Cover Story

Behind the Daf

Discussing Daf Yomi with some of the most distinguished maggidei shiur

Q: How did you come to start teaching Daf Yomi?

Rabbi Moshe Elefant is chief operating officer of OU Kosher and a maggid shiur for the OU’s Daf Yomi webcast (which attracts 2,000 participants daily, making it one of the most popular online Daf shiurim in the world). Photo: Kruter Photography

Rabbi Moshe Elefant: Many years ago, I attended a Daf Yomi siyum where Rav Mordechai Gifter, rosh yeshivah of Telz Yeshiva in Cleveland, Ohio, was one of the speakers. In his inimitable way, Rav Gifter said that in Europe, a “Shas Yid” was someone who had gone through the entire Shas. I can’t convey the idea the way he did. But he said that you didn’t have to be a rav or a rosh yeshivah to be a Shas Yid; you could have been an ordinary “ba’alebos” (lay person). But if you were a Shas Yid, it was considered a real status—a real achievement. Once I heard that, I knew I wanted to be a Shas Yid.

After learning Gemara so many times, you start to think like the Gemara, which is tremendously valuable in and of itself.

Around thirty years ago, I began teaching a Daf Yomi shiur at 5:40 every morning for members of a shtiebel in Brooklyn near my house. I am about to finish my fourth cycle.

Fourteen years ago, the OU, being ahead of the curve, decided to launch a Daf Yomi shiur online, which was a revolutionary project at the time. In addition to delivering my early morning shiur at the shtiebel, I began recording a Daf Yomi shiur at home, or on occasion, at the OU headquarters in Manhattan, that is broadcast online. Today, about 2,000 listeners tune in from all over the world, including North America, Israel and Europe—and even places like Gibraltar and South Korea.

Rabbi Yisroel Edelman is rav of the Young Israel of Deerfield Beach in Florida. Courtesy of Rabbi Edelman

Rabbi Yisroel Edelman: The Young Israel of Deerfield Beach started a Daf Yomi shiur some thirty years ago. Initially, there was resistance because there was no consistent maggid shiur and the participants weren’t coming regularly. But a few shul members persisted, and baruch Hashem, the shiur began to flourish. Back when the shiur started, many of the Deerfield Beach residents did not even live here year-round, so attendance was an issue. Today, a significant portion of the community lives here year-round.

I started delivering the Daf Yomi shiur when I joined the shul eleven years ago. Nowadays, during “the season,” we have more than 100 participants coming to the shiur. It’s probably one of the largest Daf Yomi shiurim in the country.

Rabbi Aryeh Lebowitz is the rav of Beis HaKnesses of North Woodmere in New York. Courtesy of Yeshiva University

Rabbi Aryeh Lebowitz: Fifteen years ago (two cycles ago), before the siyum, Rav Dovid Willig came over to me and Rabbi Shalom Rosner—we were learning together—and said, “You both have shuls; you really should be giving a Daf Yomi shiur.” We told him we didn’t think there was enough interest. “No one’s going to come,” we said. But he persisted. Eventually we both started giving Daf Yomi shiurim in our shuls and, baruch Hashem, it worked out very well for both of us.

Q: Does learning Daf Yomi change one’s appreciation of Gemara?
Rabbi Lebowitz: Doing the Daf gives one a better appreciation of the cadence and rhythm of the Gemara. Even if one doesn’t remember every Gemara he learns, he develops a sense of how the Gemara uses terminology and ideas and what types of questions the Gemara would ask. To really understand any [kind of] learning, one needs to get a broad picture of the language of that discipline.

Rabbi Elefant: Often when one learns Shas, the topics can be very esoteric, such as Kodshim, Zevachim, Menachos and Temurah.

When it comes to learning the Daf, it’s important to think of it as one daf at a time. You should not look at it as a masechta or a seder at a time or as learning all of Shas; thinking of it as one daf at a time makes it much more manageable. And then eventually it just starts piling on, and over time, you will complete a mesechta and then a seder, and eventually all of Shas.
— David Katz is an operations director for a multinational company and is in his third cycle teaching Daf Yomi at the Young Israel of Memphis in Memphis, Tennessee.
As told to Binyamin Ehrenkranz, a member of the Jewish Action Editorial Committee.

In Kerisos, which we are currently learning, there doesn’t seem to be any topic in the first five blatt [Yiddish for daf] that relates to everyday life. It’s usually at this point that Daf Yomi learners start to feel tired.

Even when the Gemara seems to be dense and enigmatic, I try to point out how it does, in fact, relate to our contemporary lives. For example, we recently came across a discussion in the Gemara that centers on how much of a korban needs to be consumed. I pointed out that this is the source for the halachic concept of kezayis (a Talmudic unit of volume). From this Gemara, we learn how much we need to eat in order bentch, et cetera. So I always try to incorporate halachos that apply to daily life.

However, one needs to recognize that even when a Gemara has little to do with one’s day-to-day life, learning Gemara over time gives one a certain way of thinking. After learning Gemara so many times, you start to think like the Gemara, which is tremendously valuable in and of itself.

Rabbi Edelman: What’s very geshmak [enjoyable] about learning Daf Yomi is that you get a feeling for the entire masechta. When one learns in yeshivah, he tends to be focused on the daf that he’s learning. But each masechta has its own complexion, its own flavor. When you learn the Daf, it’s true you may not remember the details, but you get the flow and the flavor of the masechta.

One of the participants of my shiur has been doing the Daf for over twenty years. He has probably been through Shas four times. And he can barely read Hebrew. But he shows up every single day and whatever he gets out of the shiur is a zechus for him. He is certainly an inspiration. —David Katz

Q: What advice would you give to someone who is starting to learn Daf Yomi? What can one do to get the most out of Daf Yomi? And, as a follow up, is the Daf for everyone?
Rabbi Lebowitz: Come up with a system of chazarah (review) and review the material properly. It’s probably the best thing you can do.

After each section, I take a bird’s-eye view. What did this section just say? And for each amud (one side of a page which is only half of the daily page), I write down three or four sentences that summarize that section. If you can’t summarize the idea in a sentence, you probably don’t have the clarity that you need.

Rabbi Elefant: Currently, you no longer need to be present at a physical Daf Yomi shiur. There are plenty of shiurim online, and so a Daf Yomi learner has no reason to fall behind. If you’re going on vacation, take your Gemara on the road with you and listen to a shiur.

People often say to me, “I learned this masechta and that masechta and I really don’t remember them. So maybe I should abandon the Daf? The question is, “So what are you going to do instead?” If you stop learning the Daf, will you take on a different shiur with the same kind of consistency and commitment?

Every Jew starting off in learning should know that he has tremendous potential. Over the years I have learned with individuals who knew just alef beis, and by the time we finished the cycle they had a very good working knowledge of many important topics in Shas. They might not have become experts in Shas, but they had acquired tremendous knowledge and gained a much better appreciation of Gemara. If a person would come to me and say: “This mountain is so tall, how will I ever be able to climb it?” I would tell him the following: “There have been a lot of climbers who have scaled this mountain successfully. And there’s no reason why you cannot do the same.”
Dovid Retter is a corporate trust attorney at an international law firm who has been delivering Daf Yomi shiurim for over forty years on the West Side of Manhattan and in Monsey and Monroe, New York. He has also delivered Daf shiurim to fellow travelers across the globe, including most recently, in South Korea and Japan.
As told to Binyamin Ehrenkranz

Regarding the fast pace of the Daf, I’m not convinced that the people who are learning at a slower pace are remembering more. So if they’re not remembering more, what have they accomplished? They have given up the consistency and commitment [of Daf Yomi], they have given up the opportunity to go through all of Shas, and what has been the payback for it?

Of course, the Daf isn’t for everybody. Certainly, if you are learning in yeshivah or kollel full time, you are not a Daf Yomi candidate. But for those of us who spend our days working, I can’t think of a better way to learn Torah consistently.

Rabbi Edelman: Learning the Daf can be frustrating for one who never learned the particular masechta before and is not willing to put in the time. In other words, assuming the Daf is focusing on aggadita (non-legal material such as parables or anecdotes), he will probably not find the material challenging even though he never learned it before. However, the majority of the dapim are not mostly aggadita, and in order to follow the Gemara’s arguments and reasoning, it’s best to review the Gemara before the shiur. You don’t need to devote a huge amount of time; but I would advise going through an ArtScroll first. Then hopefully, during the shiur, you’ll get what the Gemara is trying to say.

Is Daf Yomi for everybody? I believe that that Daf Yomi is for anyone who is willing to put in the time.

Another helpful tip: I try to write notes on the page of the Gemara. I find that writing notes in a notebook is problematic because you don’t always have the notebook with you. But if you write your notes in the Gemara, you can look at your notes and remember the main points of what you learned.

Q: What do you think about using the ArtScroll or Koren translations? Do you discourage the use of a translation?
Rabbi Lebowitz: Translations are very important. They should be used based on one’s level of learning and particular needs. They are also helpful when the Gemara mentions certain terms, such as particular types of vegetables, and you’re not sure what they are. On the most basic level, an ArtScroll or Koren can serve as a dictionary. The less-experienced learner may need it to help explain ideas and concepts.

A young man asked Rabbi Mordechai Willig if he should use a translation to learn Gemara. Rav Willig replied that he knew somebody who had gone through Shas four times with a translation. Four times! Are you going to argue with that?

It’s true you may not remember the details, but you get the flow and flavor of the masechta.

Q: Have you ever told anyone not to do Daf Yomi?

Rabbi Lebowitz: Daf Yomi is not the best kind of learning for everybody, but I never told anyone not to do it. There are those who criticize Daf Yomi and claim that learning at such a fast pace ensures that the material goes in one ear and out the other. My response to that is this: Show me something better [that these individuals] will do with that hour a day. More importantly, people who learn a daf every day start to define themselves as learners, and that new self-definition impacts how they spend their free time. A Daf Yomi learner is much more likely to pick up a sefer during down time in his day.

When I first started teaching the Daf, most of the participants were retirees. The youngest member of the shiur was probably in his forties or fifties. Today that same individual still attends the shiur and is actually the oldest member now. Most of the participants these days are young professionals with growing families.
After I had been giving the shiur for a full cycle, we held a siyum. Two friends of mine attended the siyum and decided to join the shiur afterward, even though it was in the middle of the cycle. When people see how much one can accomplish just by being consistent and learning a half hour or an hour a day, they want to be a part of it.
Yoel Goldberg is a healthcare executive who is in his second cycle teaching Daf Yomi at Congregation KINS of West Rogers Park in Chicago, Illinois.
As told to Binyamin Ehrenkranz

Q: How has Daf Yomi changed some of your family dynamics? You take a vacation for only four days, you come back and they’re not waiting for you to catch up. How do you integrate this kind of intense commitment into your family life?

Rabbi Elefant’s webcasts are available on the OU’s new All Daf app.

Rabbi Elefant: I regard the Daf as another child in my family. Just like I have to pay attention to every one of my children, I need to pay attention to the Daf. It’s a seven-days-a-week, 365-days-a-year serious commitment. When Rabbi Meir Shapiro founded the Daf Yomi program, people often joked that he was a tough boss who gave no vacations. It’s a tough job, but being a parent is also a tough job.

Rabbi Edelman: The commitment to study Daf Yomi is tremendous. For the maggidei shiur, there’s an even greater commitment. If you participate in the Daf, you come for that hour and listen. When you’re preparing the shiur, however, it can take hours and you have to find the time to do it. It usually takes me at least two hours to prepare.

Our shul is large, baruch Hashem. We are right next to Century Village a retirement community in Deerfield Beach, although many of our members are still working. The Daf gives me an opportunity to have serious daily interaction with the regular attendees.

We also have a very diverse crowd. We have beginners in Gemara as well as plenty of talmidei chachamim who have been maggidei shiur in their own communities. So when I prepare for the Daf, I’m very conscious of the fact that I need to give something to everybody. We get members from across the spectrum, Modern Orthodox to Satmar; our diversity is just beautiful. Where else can you find Modern Orthodox, Litvish, Sefardi, Chabad, Satmar, frum and not-yet-frum all on the same page? I always say that I think Rabbi Meir Shapiro would be very proud of our Daf Yomi in Florida because here you really see the achdus of Am Yisrael.

Q: Have you noticed any change in the attendees’ study habits and knowledge as digital tools have developed over the last cycle or two?
Rabbi Elefant: Years ago, the primary challenge facing those studying the Daf was keeping up with the rigorous schedule. What do you do when when you’re on vacation or when you have to travel for work? In years past, many people would start learning the Daf only to drop it after falling too far behind. Nowadays, because of the plethora of Daf Yomi resources online, if you fall off the wagon, it’s so much easier to get back on.

One of the members of our shiur, a Yeshiva University graduate who works in finance, started learning with us a couple cycles ago. After the end of his first cycle we honored him with reciting the “Hadran” (a short prayer recited upon completing a tractate of Talmud or seder of Mishnah) on the entire Shas at a community-wide siyum held by several Daf Yomi shiurim on the West Side. For the whole fifteen minutes while reciting the Hadran he was crying. He said, “In my life I never expected to finish Shas. This was a dream. What relationship did I have to Shas? But I was able to do it in seven and a half years. And I am the happiest person alive.” He was crying from joy. There wasn’t a dry eye in the audience. Even now when I remember it I become emotional.  —Dovid Retter

I recently attended a conference and a rabbi I never met before approached me. “I’m really angry at you,” he said. “Why?” I asked, confused. “Because I give a Daf Yomi shiur in my shul [in a large Jewish community in New York]. And often the members of my shiur listen to your Daf Yomi shiur online first. So if I don’t explain a concept the same way you did, or if I leave out a certain idea, I’m sure to hear about it!” he said, smiling. But in truth, digital tools not only help Daf Yomi learners stay on track, they help them remember the tremendous amount of material they are exposed to day after day. By reviewing the material—whether that means listening to a shiur while driving or even while eating lunch—the Daf Yomi learner is better poised to remember what he learned.

Q: Do you have any interesting stories about the Daf or your Daf Yomi shiurim?
Rabbi Edelman: I find that there’s a certain hashgachah pratis in the Daf. It happens quite regularly that the topic discussed in the Daf Yomi appears in newspapers on the same day; the Daf often reflects what’s going on in the world at large.

Sholom Licht is a freelance writer living in Queens, New York. He received his
BA from Bar-Ilan University and MA from the Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies. 

Rabbi Dovid Bashevkin is director of education for NCSY and a member of the Jewish Action Editorial Committee. His most recent book is Sin∙a∙gogue: Sin and Failure in Jewish Thought (Boston, 2019).





More in this Cover Story:

Up Close with Dr. Henry Abramson, interview by Sholom Licht

In Their Own Words—How Daf Yomi has Changed Lives

Tweeting the Talmud by Binyamin Ehrenkranz

Printing the Shas: Commemorating the 500th Anniversary of the Printing of the Bomberg Talmud by Michelle Chesner

This article was featured in the Winter 2019 issue of Jewish Action.
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