First Ever All-Female Siyum HaShas To Take Place On January 5

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Michelle Farber, who has spent her career studying and teaching Jewish texts, is organizing the first large-scale ceremony to celebrate women completing of Daf Yomi, a program where students learn a page of Talmud daily for 7 1/2 years. (Ben Sales)

JERUSALEM (JTA) — Michelle Farber has spent decades teaching Talmud to Jewish women. But when her first child was born, she was relieved it was a boy.

“When my son was born, I said, ‘Good, we had a boy first, it’ll give the world a little time to catch up for women,’” Farber said. “Well, my daughter was born a year and a half later. I really thought that by the time my kids got to my age things would be totally different, and I feel like there’s still not a large number of women who dedicate time to study Talmud.”

Farber, 47, is one of the people trying to change that.

For the past 7 1/2 years, she has taught a page of Talmud a day to a small group of women at her home in the Tel Aviv suburb of Raanana. Some 250 more listen to the class online.

The classes are part of a worldwide program called Daf Yomi in which countless numbers of Jews around the world — nearly all of them men — study one of the 2,711 pages of the millennia-old Jewish legal code known as the Talmud each day. On Jan. 4, the 7 1/2-year Daf Yomi cycle is set to finish, an occasion that will be marked by massive celebrations. In 2012, a crowd of 90,000, mostly males, filled MetLife Stadium in New Jersey to celebrate the end of the last cycle.

On Jan. 5, Farber is holding the first large-scale Daf Yomi ceremony for women at the Binyanei Ha’Uma convention center in Jerusalem. Thousands are expected to attend, and the event will be livestreamed around the world. The ceremony is a project of Hadran, an organization founded by Farber to encourage women’s Talmud study.

The event will celebrate a years-long accomplishment, but Farber also hopes it will encourage more women to engage in intensive Jewish text study — a field that has been dominated by men for centuries.

“This is a real opportunity to make a change and get to all the women who are out there who aren’t necessarily studying now and could be,” she said. “It’s a very good thing to do at a stage of life where you’re busy with a million things and want to set aside some time for learning and feel like you’re getting somewhere.”

Farber’s life is a case study in the obstacles that Orthodox women have faced in trying to study Talmud at the highest levels. The Long Island, New York, native left Barnard College in the middle of her studies to study Torah in Israel, eventually getting her bachelor’s degree in Talmud and Bible from Bar-Ilan University near Tel Aviv. She also graduated from the scholars’ program at Midreshet Lindenbaum, a women’s seminary in Jerusalem.

At that stage, a man with Farber’s knowledge could have pursued rabbinical studies. But at the time, that option was all but closed to Orthodox women.

So Farber studied independently. She joined a coed Talmud class with a distinguished Orthodox rabbi, but had to leave after it shut its doors to women. Ultimately she embarked on a career teaching Jewish studies to women in Jerusalem before moving to the Tel Aviv area, where she taught a weekly Talmud class to women.

“The opportunities for me were really lacking,” said Farber, who uses the title rabbanit. “You can’t imagine what it’s like. A guy has no understanding of what it’s like to be a woman and where the women are coming from and the lack that they have.”

Rabbinic ordination has been open to non-Orthodox women for decades. Opportunities have expanded recently for Orthodox women as well. Yeshivat Maharat in New York City has been training Orthodox women clergy for a decade, though it does not confer the title rabbi on its graduates. In Israel, some women have received Orthodox rabbinical ordination.

Other programs offer women advanced degrees in Jewish law. And American high school graduates can choose from nearly two dozen women’s seminaries in Israel. Farber’s daughter studied at Migdal Oz, the sister school of Yeshivat Har Etzion, a highly regarded men’s Orthodox academy in the West Bank settlement of Efrat.

But Farber notes that there is still a significant gender gap when it comes to advanced Jewish study. An Israeli survey from 2016 showed that 41 percent of religious Zionist women in Israel do not study Torah regularly, as opposed to just 14 percent of men. Part of the reason why Farber’s class is limited to women is so women have a safe space to start encountering texts.

“I knew that women may be intimidated to come if there were men in the room,” Farber said. “It was a way to attract beginners who had less background. If you put them in a class with men, they’re going to be more hesitant to open their mouths, to feel comfortable, and I wanted a warm, safe environment for women.”

Farber’s teaching style emphasizes giving students a clear explanation of the Talmud’s esoteric and tortuous legal debates. But she also aims to show how the Talmud confronts questions of human nature — something she has found her female students approach with particular insight.

She recalled one Talmud scenario in which a woman receives a date rather than a ring to signify marriage — and then eats the fruit. Is the marriage still valid? It sounds like a bizarre case, but one of her students suggested that the bride might just be poor and hungry.

One of Farber’s regular students via podcast, Ilana Kurshan, said she appreciates that Farber uses women’s names when discussing hypothetical legal cases. Kurshan has completed Daf Yomi and wrote an award-winning memoir on the experience called “If All the Seas Were Ink.”

“You imagine in your head that the women are the actors in the drama,” Kurshan said. “There are many aspects both of the text itself and the human encounter with the text that we have not historically had access to because only half the population has been studying the texts.”

In advance of the completion ceremony, Farber has begun a campaign to have women “adopt” one page of Talmud and then study it before the event. She also wants to help train more women to teach Talmud.

“It’s not just that women should study Talmud but that we create more women scholars,” she said. “Having a woman teacher provides a role model. It just sends a message that you can get somewhere in this field.”

Want to study Daf Yomi? Click here to sign up for My Jewish Learning’s free email series exploring insights from each page of the Talmud. Emails begin Jan. 5, 2020.

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59 COMMENTS

  1. “One of Farber’s regular students via podcast, Ilana Kurshan, said she appreciates that Farber uses women’s names when discussing hypothetical legal cases” how does that work ?

  2. The JTA fails, of course, to distinguish between Orthodox (on the Torah’s side of this and other issues) vs. “Modern-Orthodox” and “Religious Zionist” (on the anti-Torah side of this and other issues).

    But I wouldn’t be so quick to label them; since they attended “Modern-Orthodox” and “Religious Zionist” institutions, that means they were never taught what Hashem really wants from His children, both men and women. Somewhat ironic is that they are disregarding various gemaras as they learn them, like nashim biMai zachyan, etc.

    • “what hashem really wants from His children, both men and women.”
      What’s that? For the men to learn in kolel and women to work and take care of the kids?
      Somewhat ironic is that men in kolel are disregarding various gemaras as they learn them, like Yafeh Torah Im Derech Eretz, etc.

      We all cherry pick and reinterpret the parts of gemara we see as not applying anymore today. Yeshivish world is no less guilty of this than the Modern Orthodox or Religious Zionist world.

      • Shvache learning skills.
        If she’s getting nispael from the “maybe she was poor and hungry” chidush.
        Not relevant to the sugya at all, and kind of obvious.
        Seriously weak.

  3. Wonder what they do when they get to this daf……

    ר’ אליעזר אומר כל המלמד את בתו תורה מלמדה תיפלות תיפלות ס”ד אלא אימא כאילו למדה תיפלות
    Rabbi Eliezer says: Anyone who teaches his daughter Torah is teaching her promiscuity. The Gemara asks: Could it enter your mind to say that teaching one’s daughter Torah is actually teaching her promiscuity? Rather, say: It is considered as if he taught her promiscuity.
    א”ר אבהו מ”ט דר”א דכתיב (משלי ח, יב) אני חכמה שכנתי ערמה כיון שנכנסה חכמה באדם נכנסה עמו ערמומית
    Rabbi Abbahu says: What is the reason for Rabbi Eliezer’s statement? It is as it is written: “I, wisdom, dwell with cunning” (Proverbs 8:12), which indicates that once wisdom enters into a person, cunning enters with it. Rabbi Eliezer fears that the woman will use the cunning she achieves by learning the wisdom of the Torah to engage in promiscuous behavior.

    • There’s another gemara that says:
      רבי יהודה אומר כל שאינו מלמד את בנו אומנות מלמדו ליסטות
      How many yeshivos are following that?
      In the yeshivos I went to they had no problem saying that gemara, among other gemaras saying men need to work, doesn’t apply today. Why is it any different to say that the gemara in sotah that says women shouldn’t learn torah doesn’t either apply today?

    • The Mishna clearly states that one should not take money for learning Torah, which is how the Rambam paskens. The Gemorah Brochos also says one can not charge for teaching Torah – which is how the Shulchan Orach paskens. We obviously dont go like those; Shivim panim L’Torah.

      Then there is a very clear requirement of a husband to support his wife, Not that the wife should work to support her husband.

      Many people are afraid of letting people have too much knowledge, but the truth is, if more women learn Torah, and learn, teach and practice the mitzvos, how can that be a bad thing. Especially mitzvos that specifically apply to them.

  4. If women want they may learn too, nothing wrong with that but it cracks me up the way she calls it a gender gap. Jewish men are required to learn- for them it’s a mitzva whereas for us woman it’s just for pleasure. or to make us also feel *powerful*.
    I find this whole thing quite humorous. Such progression

  5. I’ve said this before, and I will say it again, and again, and again. There are a number of commentators on this site, not just the ones which appear regarding this article, but others, who unfortunately (please forgive my language), have their heads in their collective tuchas’. According to their warped philosophy, women are not to have even segregated learning sessions, and should not engage in professions “which are only for men”. For example, there is a Chassidic woman (the Mother of seven children), who now serves as a Judge on the bench of the Kings County (Brooklyn) Criminal Court. She won her election, with a large majority of the Chassidic vote. Yet, there are still those on this site and elsewhere, who are not happy with a Chassidic woman in that position. According to their antiquated philosophy, which is on a par with the Taliban, and the religious police in Saudi Arabia, they belong in the kitchen, and should be subservient to men.

  6. It is heartening to know that those who are defending our Torah society against the infiltration of such kefirah as this, have all completed Shas themselves.

    • What’s your cluy that she doesn’t dress k-halachah? The exposed elbows? The only partly covered hair? Sit down and learn the real hilchot tzniyut. There are opinions that support both those decisions on what must be covered and what need not be. My father a’h received his smichah from R. Shimon Shkop and my mother a’h never wore a wig or even a tichel in her life.

      • By the fact that you used the Zionist words/spelling for “hilchos” and “tznius”, you are probably referring to Zionist or “Modern Orthodox” “opinions” which are, therefore, not relevant to Torah-observant Jews.

        Your L”H about your mother is also irrelevant for at least that reason but also because everyone knows that, in the not-too-distant past, there was an unfortunate laxity in observing this halacha of women covering their hair.

  7. I don’t quite understand those who object to women learning Torah when the Rav and the Rebbe were both in favor. The Rav even had co-ed classes in Brookline MA for learning gemara.

    • The flaw in that question is the assumption that because “the Rav” did it, that it’s therefore okay to do.
      First of all, no gadol ever approved of his overturning the mesorah and halacha in this way.
      But even *if* “the Rav” was correct in overturning the mesorah and halacha to do so in his particular time and place(s), that doesn’t mean it should still be continued in other times and in other places.

  8. What’s this “trying to study Talmud at the highest levels.” ? I know that’s the line they use at YU all the time. I assure you they are not learning at the highest levels. Probably a very basic level. It’s not a put down but a call to just be honest.

  9. SBK, why do you think the fact that your father learned by R’ Shimon Shkup has any bearing on whether your mother’s not covering her hair was ok or not? The Rav’s wife didn’t cover her hair, and he admitted a number of times to close older talmidim that it was not ok, but the poskim hold that he doesn’t have to divorce her because of it (I was told this by one of those talmidim).
    The halachos of tznius are very dependent on the stringency of the general behavior of the Torah-dig population, which nowadays is very careful about covering elbows and hair, etc., but certainly not on what a guy who learned by R’ Shimon Shkup’s wife did.

  10. I SAY BRAVO. While the husbands are away shteiging or smoking in kollel, who is there to go over the blatt or sugya with the children at home, while she slaves with one or two jobs and cooking and doing laundry.
    It is nothing more than a control issue, with today’s eh hem men, looking for an easy way out.

  11. Thank you, Vos iz Neias, for donating valuable advertising to such un-Torah-dik organization.
    Most of us would not of known about this OTD group if not for your “NEWS WORTHY” article.
    Now, that the “freebie” can not be retracted – damage done – the place will fill with our frum women just out of curiosity. And when a few of those FRUM women will start to do the Daf you will have no one to blame except yourself.
    On second thought, when ‘inzeh’reh’ women will start doing the daf that will be more news and free advertising
    for you to donate.

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