This Friday, September 15, marks Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. This year, however, Rosh Hashanah also marks the 100th anniversary of the Daf Yomi, a program for daily Talmud study that has become a staple throughout the Jewish world and brought some measure of unity to an increasingly fragmented people.
Daf Yomi was founded by Rabbi Mayer Shapiro, a learned scholar who was also involved in Polish politics in the 1920s. Rabbi Shapiro observed that he was living in a time of great social division and wanted a way to bring "Achdus" (Hebrew for "unity") to the Jewish people. He created a program of universal daily assignments of Talmudic study. At the pace of one page per day, those who followed the program would read the 2,711 pages of the Talmud in a seven-and-a-half-year cycle. He hoped this system would become "universal"—with Jews throughout the world studying the same portion each day. He designed Daf Yomi as a new way to use Jewish learning to help bridge social divides and counter the fragmentation. As Rabbi Shapiro wrote of his innovation, "When two Jews from different towns, or even different countries, meet, the knowledge they share on the Talmud being studied will help them form a deep bond of friendship."
Rabbi Shapiro was also motivated by the decline of Talmudic learning in the aftermath of World War I, and by the growth of distracting entertainment alternatives. He sought a solution to the challenges that the modern world brought to an ancient religion.
One benefit of his innovation was to make sure that Jews maintained their connection to the Talmud, the 1500-year-old guide to Jewish law and culture—general legal principles, or Mishna, and the Gemara, longer expositions on those principles. At the time, entire sections of the Talmud were being ignored. Students were choosing what they saw as the more interesting sections and leaving others behind. Rabbi Shapiro's system solved this problem by having adherents pledge to study the entire work over the course of the cycle.
In creating this program, Shapiro faced major challenges. World War I had overturned the pre-war monarchic order. Rising anti-Semitism, and new economic opportunities, led many Jews to migrate away from the ancient ways of Talmudic learning. Rabbi Shapiro's innovation leveraged technological innovations to deal with these obstacles. Modern printing made it easier to produce the volumes of the Talmud. Tape recordings, telephones, and broadcasts soon provided more ways to disseminate Daf Yomi lessons. And today, Daf Yomi podcasts proliferate. A quick search reveals seventy-two different Daf Yomi podcasts, and that is only scratching the surface.
In the aftermath of the Holocaust, many experts predicted that Orthodox Judaism was not long for the world. When Israel was founded, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion permitted Talmudic scholars in the new Jewish state to opt out of military service requirements—because he thought there would not be that many of them. But now, Ultra-Orthodox Jews make up 13 percent of Israel's population. That number will grow to 21 percent by 2042. After World War II, American sociologists wrongly predicted that Orthodox Judaism would soon disappear in the U.S. Today, 10 percent of America's Jewish population is Orthodox. That number is rising as Orthodox Jews marry earlier, intermarry less, and have more children. These demographic trends foretell a future of more Daf Yomi participants. Yet Daf Yomi is not only the domain of Orthodox men. There are non-religious Daf Yomi classes, female Daf Yomi classes, and a host of other varieties.
Rabbi Shapiro had a bold vision for maintaining an ancient tradition and furthering Jewish unity at a time of international upheaval. This year, the centenary of his innovation, we can see how truly impressive his achievement was. When the last Daf Yomi cycle ended, in 2020, the New York Times estimated that 350,000 Jews worldwide were participating in the program, a considerable percentage of Jews worldwide.
As Jews celebrate this Rosh Hashanah, they should dip their apples in honey a second time to celebrate Rabbi Shapiro and his Daf Yomi innovation.
Tevi Troy is a senior scholar at Yeshiva University's Straus Center. Noam Wasserman is the dean of Yeshiva University's Sy Syms Business School.