The Accidental Talmudist

Salvador Litvak grew up in New City, New York, a deep-thinking child who grew into a spiritually-minded adult. Although he’d had a bar mitzvah, to him, Judaism was dry and dusty, with no application to real life. It was a religion that mostly entailed swinging his feet in boredom and waiting to eat on one holiday or another. Aside from that, it was irrelevant. The concept of G-d playing a role in everyday existence was never explored.

But Sal was a searcher. For the next 20 years he tried various forms of meditation and even music, looking for the high that comes with devoting one’s soul to a transcendental cause. Nothing really clicked.

Then, when he was 32 years old, his grandmother died. A Holocaust survivor, she had heroically shepherded her daughter, Sal’s mother, through Theresienstadt, after her husband was murdered in Dachau without ever having met his daughter. Sal, along with his mother and brother, were at her bedside when she passed away.

By then Sal was a film producer in Hollywood. He wasn’t religious at all, but he decided to honor his grandmother’s memory by setting foot in a synagogue for the first time in decades. The rabbi spoke, the singing was joyful, and to Sal’s surprise, the service was actually inspiring. Oh, man! he thought to himself. I’ve been looking everywhere but my own backyard!

Sal wasted no time signing up for every class on Judaism he could find. Interestingly, each rabbi made repeated references to the Talmud. With his limited background, Sal understood the Talmud to be a repository of Jewish wisdom, but he didn’t know anything else about it. Was it a part of the Torah? How did you go about studying it? Was he even allowed to? On every trip to the Judaica store he would admire the leather-bound books from a distance, wanting to crack open a volume but too intimidated to try.

One day he got angry at himself for his cowardice. They’re just books, he told himself. Just start from the beginning. He found Volume 1 on the shelf, Brachos, and brought it over to the counter to pay.

The cashier, Zack Plotzker, made an attempt at small talk. “Oh, you’re doing Daf Yomi?”
“What’s that?” Sal asked innocently. Zack gave him an odd look and he panicked. Had he committed a faux pas? Was there something else he didn’t know?

Seeing his confusion, Zack explained, “Daf Yomi is a worldwide program for studying the entire Talmud. Everyone learns a single page every day according to the same schedule. The cycle takes seven and a half years to complete—and today is day one!”
“Oh,” said Sal. Then the enormity of the coincidence began to sink in. “Um, I’ll take it.”

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