A few minutes after sunrise on a recent Thursday, Barry Gesserman arrived at Congregation Beth Hamedrosh, an Orthodox shul in Wynnewood, and took his seat in a long, narrow room as light began filtering in through the floor-to-ceiling windows.
Nearly every day for the past 15 years, save for an emergency or a trip out of town, Gesserman has gotten up before dawn and dragged himself — through darkness, and sometimes snow, sleet and heavy rain — to his synagogue's Daf Yomi, or page of the day, class.
On weekdays, the 45-minute class begins at 5:45 a.m.
All was quiet before a recent class until Rabbi Yonah Gross — who took over teaching Daf Yomi two years ago when his predecessor, Rabbi Shlomo Caplan, retired — sat down. With Gross leading, the seven participants, all Orthodox men, each took part in a verbal volley with words thrown about in English, Hebrew and Aramaic.
"One is obligated to learn, and it is better to have a set time to learn every day," said Gesserman, a 61-year-old Wynnewood resident who owns his own marketing business.
By studying at the breakneck pace of a page a day — yeshiva students can spend hours on a few lines — it takes seven and a half years to plow through the entire 2,700 page Babylonian Talmud.
Now the end of the task is in sight, at least until he begins again.
On Aug. 1, Gesserman plans to join hundreds of thousands of Jews from around the world in order to celebrate the completion of the cycle, an occasion known as the Siyyum Hashas.
The participants in the Beth Hamedrosh class, along with members of several other local Orthodox shuls, are planning to drive to the Met Life Stadium in northern New Jersey for what is expected to be the largest such celebration in the world.
The program will include speeches, along with a symbolic reading of the end of the final Talmudic volume and a few lines from the beginning of the first.
For Gesserman, who did not grow up Orthodox and hadn't studied Talmud seriously before undertaking this monumental effort, the program represents the completion of his second trip through one of Judaism's central and most complex texts.
"God willing, I'll start my third," he said.
The idea of encouraging Jews around the world to study the same page of Talmud on the same day goes back to 1923, when Polish Rabbi Meir Shapiro introduced it at the First World Congress of Agudath Israel. The program is credited with helping to make the study accessible to working people leading busy lives.
The Talmud, from the Hebrew root word that means "to learn," was completed in Babylonia in the fifth-century. Next to the Bible, it's considered the central text of normative Judaism and is a compendium of Jewish oral tradition and disputations on religious law.
The Talmud contains a record of rabbinic arguments on everything from the laws of keeping kosher to everyday concerns of marriage and commerce as well as more obscure topics like ritual sacrifice — a practice that had stopped hundreds of years before the Talmud was completed.
Today, studying the Talmud is less about learning specific rulings than it is about understanding the thinking of the ancient rabbis.
Locally, Daf Yomi classes are offered at a number of Orthodox shuls including Lower Merion Synagogue, Young Israel of Elkins Park, the Philadelphia Community Kollel in Lower Merion and Congregation Beth Solomon in Northeast Philadelphia.
Participants are overwhelmingly men, though more and more Orthodox women are learning Talmud in day school and are forming their own small, informal groups to study Daf Yomi.
In addition, a small number of non-Orthodox Jews have taken up the regimen in informal settings.
According to Rabbi Eliyahu Switzer, who teaches the Daf Yomi class at Beth Solomon and splits his time between working in the community and taking part in his own advanced Torah study, it's a very different experience from yeshiva learning.
Yeshiva students will often study passages that are more relevant to current practice and may never encounter some of the more obscure passages. In going through the entire Talmud, students will encounter relatively straightforward texts and maddeningly complex sections.
Currently, Daf Yomi students are completing a section or tractate called Niddah that focuses heavily on Jewish law pertaining to women who are menstruating.
In a recent class, students addressed the scenario of what happens when three women share a bed and blood is discovered in the morning. The text examines different answers as to which of the three should be deemed ritually impure.
Is it at all strange for a group of guys to be sitting around and discussing such things?
"It is a little weird, but it's an intellectual exercise," said Switzer, a 29-year-old father of two.
Switzer said he loves teaching the class, even though it involves a ridiculous amount of daily preparation.
"It's an abstract idea. You are not talking about real people. It's like a doctor or a lawyer."
Yerachmiel Kanoff, a neurosurgeon who attends class at Beth Hamedrosh, said that the pace required to get through a page a day means that many questions have to go unanswered.
Students either have to learn on their own time or wait another seven and a half years for the same passage to come up again — and hope they remember their question.
"This is learning for its own sake," said the 62-year-old Kanoff.
Even after 15 years of learning, he still finds himself asking how a concept might be applicable today. He often has to remind himself that the real question to ask, he said, is how did the ancient rabbis approach the particular problem at hand.
"This is part of the fabric of what I do," he said, adding that if he weren't starting his day in class he "would not know what to do."