By Hila Schlakman
I didn’t start learning the Talmud to take a stand or voice an opinion. When I started learning a page of Talmud per day (daf yomi) at age 10, I didn’t realize that anyone would even notice. To me, it was just something I did, a part of my day that was dedicated to learning Torah with my brother and father.
At ages 9 and 10 respectively, my brother and I had no idea what the commitment really meant. I knew that our being so young was pretty unusual. When my older brother had finished the daf yomi cycle at 17 years old, it was considered a big deal. But other than that, studying Talmud daily seemed very normal to me. I wasn’t even aware that the fact that I am a girl was a factor to consider.
The daf yomi has been a part of my home for as long as I can remember. My father and my older brother, Ari, first finished Shas (the 2,711 page Babylonian Talmud) in 2012. They had started learning Talmud together in 2005 when I was 3 years old. I always saw them learning and bonding together. It seemed very natural, meaningful and important to me, but not out of the ordinary.
As a new cycle was approaching, my younger brother Yosi said he wanted to begin learning with my dad as well. I was 10 at the time and looking for a project that I could take on for my bat mitzvah, so I decided to join. A few years later my younger sister, Bracha, joined as well. And ever since my grandparents moved to Israel, I’ve had the privilege of learning with my grandfather, too.
In my experience, the hardest part of learning the daf is starting the practice. Deciding to learn every day for seven and a half years is an intimidating goal. Luckily, my dad was very determined, so once we decided we were starting, that was it. There were no exceptions: if you missed a daf, you had to make it up another day. It can be hard at times, but that’s part of the beauty of it — the Torah is always a part of our lives, no matter what else we are doing.
It wasn’t always easy. Not every daf is interesting (although my dad might say otherwise), and with everything going on in our lives, it can be hard to find the time for learning. Thankfully, I had tons of support. My father always took time out of his day to learn with us, make sure that we understood the page, point out all of the interesting details and encourage us to develop our own thoughts and opinions. My family and friends were always there for me, displaying patience, understanding and encouragement.
The experience has taught me many things. I now have an understanding of what our religion is based on — the concepts and ideas that go beyond mere technical points of Jewish law. I enjoyed reading the stories about Jews who lived during Talmudic times, the way our ancestors thought and how they shaped our religion and practice. These things have changed the way I think about Judaism and life in general.
Often, I found that what I learned in the daf was directly connected to my life at the time. I think that anyone can relate to the Gemara (Talmud) and that it affects each person differently, depending on who they are and how they think.
The rabbis in the Gemara challenged every imaginable idea, but always with the understanding of the importance of Torah and belief in God. Respect was always maintained for the generations that came before, even as halacha (Jewish law) was applied to new situations that arose.
I learned how to follow complicated discussions and seek deeper meaning in topics I would otherwise never have thought relevant to my daily life. I learned that it’s OK to be wrong or to admit what you do not know. I learned that one should stand up for their opinion, but that the real challenge is to truly listen and learn from what others have to say.
One of the truly remarkable things about the great rabbis in the Gemara is that most of them had other jobs. Learning Torah was of central importance, but they understood how Torah was to be integrated into people’s lives. My goal in studying the daf was never to decide on intricacies of Jewish law, but to similarly integrate Torah into my daily life as a Jewish woman.
This Siyum HaShas — or celebration of the completion of the seven-and-a-half-year reading of the Talmud a page per day — was a very proud moment, as three generations of our family finished the Talmud Bavli together in our home in Israel. I could not imagine a more special family experience.
This chapter of learning, at times leaning on my father’s shoulder with my brother on his other side, later to be joined by my younger sister and my Zaidy, has now ended. As I prepare to finish high school and move on to the next chapter of my life, I can’t imagine a better experience to have bonded me to my family and to prepare me for a life of continued learning and new experiences. l
Hila Schlakman is a 17 year-old senior at Ohr Torah Stone’s Neveh Channah High School and a resident of Efrat, Israel. This op-ed originally appeared on JTA.org.