Finding Home on the Daf

by Chava Shapiro, SVARA Fellow

A rainbow alef-bet ruler is resting on a page of Talmud.

One year ago, in May of 2023, I found myself in yet another Zoom classroom. The class was “Torah & the State of State-less-ness: Recovering Diasporist Halakha” offered through the UnYeshiva and taught by Laynie Soloman, the Associate Rosh Yeshiva at SVARA. Diaspora as a spiritual foundation and grounding was something that I had found myself exploring over the past several years in my study of Yiddish and histories of leftist Jewish politics, but understanding it through a lens of halakha (Jewish law) and Talmud felt out of my reach. It felt out of my reach despite regularly being in a SVARA bet midrash and spending a not insignificant number of hours studying Talmud. 

In the first class, Laynie presented to us a portion of Berakhot, a volume of Talmud I thought I was familiar with. And yet this text burst newly into view, as Talmud and Torah tend to do when you return to them. There it was, right before me, the spiritual diasporism grounded in our texts that I had been looking for. The thing I knew deep in my kishkes (guts), was something our Sages knew deeply too. 

וְאָמַר אַבָּיֵי: מֵרֵישׁ הֲוָה גָּרֵיסְנָא בְּגוֹ בֵּיתָא וּמְצַלֵּינָא בְּבֵי כְנִישְׁתָּא. כֵּיוָן דִּשְׁמַעְנָא לְהָא דְּאָמַר רַבִּי חִיָּיא בַּר אַמֵּי מִשְּׁמֵיהּ דְּעוּלָּא — מִיּוֹם שֶׁחָרַב בֵּית הַמִּקְדָּשׁ אֵין לוֹ לְהַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא בְּעוֹלָמוֹ אֶלָּא אַרְבַּע אַמּוֹת שֶׁל הֲלָכָה בִּלְבַד — לָא הֲוָה מְצַלֵּינָא אֶלָּא הֵיכָא דְּגָרֵיסְנָא.

Abaye said: At first I studied in the house and prayed in the synagogue. Once I heard what Rabbi Ḥiyya bar Ami said in the name of Ulla–“Since the day the Temple was destroyed, the Holy One, Blessed be G!d, has only one place in G!d’s world, only the four cubits of halakha alone”– I would only pray where I study. Berakhot 8a

This is the scene set before us in Berakhot, the temple lay in smoldering ruins, and along with the stones of the walls, the dreams of a Jewish epoch were devastated. Offerings to the Divine could no longer ascend from altar to sky. The gates were not just closed; they lay in a mangled heap of rubble.

Some packed up their belongings and scattered among others. Why stay? What is left?

Others plotted a vengeful rebellion against the occupiers. They likely suspected it was an inevitable loss, but their dignity demanded they try.

And then there were the dreamers. They watched the smoldering ashes from a hillside and saw a beginning. Because death and birth share the same liminal and fecund space, they scooped up small bits of ash in their hands, rubbed it on their heads, and wept with grief. They allowed the vastness of the loss to wash over them, to carry them to sea and crash over them.

Grief became a portal, an entry point, a beginning, a limitless possibility. If not there, on that land now soaked with blood and ash, where?


And so we scattered. To everywhere.

I was taught that our purpose as a people, as Jews, was brought closer to fulfillment when the state of Israel was established. I was taught we edged closer still when East Jerusalem was annexed in 1967. And if I were to believe that our purpose is only possible to fulfill when we rebuild the temple, we remain an incomplete people. A people without a land are no people at all—this was the thrust of the story I was taught—and until Jews control all the land and its use, we remain unfulfilled.

And yet, I found my Jewish homeland amid the pandemic in 2020, another moment of incalculable loss and a sea of unrecognizable grief. I found it when I opened Masechet Yoma (a volume of Talmud), which had arrived in the mail along with a folder that declared this tradition belonged to me. I found home on the pages that were filled with letters I recognized, but whose meanings remained opaque. I found it when I clicked “join” on the screen of my computer and entered a SVARA Zoom room filled with queer and trans people ready to crack open this leather-bound, gold-gilded book and see what was inside.

Daniel Boyarin writes in A Traveling Homeland: The Babylonian Talmud as Diaspora, “This book begins with an idea that is not new: that in some deep sense, a book has been the portable homeland of the Jewish people.” On the day that I first arrived home, I had not yet read Boyarin’s work, let alone the Talmud, but I felt the electric and ecstatic sense of arrival nonetheless.

I found home in our texts, but I wasn’t sure what to do with this canon filled with longings for a land lost, for the temple in Jerusalem, and the unfulfilled desire for a sense of physical place.

עַל נַהֲרוֹת  בָּבֶל שָׁם יָשַׁבְנוּ גַּם־בָּכִינוּ בְּזכְרֵנוּ אֶת־צִיּוֹן׃


By Babylon’s streams, there we sat, oh we wept, when we recalled Zion. (Psalm 137:1)

This Psalm was reinterpreted by Ella Shohat, a professor of cultural studies at New York University and Iraqi Jew. She wrote, “By the waters of Zion, we sat and wept, when we remembered Babylon.” The beauty and brilliance of her words carry not only a personal experience but a resonant one for Jewish community. Our home, an oral tradition of wisdom and words collected into books, was birthed in Babylon. Bavel (modern-day Iraq), the intellectual center of Judaism for a thousand years, is the very birthplace of the tradition I arrived home to in 2020.

And yet, we still weep and long.

כִּי־לִי הָאָרֶץ כִּי־גֵרִים וְתוֹשָׁבִים אַתֶּם עִמָּדִי


“…for Mine is the land, you are but strangers resident with Me.” Leviticus 25:23

I believe the dual spiritual disciplines of longing and landlessness are central to Judaism. We practice being ill at ease, being strangers in our own homes. We orient physically to Jerusalem when we pray as a discipline of surrendering to that discomfort. 

The Sages made a homeland not just in books, but in the three cubits of our bodies and the additional one cubit necessary to move our bodies. The term “four cubits” is a Talmudic parlance that stands in for the individual and their personal space. Where G-d once dwelled in a singular physical space, the center of the temple, the Talmud tells us that they now dwell in the four cubits that make up each of us as we enact and realize Torah.

If our sense of home isn’t meant to be tied to land, but rather to the Indwelling Presence that inhabits the four cubits of our bodies, how might that free us as a people? If we can open the Talmud and find home on each and every daf (page), what might we be able to let go of that has been holding us back from fulfilling our dreams of home?

This is where home is–it lives in us, mingling with all our grief and all our joy, allowing us to float on the waves that threaten to overtake us.

We wept.

We grieved.

We weep and grieve even still. And we continue to sojourn with every turn of the daf.

Written with immense gratitude for my teacher, Laynie Solomon, from whom I have learned to live in our traveling homeland that is the Talmud.

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