Last year, I cultivated four incredibly beneficial lifestyle habits (and wrote a free book about the experience) that I continue to utilize in my daily life. As 2020 rolled around, I was incredibly inspired to see what other habits I could develop. As I began to look into my spiritual life, though prayer was now a regular morning staple, my religious study was in need of some strengthening. Fortunately for me, there was Daf Yomi.
If you don’t know what Daf Yomi is, don’t worry—even a lot of Jewish folks don’t, much less the general public. “Daf Yomi” literally means “a page a day.” A page of what? Talmud. What is Talmud? The Talmud (specifically the Babylonian Talmud) is over 300 years of conversations between Jewish religious authorities extrapolating, debating, and exploring every nook and cranny of Jewish law. Discussions are filled with great wisdom, table-pounding arguments across centuries, a dash of old-timey folklore, and even jokes. It’s words fill 63 books known as “tractates” and 2,711 double-sided folio pages—each called a “daf.” One side/half of a “daf,” when translated into English, is roughly 1,000-1,300 words. When read in English at a conversational pace, each “daf” takes about 30 minutes.
If studying Talmud sounds quite daunting and difficult to navigate, that’s because it absolutely is. That being said, many find its study immensely fulfilling. It is said to sharpen the mind of its students—teaching them how to carefully examine life’s most and least significant questions with an analytical mind. To manage the process of studying the entire Talmud, some authorities on the matter established Daf Yomi— a “one page a day” cyclical and communal study of the Babylonian Talmud. This seven-year(and some change) study sought to make Talmud study like eating the metaphorical elephant one bite at a time in lock-step with the community. Because everyone partaking in the study is on the same page every day, they could discuss the same material. Sidenote: If you plan on eating a non-metaphorical elephant, they are technically kosher, but their size and strength make appropriately and humanely slaughtering them virtually impossible. That, and they’re largely endangered, so you’d end up looking like a real jerk. Anyway, back to the article.
Though one need not to wait for the Daf Yomi merry-go-round to end before hopping on, around the turn of the new year, the previous cycle had just finished with a new one slated to begin again just a week or so after the beginning of 2020. I was determined to hop on. What happened next was mostly my own fault.
I approached studying Daf Yomi like I did my other habits.
Identity: Instead of telling myself “I’m a guy who studies Daf Yomi,” I started saying, “I’m a committed Daf Yomi student.” Check.
Environment: I had found the perfect nook at my kitchen table that I would utilize for my study. As soon as my son was asleep, I’d go to my Daf Yomi nook and get started.
Accountability: Boy, oh, boy did I lean into accountability. I knew I couldn’t be trusted to start studying Daf Yomi on my own and keep with it.
Because of this, firstly, I set up a group text with a handful of buddies from my synagogue (most of whom never expressed an interest in being in such a group—sorry, fellas) with the idea that each of us could share what we gleaned from the daily daf.
Secondly, I actually set up a website blog where I would share my daily daf insights.
My third accountability step took it to the next level; I made a Daf Yomi podcast using Anchor. I read the daily daf in English into my phone for the benefit of one of the dyslexic group text members who prefers audiobooks.
I planned on being one daf ahead of the group so that the podcast episode would drop the morning of its accompanying daf.
So, off I went.
I started at a gentle pace. I got a free Sunday afternoon, so I preloaded my week by studying and recording several pages of Daf Yomi. Once that surplus was published, I went back to daily…then back to preloading.
I checked in with the group every so often. At first, everyone was immensely responsive to the daily insights. Some were sharing their own. My dyslexic friend thanked me immensely for my efforts with the podcast.
The blog was…well, a brand-new blog. It can take months or years for a blog to get traction. I essentially treated it as a repository for my notes.
As I went along, the group text response began to fizzle. I asked my dyslexic friend if he had been enjoying the podcast. He said he had gotten around to “this week’s” episodes.
After a few weeks of reading into my phone for 30 minutes a day followed by writing summaries and scheduling posts, the weight of Daf Yomi went from a giggling baby on my shoulders to an impatient, squirmy toddler. While the insights were fascinating, the break-neck schedule didn’t allow me to spend time with the content. This isn’t the fault of Daf Yomi, but rather the lack of bandwidth my daily schedule allowed. I was beginning to feel burnout from what now seemed like a daily homework assignment on top of daily prayer, meditation, exercise, spending time with my son, my wife, my job, my friends, books I wanted to read, etc. I had to be truly honest with myself—Daf Yomi was not currently how I wanted to spend my time.
Before I got through the first tractate, I decided to quit.
The Freedom of Being Honest With One’s Self
Though I truly wanted to be a student of Daf Yomi, it turns out that I didn’t want it as bad as I had initially thought. While it seemed like a nice idea, it was never really a passion. Don’t get me wrong—I love being a student of my faith, but a tractate of Talmud isn’t what my hand naturally gravitates to when approaching my bookshelf. I’m much more of a Mishneh Torah, Shulchan Aruch, Rabbi Nachman, or Mussar type of guy.
But this extends further than which books I want to read. This extends into being honest with who I am. Should I want to be a Talmud student? Sure—Talmud has shaped the faith, practice, and minds of my people for generations. Am a Talmud student? Eh, not really. And there’s nothing wrong with that. And I’m not saying that I shouldn’t give up on religious study altogether just because Talmud study isn’t my cup of tea, but rather that being honest with myself allows me the freedom to explore what is my cup of tea and give it more of my time. Why? Sometimes someone’s cup of tea isn’t tea at all. Sometimes it’s black coffee.
As soon as I decided, “I quit, but I feel OK about quitting,” that squirming toddler on my shoulders of the responsibilities associated with Daf Yomi stopped fluttering and hopped down. I pointed my existing podcast listeners to an alternative podcast with a passionate host. I completely took down the blog (not that it really had any traction) and reallocated that slot in my day towards things that truly resonated with who I am. I increased my journaling. I tightened the bolts on my daily exercise and meditation routine. I made a conscious effort to be more present with my wife and son. I started to interact with friends, setting up hang outs mostly free of digital distractions. I did things that I would look forward to with great anticipation.
I learned a lot from my short time studying Daf Yomi, but the biggest lesson I learned is that an intentional, well-executed “OK, I give up” is immensely underrated.