Sunday, March 06, 2005

Origin of Daf Yomi

The daf yomi was begun by Rabbi Meir Shapiro in 1923 (Rosh Hashana 5684). The cycle that began this week is the twelfth daf yomi cycle of daily study of one folio of the Babylonian Talmud.

I learned the abovementioned facts from a monthly newsletter called The Wein Press, published by Rabbi Berel Wein, which was passed on to me by Ron Schnur. Rabbi Wein's tribute to Rabbi Shapiro is notable for its narrative effects. This modern secular reader finds similarities in Rabbi Wein's prose to the ancient text we are studying: a propensity to drive home points by pronounced idealization:

Because of his unusual gifts of memory and understanding, the child Meir was already known for his genius. He was also a student of tremendous diligence. He had great intellectual curiosity, teaching himself astronomy and mathematics and soon developed into a great Torah scholar of note at a very young age.

This passage takes me back to my childhood, when all the parents that surrounded me praised the scholarship and career prospects of the little lumps of clay they were raising. We, however, continue to aspire, while Rabbi Shapiro went on to achieve:

In Tarnopol, Rabbi Meir wrote a Torah commentary in a pilpulistic style, called Imrei Daas. Even though the book was a work of innovation and genius, it never gained distribution due to the fact that almost all of the printed copies, together with Rabbi Meir's great private library, were destroyed in the First World War by Russian shellfire. The only remaining two copies were buried with Rabbi Meir Shapiro in his grave.

I asked Rabbi David Silverman what could possibly have led to the burial of the only copies of such a legendary work of genius and he replied that it was not unusual for rabbinic scholars to insert provisions in their wills to dispose of their papers. It was traditionally viewed as a profound act of humility, but it strikes me more as riven with shame and self-doubt. Of course, we will never know the motives that apply in any one case. But doesn't it bring to mind the situation of Kafka, who also ordered his works to be burned? What if Rabbi Shapiro had had a friend like Kafka's Max Brod!

Rabbi Wein wrote that

It is no exaggeration to say that . . . the daf hayomi is [Rabbi Shapiro's] lasting legacy to the Jewish people.
But it is also no exaggeration that writers who employ Rabbi Wein's mode of hagiography must be taken with a grain of salt. And his effusive praise of Rabbi Shapiro's accomplishments goes unintentionally over the top when he describes the Yeshiva that Rabbi Shapiro built in Lublin:

He called his yeshiva "Yeshivat Chachmei Lublin" and after protracted delays and financial difficulties, the great and imposing building, containing among other treaures a full-scale model of the Second Temple . . .
Size does matter, and a full-scale model would be difficult to install in any building!

Also, it is a remarkably tidy life:
. . . in September 1933 he had a premonition of impending sickness and arranged for a life insurance policy on himself for $30,000 with the yeshiva as its beneficiary. In October 1933 he fell ill with a viral type of pneumonia and on 7 Cheshvan, 5694 he died at the age of only forty-six. *
Thus, even in death, he provided for his community. The details are both concrete and incredible, as is so much in the text that this blog will be describing. We are and have apparently always been a people who can conjure up vivid examples to support our hopes and idealizations. May we remain so for many more thousands of years!

*Rabbi Wein's account is perhaps contradicted by Carolyn Slutsky in the Jewish Exponent (March 10, 2005), where 'Shapiro' is 'Shapira' and there is no mention of an insurance policy, but there is mention of financial challenges:

Shapira died in 1933. His death led to financial problems and infighting at the yeshiva. As World War II started in 1939, the yeshiva closed. Many of the students and teachers were killed by the Nazis, and much of the library went up in flames.

FN ADDED 3/14/05.


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