5 years after probing Torah topics, 8 friends take on study of Talmud

Susan Rojo and her friends were recently talking Talmud, particularly discussing what time in the evening it is appropriate to say the Sh'ma.

"One rabbi talks about what King David's practices were, and one says you say it right after you brush your teeth," said Rojo, who lives in San Jose. "One says you can say it until midnight."

The friends had reached the end of a page, and thought the ruling was that it is permissible to say the Sh'ma until the first light of dawn. They spent the whole week believing that was the case.

But when they got together the following week, they found "that the next word on the next page is 'No.' That's not the ruling," said Rojo, a former project manager for a software company. "There's dawn and there's sunrise, and there's when the sun has fully come up. It's funny because we thought we had come to the conclusion of the argument, but we're still in the middle."

This is what goes on every Monday night, in a South Bay home, where Rojo meets with seven friends to study Talmud.

Members of the group vary in their level of observance, but none are Orthodox. They are mostly in their 30s, and except for two people who joined after a year or two, the original six have been at it for more than five years.

Unlike most Torah study groups, this one is independent and is not sponsored by any synagogue.

While a few were friends before they began studying together, most of the six met at a monthly study event called "Latte, Lox and Learning," sponsored by the Jewish Federation of the Greater South Bay in 1998. After one meeting, four of them went out to dinner and discussed making it a weekly thing.

A few weeks later, four showed up to the first meeting. There, they determined the format and decided to meet Monday nights.

They also decided that, like many book groups, they would have dinner first and that it would be a closed group. "Whoever was in was in, and that's it," said Ilan Jacob, a San Jose-based computer consultant. "We've let a few other people in, but we wanted people to be serious about it."

Each bought a copy of the Artscroll Tanach, and they delved into it. Reading at the pace of about 10 pages a week, it took them several years to complete the Torah.

"To my super-duper amazement, we read through the whole thing," said Jacob. "It's a big book, and I had always wanted to read it. I don't see how I ever would have read it otherwise."

Each member brings something unique to the mix.

"Some people are more conservative and some are a lot more liberal," said Jacob, noting that the discussion can often turn to current events. "The wide range of people's beliefs make it really interesting."

Furthermore, they have all developed their own personalities within the group. So much so, that they can guess which issues certain members are likely to raise or get stuck on. "At a certain point it became a joke, when someone else would make the comment," said Rojo.

After finishing the Torah, they did the Prophets and then the Writings. And then after that, they began reading Talmud, which they've been doing for about the last year and a half.

While all of the group members had at least some familiarity with the stories in the Bible, the Talmud was completely foreign.

Rabbi Daniel Pressman of Saratoga's Congregation Beth David led their first study session on the Talmud, but they have continued with no further instruction.

While the group read the Tanach in English only, with the Talmud they also read the Hebrew, though some members are more fluent than others.

"We go around in a circle and everyone reads a section," said Jacob.

Peter Spielvogel of Sunnyvale found that "it's really interesting to follow the logic and the flows, and the rabbis and their arguments, and the tangents they go off on, and how they eventually bring it back to the main thread they were talking about."

In addition to the learning, the group has marked quite a few lifecycle events together. When they began, all six original members were single. Four have since married, with one of them bringing in his wife.

"It's a really nice camaraderie with these people I've been studying with for five years," said Spielvogel, who does marketing for a software company. "We've gone to each other's weddings, and people are starting to have kids, so that's exciting to be involved so closely in that. Plus, you really get to know people on a different level when you study with them."

No one in the group expects to finish the Talmud in his or her lifetime, but no one plans to quit studying, either. "There are few things in my life that I've done for such a long time," said Jacob.

Added Spielvogel, "I think it's really important for Jews to study Torah. Torah is what keeps our people together and has kept us alive throughout history."

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."