On April 19, just before the start of Passover, a group of 11 gathered at Temple Ner Tamid for a siyum, marking their completion of a tractate of Talmud.
“The celebration at the end was such a wonderful way to meet with everyone and acknowledge our small step,” said Diane Lavenda, 65, of Montclair, a member of the Reform congregation in Bloomfield and retired lawyer who participated in the study of Horayot, one of the shortest tractates of the Talmud. The section concerns mistakes made by Jewish courts and leaders, and the respective sacrifices required to atone for their errors.
“I have never studied Talmud before so this was quite a challenging experience,” she said.
The group did not study together in a classroom on a daily or weekly basis. Instead, they learned on their own, virtually, assisted by YouTube videos posted several times each week by Ner Tamid’s Rabbi Marc Katz, who led the study. He offered roughly one video for each half page of Talmud. At least two participants paired up for weekly face-to-face chavruta study.
Thirty to 40 congregants signed up for the Talmud class when Katz announced it in the fall. The numbers dwindled as the class progressed, and about half the group made it to the end. (Not all were able to attend the April siyum, a celebration of completion of Jewish text study.)
“The study required a much slower and careful reading than I anticipated,” said Lavenda, one of those who stuck it out — and was glad she did.
“The experience was actually more meaningful than I expected it to be,” she said. “I felt a sense of pride in being able to complete this limited portion, although I know my understanding was also pretty
The class launched Herb Perten, 66, on an educational journey. He spent half an hour every morning studying Talmud, taking careful notes, and meeting with his chavruta partner, also from Ner Tamid, once a week. “It put me in a different frame of mind for the day, sort of like going to morning minyan.” The chavruta aspect “really enhanced both our understandings,” he said, so much so that he wished they could have met more often. Like Lavenda, he felt challenged. “If I fell behind, it was a scramble to keep up.”
Katz said he was surprised to find contemporary relevance in a tractate about sacrifices. In it there’s one passage that considers whether a king can be indicted. “That was amazing,” he said. “And it was during the time the media was talking about the same question” regarding a sitting president.
Perten, for his part, said he didn’t generally see modern parallels in the text. “I think the rabbis had a lot of time on their hands,” he said, though he acknowledged, “It was interesting to see their mental gymnastics.” And he added that he appreciated “the seriousness with which the rabbis took it.”
Instead, Perten said, he found the Talmudic teachings “profound” in a broad sense.
“Whatever you do is of concern religiously, from the respect you show a teacher to how you treat a slave or a convert,” he said. And like Katz, he did find one section with parallels to contemporary society that he said were hard to miss. In his case, it was an implicit putdown of the Sadducees (who don’t observe the oral law tradition) by the Pharisees. That, he said, “was as ugly to read about as it is to watch it today between liberal and Orthodox Jews.”
Both Lavenda and Perten said they would continue in December, when Katz plans to pick up the class with another tractate, though he might add some in-person meetings. And in the meantime, Perten and his chavruta, Larry Westreich, plan to keep learning together. To give themselves some background, they are reading “The Talmud: A Biography” (Princeton University Press, 2018) by Barry Scott Wimpfheimer, and then they will attempt Tractate Berachot on their own. And of course, they’ll take a break to resume studying with Katz.
Perten considered participating in a Daf Yomi program, in which students learn a page of Talmud daily, but ultimately decided it would be too intense. Still, he hopes to make his way through more of the Talmud.
“At this pace, I’ll be 120 when I finish!”