Maimonides vs. Daf Yomi


There is a problem with those who study the Talmud (known colloquially as “learning the Talmud”). Most of these people do not really understand what is being read, why the Talmud states what it states, what are the different versions in other parts of the Talmud, in the Mishna, in Midrashim, what is the relevance of what is being said in the Babylonian Talmud and in the other sources, how does it differ with the literal reading of the Torah, and what is the final rule – in short, they do not advance intellectually by the study. Most “learning of the Talmud” is done as the person reads prayers, as a pious act, what we could call “davening the Talmud.”[1]

Why study the Talmud?

Since the period of the Gaonim, probably sometime between 600 and 900 CE, after the Babylonian Talmud was finally edited, an idea arose that it is meritorious to study the Babylonian Talmud, and many people began to do so frequently, some even spent time reading it every day. The Talmud is comprised of various opinions about a particular subject and generally does not disclose the reasons for the different opinions, the final ruling, or why the ruling is made. They read the Talmud as they read their daily prayers, by rote, without understanding, sometimes shaking back and forth as they do when they pray, with the feeling that this is what God wants them to do.

Maimonides who stressed the importance of knowledge – that the Torah has three purposes, to give some truths, help a person improve, and improve society[2] – disliked this process because while it was certainly a pious act, it accomplished little. He wrote his Mishneh Torah, his Code of Jewish Law, where he listed the laws without repeating the various opinions on the subject that were in the Talmud, and he explained the laws. He wrote in his Introduction: “When a person reads the Written Torah first and afterwards reads this [book, that person] will know from it the entire Oral Law, and will not have to read any other book [composed] between them.”[3] Maimonides is saying that there is no need to read the Talmud.

He made his view crystal clear in in Guide of the Perplexed 3:51 where he compared different people who try to come close to God in what we might call his “Parable of the Palace.”

A king is living in a palace. He has seven kinds of citizens. (1) Some live outside his country. (2) Many in the country turn their backs on the palace. (3) Others want to go see the palace but have not yet seen the palace or even its outside walls. (4) A few reach the palace and go round and round it looking for an entrance, which they cannot find. (5) Others entered the gate and walk around the ante-chamber. (6) A smaller number have entered the inner part of the palace and are in the same room as the king, but do not see him. (7) A still smaller group has made the effort that “is required before they can stand before the king – at a distance or close by – hear his words, or speak to him.”

Maimonides explains his simile. The first class is composed of those who have no religion. The second is made up of:

“Those who are in the [king’s] country, but have their backs turned towards the king’s palace, are those who possess religion, belief, and thought, but happen to hold false doctrines, which they either adopted in consequence of great mistakes made in their own speculations, or received from others who misled them. Because of these doctrines they recede more and more from the royal palace the more they seem to proceed. These are worse than the first class, and under certain circumstances it may become necessary to slay them, and to extirpate their doctrines, in order that others should not be misled. (3) Those who desire to arrive at the palace, and to enter it, but have never yet seen it, are the mass of religious people: the multitude that observes the divine commandments, but is ignorant. (4) Those who arrive at the palace, but go round about it, are those who devote themselves exclusively to the study of the practical law: they believe traditionally in true principles of faith, and learn the practical worship of God, but are not trained in philosophical treatment of the principles of the Law, and do not endeavor to establish the truth of their faith by proof. (5 and 6) Those who undertake to investigate the principles of religion have come into the ante-chamber: and there is no doubt that these can also be divided into different grades. (7) But those who have succeeded in finding a proof for everything that can be proved, who have a true knowledge of God, so far as a true knowledge can be attained, and are near the truth, wherever an approach to the truth is possible, they have reached the goal, and are in the palace in which the king lives.”[4]

We see that Maimonides placed those who study Torah and Talmud without understanding it because they did not study philosophy in the fourth lower class. What does he mean by philosophy? He means the sciences, a person who has studied the laws of nature, an individual who knows that the study of Torah, praying, and the performance of the divine commands are “means” to an end, and the end is self-improvement and the improvement of society. It is not meditation on the disputes of Talmudic rabbis.

In the twelfth century, Maimonides included among the subjects that should be studied to understand the universe: mathematics, logic, physics, and metaphysics. There is no doubt that had he lived in the twenty-first century, he would have included many more scientific studies that a person should learn.


Daf Yomi

In contrast to the Maimonidean approach, his belief that Jews should study the Torah and its interpretations (Oral Law), but then turn to secular studies to improve one’s self and help improve society, there is the comparatively recent idea of daf yomi.

Daf yomi, “page of the day,” is a regimen to read a two-sided page (called a daf) of the Babylonian Talmud daily (in Hebrew yomi). Since the Babylonian Talmud is made up of 2,711 two-sided pages, it takes seven and a half years to complete the reading of the entire Talmud.

The idea for all Jews throughout the world studying the same daf each day and completing the cycle on the same day was put forth at the First World Congress of Agudat Yisrael (which was founded in 1912) in Vienna on August 19 or 21, 1923 by the Polish Hasidic Rabbi Meir Shapiro (1887-1933, he died at age 46). Rabbi Shapiro was the rabbi of Sanok, Poland, and later dean of Yeshivat Chachmei Lublin, which he founded in 1930. He was the first Orthodox Jew to become a member of the Parliament of the Polish Republic. In those years as well as today, Yeshivot (rabbinical schools) only studied the tractates of the Talmud that have some practical laws that are relevant today and not all of the 63 tractates of the Talmud. Rabbi Shapiro argued that his idea of a daf yomi caused participants to become familiar with all 63 tractates and also helped to unify the Jewish people. Rabbi Shapiro published a calendar for the entire cycle of daf yomi study so that all participants would know what daf to study on each day.

The first cycle of daf yomi began on Rosh Hashanah, September 11, 1923. It is estimated that some tens of thousands of Jews in Europe, America and Israel accepted the novel idea and began the study of the first daf of the first tractate of the Talmud, Berachot, on that day. The twelfth siyum hashas (celebration for completing the Talmud study cycle) was celebrated in America on August 1, 2012 at the Met Life Stadium in New Jersey with an estimation of over 90,000 attendees, with all seats being sold out. Satellite broadcasts were piped to many other locations, including Yeshivat Chachmei Lublin in Poland, where Rabbi Shapiro had served as Rosh HaYeshiva, the dean of the Yeshiva.

Jews study the daf yomi by themselves, but most do so in small synagogue groups with a leader, usually the rabbi, reading, translating, and explaining the daf. In virtually all cases this is done in an hour, in insufficient time for the rabbi to give a full explanation of what is read.



There is a relatively new series of books on the Talmud in Hebrew by Talmud Ha-Igud (The Society for the Interpretation of the Talmud) “in which scholars immerse themselves in the ambitious project to apply the disciplines of academic scholarship to the Talmud Bavli, extend and perhaps deepen Talmudic inquiry begun 1,000 years ago.”[5]

Rather than a superficial reading of a Talmud daf, the authors of each volume explore the meaning of what is said in the Talmud by, among much else, comparing what is said to other ancient sources addressing the same subject. “The Society’s unique format includes separating the chapter into discreet sugyot[6] which are numbered and named, and assigning distinguishable type-faces to each of the major formal building blocks of the sugya: dicta of Tannaim, Amoraim, and the anonymous editorial voice [of the Talmud].” The Society’s website is The editor of the series is the highly respected scholar, the winner of the Israel Prize, Rabbi Dr. Shamma Friedman.

For example, volume four of the series on the tenth chapter of Eruvin by Aviad A. Stolman addresses eleven dafs, 95-105, and identifies forty sugyot. Where the Talmud has only eleven pages, volume four has 459 with an additional thirty pages in English where the author explains each of the forty sugyot.


[1] See the final section of this essay where I tell about a new endeavor that successfully answers these problems.

[2] Guide of the Perplexed 1:1, 3:27, and many other places.

[3] This is my translation. Raavad in his usual ad hominem manner belittled Maimonides’ intelligence and berated him for telling people that they do not have to study the Talmud. Raavad was a mystic and a confirmed anti-rationalist.

[4] Translation by M. Friedlander with a few very minor grammatical changes by me.

[5] The quotes are from Rabbi Dr. Shamma Friedman’s preface to BT Eruvin Chapter X.

[6] Sugyot is the Hebrew plural of sugyas. A sugya is a unit of discussion.