Thursday, October 17, 2013

Reclaiming Israeli history, this Sunday

Every 7.5 years, this one-word question arises in Jewish communities all over the world: "Yerushalmi?!"

The worldwide Daf Yomi program studies a single page of the Babylonian Talmud each day - but after studying approximately 450 pages, the program veers into Talmud Yerushalmi, the Jerusalem Talmud, for a single volume: Masechet Shekalim. Students ask themselves: Why are we studying a volume from the Jerusalem Talmud?

The question is sharpened when students open the first page and realize they are not in Pumbeditha anymore. Basic vocabulary, sentence structure, even the format and flow of discussion change when you open the Jerusalem Talmud. We don't even have a commentary by Rashi to make everything clear! So why are we putting ourselves through this? Wasn't the Babylonian version hard enough?

Further: Mainstream Jewish practice follows the rulings of the Babylonian Talmud; only when the Babylonian Talmud is silent do we adopt the view of the Jerusalem Talmud. (Kesef Mishneh, Hilchot Terumot 8:15) So why are we learning the Jerusalem Talmud?

There is a technical reason for learning Yerushalmi Shekalim: Adding this volume of the Jerusalem Talmud completes the seder [order] of Moed. However, another possible benefit of studying the Jerusalem Talmud is that we reclaim a key piece of Israeli history.

The Jerusalem Talmud was written and canonized by Jews who lived under late Roman rule in the land of Israel, in the first centuries of the common era. Despite terrible persecution and the threat of painful execution for the crime of studying Torah, they maintained a powerful commitment to Torah and kept Jewish life in our land alive. Rabbi Yochanan. Rabbi Ami. Rabbi Zeira. And so on.

Their language, challenging as it is, is our language. Their voice is our voice. Their Torah is our Torah. These are heroes of Jewish history, and they are our ancestors, and in studying their words we connect to them.

This Sunday, the Daf Yomi program will begin its study of the Jerusalem Talmud, with the volume of Shekalim. Consider joining a Daf Yomi shiur, or pick it up yourself - you can find audio shiurim on-line at and on other sites. Alternatively, study another work from an Israeli sage - Rabbi Yosef Karo's Shulchan Aruch, the Alshich's biblical commentary, or the writings of Rav Kook, perhaps. Together, we, as a nation, can reclaim Israeli history.

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