Back to basics

There is a famous Jewish saying which claims that each verse of the Torah has 70 interpretations . This is not a literal 70, but rather conveys that when people study Torah, they bring their observations born out of their own perspective and life experience which will be different from that of their neighbours. 

In 1923 Polish rabbi Yehudah Meir Shapiro had an idea which he believed would revolutionise Judaism by allowing these “70” interpretations to flourish. Rabbi Shapiro advocated that Jews all over the world should study the same page of the Talmud (Daf Yomi), for each day of the year, with the goal of completing the 2,711-page Jewish legal code within 7 and a half years. 

Many in the ultra-Orthodox community heartily took up the challenge, and decades later, 3,000 people lined up to enter the Jerusalem Convention Center to be joined  by a global audience of 15,000. It was an event with a difference because it was billed as the first ever global women’s completion of studying the entire Talmud. The brainwave was that of American-Israeli Rabbanit Michelle Cohen Farber, the co-founder of “Hadran,” an organisation which describes itself as “the only organisation dedicated exclusively to inspiring and enabling Jewish women across the world to learn Talmud.”

Orthodox Judaism is sometimes in a struggle with the State of Israel. Traditional, patriarchal and conservative, Orthodox observant Judaism exempts women from the full obligations of prayer and study in order to ‘fulfil their obligations at home.” In the 21st century, this is a hard act to sell to the growing number of independent women, conservative, modern-orthodox and reformers, not to mention the fiercely independent singles and divorcees, most of whom are involved in every fibre of Israeli society from education to military dare.

It is well known that the debates and discussions in the Talmud is what gives Jewish life “pilpul”  – literally “pepper” loosely translated as a sharp mindedness which leads to Jewish refusal to believe what we are told and opt to think out of the box.  

Rabbanit Farber has studied Talmud for years, but recently became aware that there were no lessons in Daf Yomi geared for women. It was as if women did not exist, so she decided to create her own study groups. The number of participants increased from week to week. As the movement grew, other women opened up their own groups. Today, online, some Facebook groups for women learning Daf Yomi, have thousands of members. 

Farber believes that with the new registering female students, there is also growing sense that the texts of Jewish tradition do not belong exclusively to any one sector of the population. For her it is an exciting journey. Thanks to the increased availability of translations and study aids, she sees the developments as a democratisation of Jewish learning.  According to the Rabbanit from New York and also according to the ancient sages of Jewish tradition, the more people who study the texts of Jewish tradition, the more faces of Torah will be revealed.