moshe Rabbeinu began his review of the Torah, as a propitious time for renewed fervor in limud haTorah, or Shemini Atzeres, the “fourth regel,” corresponding to Moshe Rabbeinu himself.
Yet the Chazon Ish is quoted as saying that the month of Elul is a time to invest particular effort to learn lots of Gemara. In the Shemoneh Esreh’s fifth brachah, we make three requests, beginning with “Return us to Your Torah,” continuing on to “And draw us near to Your service,” and concluding with “And bring us back in complete repentance before You.” If we view this as a sequence of supplication, we see that the process of spiritual rehabilitation begins with returning to Torah, renewing and redoubling our efforts to learn and understand the Divine wisdom it contains.
The first step in repairing and strengthening a relationship is, after all, to make a concerted effort to understand how the other party thinks and what he or she truly wants. In contemporary idiom, this is called knowing where the other “is coming from.” Well, as the pasuk states, “Hashem m’Sinai ba.” Sinai — that’s where He’s coming from.
Hashem’s rendezvous with humanity reaches the height of closeness at this time of year, in the hope His proximity to us will spark our desire to respond in kind. And one of the best ways to do so is by seeking to discern His Will, what He really wants of us, as conveyed in the Torah.
Torah study is also the first step toward becoming serious about avodas Hashem and character improvement. That indispensable guide to those goals, Mesillas Yesharim, is based on the ladder of spiritual qualities set forth by the Tanna Rabi Pinchas ben Yair (Avodah Zarah 20b). But the fact that the Ramchal begins with a discussion of zehirus — watchfulness, can mislead us into thinking that zehirus is the first rung on Rabi Pinchas’s ladder, when in fact it’s not.
Torah is. “Torah mevi’ah l’yedei zehirus — Torah brings to watchfulness,” is actually how the baraisa of Rabi Pinchas ben Yair begins. However much we may want to ascend the rungs of spiritual growth, without Torah, we literally don’t get off the ground.
All of this makes it so timely that a wonderful program of Gemara study called Daf Hashovua, from which I personally benefit, is marking a major milestone during this third week in Elul. After nearly two and a half years of learning Yevamos, Daf Hashovua’niks — now almost 10,000 strong — will conclude that masechta and begin Maseches Kesubos.
The beauty of Daf Hashovua is its simplicity: One daf per week. That’s the whole of it.
To be sure, the folks who run the program have worked to provide lomdim with an ever-expanding array of resources, such as a daily calendar to facilitate regular reviews, optional weekly tests, a booklet containing summaries of the week’s topics and citations to mefarshim to take one’s study deeper, a chavrusa-finding service, and even a nightly phone line manned by a shoel u’meishiv.
Ultimately, however, the genius of Daf Hashovua is that it’s a mere vessel, waiting to be filled. It doesn’t give you precise instructions to learn this or that. Instead, it challenges you by saying, “Here’s one page of Gemara. You have one week to mine it for all you can, clearing as much time in your busy life and investing all the heart and brainpower in this one page that you can muster.” And if it didn’t work out that well one week, there’s always the next one and the one after that (nor is there any penalty for continuing to delve into the daf of last week during this one).
There are so many different ways to learn the weekly daf: with Rashi only, or with some Tosafos or all of them, or with other Rishonim and Acharonim, too. Daf Yomi is the Great Equalizer, because the relentless pace means most people are just learning Rashi; Daf Hashovua, on the other hand, is the Great Unifier, because the slower pace allows for a spectrum of lomdim of diverse levels and backgrounds to join together in one beis medrash, with each person or pair of chavrusos learning according to their own predilection.
Daf Hashovua is also, of course, the slow boat to finishing Shas, taking a full 52 years to run its course. Why, that’s even longer than the proverbial “ah yohr und ah yovel” that Yiddish speakers use to denote a really long time. That’s the price we pay for the luxury of lavishing a full week’s attention on each blatt and reaping all the good things that flow from that.
But that slow pace can also be a refreshing change from the push to finish one masechta after another. It’s a great thing to finish a masechta, but it’s another level to complete it. Daf Hashovua, when done right, gives learners a shot at the latter.
Although the current cycle of Daf Hashovua began in 2005, I’ve been at it with my chavrusa, Reb Yitzy Weiss, in a chaburah in my shul for the past six years. And during that time, it has occurred a number of times that things mentioned in the week’s blatt were uncannily connected to events of that same week on the Jewish calendar.
And now, it has happened again: It is in Elul, whose mazal is that of besulah — a virgin woman (Sefer Yetzirah, chapter 5), that Daf Hashovua learners will commence their study of Kesubos, which opens with the words “Besulah niseis l’yom harevi’i.”
There’s more: Rav Pinchas Horowitz, author of the Hafla’ah, a major work on Kesubos, asked why the fifth chapter of the tractate begins with the word “af,” which means “anger,” when the midrash says that using “af” to begin a sentence is ill-advised. The Baal Hafla’ah answered that Kesubos has 13 chapters, corresponding to the 13 Divine Attributes of Mercy. Since the fifth of those attributes is “erech apayim,” that Hashem is long to anger, the fifth perek of Kesubos purposely opens with the word “af” as a form of hamtakas hadinim, “sweetening” the Divine anger and transforming it into Divine mercy as represented by the attribute of “erech apayim.”
Consider, then, that we will begin Kesubos — the masechta corresponding to the Yud Gimmel Middos shel Rachamim — on the 22nd day of Elul, the first day of Selichos, which are built entirely around the recitation of the Yud Gimmel Middos.
Rav Moshe Sternbuch observes that the besulah entering marriage is a fitting symbol for the spirit of renewal that pervades Elul. That same sense of forward-thinking rejuvenation will surely be felt by the revavah of Jews, Daf Hashovua veterans and neophytes alike, who’ll be taking up the study of Kesubos this coming week and doing their part in helping to bring about the bestowal of Hashem’s mercy on His nation.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 928. Eytan Kobre may be contacted directly at email@example.com)
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