By Efraim Jaffe
Ronald Reagan was president when we began. We continued through “Bush the First,” two Clinton terms, a double dose of “Bush the Second,” and then Obama. We are now celebrating our twenty-fifth anniversary and are still going strong.
Every morning Zelig and I meet at 6 am. In the winter, it’s cold and dark and it’s harder to get out of bed. At that hour, the house is usually quiet. Even the dog doesn’t budge—he just opens one eye briefly and returns to his canine dreams. I drink a cup of coffee, and then I drive to shul. On some days the fog lifts from my mind, and on other days I fight through the cobwebs. But to quote Woody Allen, 95 percent of life is showing up.
I met Zelig back in 1987. We had similar backgrounds—I had studied at Aish HaTorah and he at Ohr Somayach; we quickly became friends. When I suggested that we start a chavruta before Shacharit, he agreed. We started with Bava Batra. We found that our skills were evenly matched and we forged ahead, line by line, sharing a mutual desire to study. We each had two young children, and besides our morning rendezvous, we often got together on Shabbat. We were both transitioning from yeshivah into the “real world.” And we both felt relieved, if a little guilty for feeling that way, to have escaped full-time learning, which had become too much of a good thing, a journey with no end or mileposts, with the allure of the outside world glittering like the sirens of Ulysses. Our learning was now limited, but it became enjoyable. Sometimes less is more.
Learning Talmud sets the tone for the day. The elegant layout of the “Vilna Shas,” the cryptic Aramaic phrases, the subtle nuances of Rashi, and the intellectual brilliance of Tosafot merge into a conversation stretching across the millennia. I’m pretty good at deciphering the words—there is no punctuation in the Talmud—and Zelig specializes in keeping track of the big picture. Every sugya in the Talmud is a tightly woven Rubik’s Cube that constantly needs re-arranging in order to fit the pieces of the puzzle together. It reminds me of my bike-riding days when I would replace a flat tire on my Schwinn, stretching the inner tube around the rim before finally completing the task—only to find that the rim had slipped off the other end.
Learning Gemara can be incredibly frustrating, especially to one who one is new to the Gemara’s language and syntax, so a strong dose of motivation is necessary. If you don’t get a sense that this tradition is connecting you to God, it’s easy to give up. That feeling tends to wax and wane, so having a chavruta every morning helps keep you on track.
Years passed and we plowed ahead. The page of Talmud became like a tree ring around which our life events coalesced—my third child was born on daf chet, amud bet; Zelig’s third child on yud aleph, amud aleph. We usually kept our focus on the task at hand, but sometimes an early-morning therapy session of sorts evolved. We knew that at times sharing life’s difficulties takes precedence over formal learning. When Zelig’s marriage ended, our chavruta was the glue that kept him going. When he remarried six years later, he brought new energy and passion to his learning.
We began a new mesechta, Baba Kamma, and various new tree rings were recorded as four more children were born to Zelig and his new wife.
We sit in the same seats every morning. Zelig is never late, but I often oversleep and miss a day. We used to arrive around the same time, but eventually Zelig added an early-morning seder to our existing one.
Where exactly does the Talmud draw its attraction from? What hidden source motivates one to wrestle with the infinite complexity buried beneath the surface? Studying it requires that one create mental spreadsheets overlaid with conceptual arguments, demanding extraordinary levels of concentration. Still, beneath the surface, at the unconscious, spiritual level, another imprint unfolds. Treading down the same pathways that Jewish scholars have over the millennia, with commentaries shared by generations of Jews, one is transported from the linear present time-space into a four-dimensional reality. The veil of the mundane is, however slightly, lifted away, and a spark of eternity lifts one beyond the confines of the here and now. As Zelig and I slowly unravel the depths, as miners with pickaxes, eternity seeps into our neshamot, drop by drop.
Nowadays, we each have tufts of gray hair—it started for me around daf chaf zayin or so—and I expect it to continue. Zelig needs reading glasses, and I need to remove my glasses to read the fine print. And we retired from playing basketball Saturday nights a long time ago—I don’t remember the daf. Maybe someday, a hundred years from now, two men will sit in these same chairs, never knowing that Efraim and Zelig ever existed. The wind will blow and the trees will rustle, and if you listen closely enough, you’ll hear a small voice: here sat Efraim and Zelig learning the Talmud for twenty-five years. And God willing, many more
Efraim Jaffe works as an investment advisor in Roseland, New Jersey. His article “Anorexia: Starving in the Land of Plenty,” was recently published in Like Water on a Rock: True Stories of Spiritual Transformation (New York, 2011).