A page from the Vilna Talmud

The opening page of the Vilna edition of the Talmud (Berakhot 2a)

One of the things that gave us the idea to try to organize this reading group was learning about daf yomi, a plan for studying the Talmud. My knowledge of Talmud is scanty: I’ve read the Penguin edition for an overview, and I’ve read tractate Berakhot in the Steinsaltz edition, along with some introductory works. I also owe a debt to a friend who took some time to explain a page of Talmud to me, and thus the basics of Talmud study. (Before I read some of the Talmud, I never understood what the Psalmist’s phrase, “Oh, how I love thy law!” really looked like.) In my brief excursion, though, I learned that one way many Jews study Talmud is through daf yomi.

In the daf yomi reading plan, the student studies one folio page front and back (daf) per day (yomi) of the Babylonian Talmud. Since the Talmud has 2,711 folios, the student can read the entire Babylonian Talmud in seven and a half years. If you read the Talmud in the Steinsaltz or Schottstein editions, which are translated into English with commentaries that explain the brief statements of Mishna and Gemara, you’ll read about seven or eight large pages per day. The idea for daf yomi came from the Polish rabbi Meir Shapiro in 1923. Since then, daf yomi has gone through almost twelve cycles.

Borrowing the idea of daf yomi, we wanted to come up with a comparable reading plan for Christians. The nearest thing to the Talmud for Christians is the writings of the church fathers. Seven pages per day in the Ante-Nicene Fathers and Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers leads to a seven-year cycle for reading a very large selection of the Christian fathers.

It’s not just the technique, but the idea of education behind daf yomi that we want to borrow, because daf yomi is a brilliant idea for educating a large number of people in a tradition. As I see it, these are the educational principles that are attractive:

  1. Learning comes from reading a foundational body of texts. You could learn from reading modern books, but there is a better way. The foundational texts are perpetually fresh, and those primary sources can be as foundational for your faith as they were for the tradition. Though the foundational texts are ancient, they are likely more accessible than modern works.
  2. Learning is therefore broad and varied. Both Talmud and the works of the church fathers are broad works encompassing a tremendous variety. They cover every topic relevant to the practice of your religion: theology, history, liturgy, apologetics, biblical commentary, and devotion, to name a few. While you could and perhaps should become an expert in some narrowly defined aspect of the tradition, it is of first importance that you become broadly educated in your whole tradition, just as life is lived as a whole and not as parts.
  3. Learning is a conversation. The first thing a beginner in Talmud (like me) notices is that the work is a conversation taking place across centuries; you can even see it in the design of the Talmud page. In Mishna, rabbis discuss the Oral Torah; in Gemara, rabbis discuss the debates in Mishna; Rashi comments on Mishna and Gemara; the Tosafists debate with Rashi; the student discusses it all with the teacher. The works of the church fathers are a conversation too: Jerome and Augustine send some heated letters back and forth; the tracts and polemics of the fathers are addressed to one another as well as to non-Christians. This conversation continues even to the present, and by studying these foundational texts, you are invited to participate (see #7).
  4. Learning is manageable. Most people are not students or scholars, and therefore do not have the opportunity of devoting their entire day to study; even fewer of us are scholars of patristics. Ideally, everyone would have the privilege of an in-depth, sustained, formative period of study at some point in their life, as the fathers demanded of their catechumens. But what we all need is a way to continue our study in a way that can fit into the rest of our lives. That’s why we’ve settled on seven pages per day (which will likely not feel manageable at first, but will become so).
  5. Learning is routine, habitual, disciplined. Discipline is the only way to learn anything, and discipline usually means routine and habit. That is why the reading is daily, and why we’ve recommended that you attach the habit of reading the fathers to some other habit, like daily prayer. Christianity is by its nature a discipline. Learning by routine and habit is thus a way of learning not just about Christianity, but of practicing it.
  6. Learning is accretive. A manageable daily portion multiplied by many days leads to a great accumulation. Slow, gradual accretion is the way of wisdom.
  7. Learning is communal. You will learn more and be more likely to succeed in being disciplined if you learn in a community. We’ve set reading the fathers to a calendar so that anyone, anywhere can be reading the same texts at the same time. That’s also why we’ve recommended that you find a study partner—a spouse, a friend, a pastor, a fellow churchgoer—with whom you can study and discuss.

Will you join us? Here is how to start reading.