Question: It is customary to hold a siyyum – a party or a feast – upon completion of a Talmud tractate. Is it possible to hold a siyyum upon completion of other Jewish books and, if so, which ones?
Responsum: (This responsum is based on Golinkin (see the Bibliography below). My thanks to Rabbi Monique Susskind Golberg who prepared a preliminary translation of sections V-VI of my teshuvah. In this version, we have abbreviated some sections and expanded section V, 9).
It is customary to do a siyyum upon completion of a tractate of the Babylonian Talmud. In particular, it is very common to do a siyyum on Erev Pesach so that the firstborn may eat (OH 470, Mishnah Berurah subpar. 10) and during the “nine days” between Rosh Hodesh Av and Tisha B’av so that those who participate in the siyyum can eat meat (OH 551:10). Each of the latter customs has its own sources and history, but we shall not deal with them in this responsum (Regarding the siyyum on the Fast of the Firstborn, see Yerushalmi Pesahim 10:1, fol. 38b; Massekhet Sofrim 21:3, ed. Higger, p. 354; Pri Hadash and Birkey Yosef to OH 470; R. Yosef Mashash, Responsa Mayyim Hayyim, Fez, 5694, No. 179; Daniel Goldschmidt, Mehkerey Tefillah Upiyyut, Jerusalem, 57402, pp. 384-386. Regarding the siyyum during the nine days, see below, paragraph III, 1). We shall only deal with the following question: is asiyyum feast or party limited to the completion of a tractate of the Babylonian Talmud or can it be done on a tractate of the Mishnah, on a book of the Bible or on other Jewish books?
There are two early sources which are the basis for the siyyum (For three other Talmudic sources which might be related to our topic – Berakhot 17a; Bava Batra 121b and Ta’anit 30b-31a; Bava Batra 22a – , see Golinkin, pp. 89-90).
“And [Solomon] went to Jerusalem, stood before the Ark of the Covenant of the Lord and sacrificed burnt offerings… and he made a banquet for all his servants” (I Kings 3:15). Rabbi Elazar [or: Rabbi Yitzhak] said (ca. 250-275 c.e.): From here we learn that one makes a feast for the completion of the Torah.
This midrash is quoted by many authorities as a prooftext for the holiday of Simhat Torah ( See Golinkin, note 2 and add Orhot Hayyim, Hilkhot Talmud Torah, parag. 24; Avraham Ya’ari, Toledot Hag Simhat Torah,Jerusalem, 1964, p. 16). Yet it is difficult to determine if this was a feast in the synagogue at the end of the triennial Torah reading cycle as practiced in Eretz Yisrael in the third century (See Responsa of the Va’ad Halakhah 6 (5755-5758), pp. 98-184 (Hebrew with English summary) also available at www.responsafortoday.com). or when the Torah was completed in a school or in the Bet Midrash. It is also not clear what was done at such a feast.
Abbaye (Babylon, ca. 325 c.e.) said: May I be rewarded,for when I see a Sage who completes a massekhet (tractate), I make a Yom Tov for the Sages.
What is a “Yom Tov for the Sages”? It is hard to explain according to the context, but it can be explained by another story found in Berakhot 46a: “Rabbi Zeira became ill. Rabbi Abbahu came to visit him. He took upon himself: ‘if Rabbi Zeira gets well, I will make a Yom Tov for the Sages’. Rabbi Zeira recovered. [Rabbi Abbahu] made a feast (se’udeta) for all the Sages”.
Therefore, Abbaye used to made a feast for the Sages when one of them completed his tractate, and massekhet no doubt means a tractate of Mishnah, because the Babylonian Talmud did not exist at that time (See Y. N. Epstein, Mevo L’nussah Hamishnah, Jeruslem, 1948, pp. 981-982 for the early use of the word massekhta. Also see Steve Wald, Encyclopaedia Judaica, second edition, 2007, Vol. 19, pp. 470-481, s.v. Talmud, Babylonian for a survey of recent scholarship on this subject).
To summarize, in the days of Rabbi Elazar or Rabbi Yitzhak in Israel they made a se’udah when they completed the Torah and in the days of Abbaye in Babylon they made a se’udahwhen they completed a tractate of Mishnah.
There does not seem to be any mention of the siyyum feast in Geonic Literature (ca. 600-1000, but cf. below, section V, 9), but when it appears in the period of the Rishonim, it is mentioned as a well-established custom.
In other words, in the days of the Ra’aviyah a siyyum massekhet was a well-known se’udat mitzvah such as a brit, but did not include dancing and frivolity like a wedding.
“And cannot” means that it is hard for him to fast or that he chanced upon a se’udat mitzvah such as a brit mila or a siyyum massekhet or a party [which he must attend] because of darkey shalom [for the sake of peace].
Here too, R. Yitzhak assumes that the reader is familiar with this type of se’udat mitzvah. However, unlike the Ra’aviyah, he compares a siyyum massekhet to a wedding. He also says that it was a real feast in which they served an entire chicken to an important person.
From this we can prove that if the students made a se’udah when they finished learning a massekhta as they are accustomed to doing, that a person mourning for his parent may enter it even during the 12 months. Similarly, he may enter a se’udah of a brit milah and any se’udat mitzvah.
This passage teaches us that in thirteenth-century Italy they were accustomed to making a se’udat mitzvah when they finished studying a massekhta, which had the same status as a se’udat brit milah or any se’udat mitzvah.
III. The Siyyum Feast in Ashkenaz, 1400-1700
But since it’s not required, if there is a betrothal or brit milah or pidyon haben or siyyum massekhta which are ase’udat mitzvah after Rosh Hodesh Av, it is permissible for the invited guests to eat meat and drink wine, if they are relatives or close friends, but whoever comes just in order to drink wine…. it is a mitzvah accomplished by sinning.” (Sefer Minhagim L’rabeinu Avraham Kloizner, ed. Disin, Jerusalem, 1978, p. 125 also quoted in Sefer Maharil, ed. Shpitzer, Jerusalem, 1989, pp. 238-239 and more briefly in Sefer Minhagim L’rabeinu Isaac Tirna, ed. Shpitzer, Jerusalem, 1979, p. 76)
Like some of the earlier sources, Rabbi Kloizner views thesiyyum massekhet as a se’udat mitzvah, like a betrothal, britor pidyon haben. However, he seems to be one of the first to use this type of feast in order to allow meat and wine beforeTisha B’av.
A rabbi or Rosh Yeshivah who learns a massekhet with his friends and students, when they reach the end of themassekhet, he should leave a little at the end until an opportune time, a day appropriate to arrange a nice feast in honor of the Torah and its students, and then it is appropriate to gather the entire congregation when the rabbi comes to finish…
He then describes the wording of the siyyum formula recited at the end in detail: Hadran Alakh, the ten sons of Rav Papa, (Regarding this formula, see the references listed in Golinkin, note 5, and add Lerner, p. 183 and Appendices I and III).and Kaddish or Kaddish D’rabanan.
And he should also arrange a nice feast in honor of the Torah and siyyum hamassekhet and it is a se’udat mitzvah, for even a mourner for his parents can eat there during the twelve months of mourning [he then quotes theAgudah and Ra’aviyah and Shabbat 118b-119a quoted above]. And I also saw in practice from distinguished rabbis that students in mourning eat at the siyyum massekhet feast…
In this responsum, we see a full-blown siyyum feast – a mass feast intended for both scholars and laymen. It is also clear that this passage is describing a siyyum of a tractate of the Babylonian Talmud and, apparently, this was the intent of all the passages beginning with the Ra’aviyah.
Two Gabbaim are chosen a few days before in order to prepare the feast. On the day of the siyyum, the Shamash(sextant) announces in the synagogue: “the rabbi will complete the massekhet at such and such hour” and he repeats this announcement in the street at that hour. Almost the entire congregation gathers and they ask questions and answer them for about an hour and then the rabbi completes the massekhet with a nice sermon and then they say “bar pappa” as printed at the end of the tractate.
And then they sell the kaddish and the money goes to help pay for the meal and a mourner who recites kaddish may eat at the siyyum, provided he serves food so that he will remember that he is in mourning.
Then the Shamash announces “Essen gehen wer da zeren will etzel hasiyyum“, “go eat he who wants to feast here at thesiyyum“. And all the participants pay for their food except for the rabbi, the hazzan and the shamash, and women are not invited to the se’udat siyyum. And the next day, the rabbi and the gabbaim make a day of drinking and feasting and it is called noch tzech, “the feast after”.
Rabbi Bachrach’s definition of a se’udat mitzvah is the most liberal. For him, it is subjective and does not require a Talmudic prooftext. Any se’udah made to celebrate completion of a mitzvah is a se’udat mitzvah. Therefore, a study group (havurah) which completes a Sefer, may make a se’udat mitzvah or siyyum.
Until now, we have only quoted Ashkenazic and Italian sources for the siyyum. Now we shall quote two Sefardic sources:
It is our custom that upon completing every massekhet all the yeshivah students and all sages of the city gather and make a se’udah, sometimes in the house of the rabbi and sometimes in the house of one of the yeshivah students, and after the se’udah, all the sages and yeshivah students expound…
This description contains two new elements: the se’udah took place at the house of the rabbi or the students and every participant expounded, not just the rabbi.
To summarize, we have seen that Abbaye used to make a feast for the Sages when a scholar completed a tractate of Mishnah. In the Middle Ages (ca. 1200-1750) in Ashkenaz, Italy, Eastern Europe, Algeria and Jerusalem they would make a siyyum in honor of completing “a tractate” which probably refers to the Babylonian Talmud. Only R. Yair Hayyim Bachrach in 1681 expanded the siyyum to include a siyyum on any sefer.
In the 19th and 20th centuries, dozen of responsa were written on the subject of the siyyum (I found these responsa via the literature cited in Golinkin, note 6). Most of them were written about the siyyum of “the nine days” and of the Fast of the Firstborn on Passover Eve. The questioners wanted to know whether it was permissible to hold a se’udat siyum on completing books other than a talmudic tractate.
Because of the large amount of material, we will briefly summarize the opinions of the different authorities. The responsa are classified according to the book they discussed:
1) The Six Orders of the Mishnah
This is the custom according to R. Netanel ha-Kohen Fried (Responsa Penei Meivin, Oraḥ Ḥayyim, Munkatch, 1913, No. 103). This is because studying one Mishnah Tractate does not require effort and can be accomplished in a few hours. But he does not bring any basis or source for this custom (cf. Responsa Beit Yisrael quoted below, note 11).
2) One Order of the Mishnah
This is the custom according to Rabbi Fried for the very same reason. It is also the opinion of R. Gedaliah Felder (Yesodey Yeshurun, Vol. 6, New York, 1970, pp 42-44, 52-53 and briefly inHadarom 31 [Nissan 5730], pp. 24-25), but he does not give any basis for his decision. Indeed, there is no Talmudic or medieval source for this practice.
3) Three Tractates of the Mishnah
This is what R. Aaron Felder heard from his teacher R. Moshe Feinstein “because less than that, there is no simhat Mitzvah (joy of performing a mitzvah) in its completion” (Mo’adei Yeshurun, Vol. 1, New York, 1979, p. 132 and p. 155, note 70). This ruling is surprising because it contradicts the opinion of Abbaye as described in Source I, 2 and does not have any basis in any other source.
4) One Tractate of the Mishnah
There are many opinions about this option, so we will classify them according to the authorities’ decision.
a) It is forbidden:
Rabbi Azriel Hildesheimer (Responsa R. Azriel, Tel Aviv, 1969,Yoreh De’ah, p. 374) forbids this type of siyyum for the Fast of the Firstborn and forbids a mourner from attending it (see Shakh toYoreh De’ah 246, subparag. 27).
He admits that this is certainly a “massekhta” as referred to by Abbaye, but believes that there is no “simhat mitzvah” in such asiyyum. He based himself on the Gemara in Bava Batra 121b (see Golinkin pp. 89-90) and on Rashbam’s commentary ad 1oc: “on that day they were completing a great mitzvah such as this”. According to R. Hildesheimer, only the study of the Gemara with Rashi’s commentary is considered a “great” mitzvah. However, it is difficult to accept his opinion because he prefers the obscure passage in Bava Batra to the explicit passage in Shabbat.
This is also the opinion of R. Isaac Liebes (Responsa Beit Avi, Vol. 2, New York, 1976, No. 52). He believes that there is a difference between the fast of the Firstborn, which is based on the TractateSofrim (Chapter 21) and on Yerushalmi Pesaḥim (beginning of Chapter 10), and the prohibition of consuming meat after the beginning of the month of Av, which is only a custom. Therefore, it is permissible to eat meat after Rosh Hodesh Av if one concludes a Tractate of the Mishnah with R. Ovadiah Bertinoro’s commentary and Tosfot Yom Tov in depth.
He concludes that even though according to Abbaye in Shabbat, asiyyum of mishnayot is called a siyyum of a Tractate, and although one does a siyyum on the completion of reading the Torah (above I, 1), and in spite of the Gemara in Bava Batra and Ta’anit(Golinkin, pp. 89-90), “I did not see any of my Masters and my Rabbis being lenient in this”.
I find the custom described here surprising because there is no reason to differentiate between a siyyum for one need or for another. The question is not why one does a siyyum but what is the nature of the siyyum itself. Indeed, we have seen that until the fifteenth century they did a siyyum for its own sake and not to exempt themselves from another custom. If completing a MishnahTractate was considered a real Se’udat Mitzvah – and this is how Abbaye saw it – this should be the case in every situation! Furthermore, there is no hint of a division between different occasions neither in the Talmud, nor among the Rishonim orAḥaronim quoted above.
This is the opinion of R. Ovadia Yosef (Responsa Yabia Omer Vol. 1, Jerusalem, 1954, No. 26, parag. 9-10, pp. 94-95) and he gives three reasons: (1) There is a controversy as to whether the completion of a Tractate exempts a person from the fast on Passover Eve. (2) There is a controversy among aharonim as to whether the se’udah at a circumcision on Passover Eve exempts all the participants from the fast or only the family who has the circumcision. (3) If we are only referring to mishnayot, everyone is capable of exempting himself.
It is true that there is a controversy among the later authorities regarding the two first points (see ibid., parag. 1-8). On the other hand, the third point is surprising. Did Abbaye, the Rishonim and the Aḥaronim mean that each person should learn mishnayot alone and then do a se’udat siyyum! We have not heard of nor seen such a siyyum; it is therefore difficult to adopt this suggestion. In his book Ḥazon Ovadiah (see below, parag. 8), R. Ovadia Yossef does not mention his earlier suggestion and allows, in urgent situations, a siyyum on a Mishnah Tractate with the commentary of Bartenura and Ikar Tosfot Yom Tov.
This distinction is also artificial and in contradiction to the simple meaning of the text of the Gemara in Shabbat. Abbaye organized “a yom tov” because a student concluded a Tractate of theMishnah, not because of the level of his understanding or happiness. Every student who learns Mishnah enjoys his learning, not only a Talmid Ḥakham.
This is the ruling of four of the later authorities (R. Nahman Kahana, Orhot Hayyim, second edition, Jerusalem, 1962, Orah Hayyim 551, subpar. 35; R. Israel Abraham Alter Landa, Responsa Beit Yisrael, second edition, New York, 1976, No. 47; R. David Sperber, Responsa Afarkasta D’anya, Satu Mare, Romania, 1940, No. 154, parag. 3; R. Shlomo ha-Kohen,Responsa Binyan Shlomo, Part 1, Vilna, 1889, No. 59). They based themselves on the simple meaning of the text in Shabbat. Abbaye was doing a siyyum on a Tractate of Mishnah since, in his time, the Babylonian Talmud did not yet exist.
There is no doubt that it is permissible to do a siyyum on a tractate of Mishnah as evidenced by the story about Abbaye in Shabbat. Most of the interpretations quoted in this section are probably the result of the outlook of the Aharonim. For them, the study of theMishnah is not considered serious and in-depth learning and only the study of the Gemara is considered “real” learning. Most of the decisions quoted are a result of this outlook.
5) The Minor Tractates
6) The Tractate Derekh Eretz
7) One of the Biblical Books or one of the Prophets
Three of the later authorities dealt with this question, and all of them allowed doing a siyyum on one of these books.
8) One book of the Zohar or the entire Zohar
9) One Chapter of the Gemara
In the good years we made a se’udah at the completion of every chapter. Only later when the time became corrupted we did it only upon completion of a Tractate. Here in Tlemcen [a town in Algeria] we do a small festive meal on the completion of a Chapter because the completion of a Chapter is also a great mitzvah in and of itself and we make a yom tov for this.
In spite of this interesting testimony, R. Mashash’s opinion does not seem correct, because Abbaye and all the early and later Authorities spoke about the siyyum of a Tractate or of a Book, and not of a Chapter. Accordingly, R. Ovadia Yossef (Responsa YabiaOmer loc. cit.) and R. Gedalia Felder (Yesodei Yeshurun, p. 44) forbade this custom.
Even so, in a recent very thorough study of the “Hadran Alakh”customs, Prof. M. B. Lerner has shown from numerous genizahfragments and geonic sources that the basic unit of Talmud study in the Geonic period (ca. 600-1000) was the chapter and not themassekhet. Indeed, that is why most genizah fragments of the Babylonian Talmud contain chapters and not complete tractates. He suggest that at the end of learning a chapter of Talmud by heart, the master and his pupil would say “Hadrana Alakh”, “we have reviewed you” i.e. the chapter. Therefore, the custom of Tlemcen, Algeria in the twentieth century seems to echo the geonic custom of celebrating the completion of chapters of Talmud as opposed to tractates.
1) There is no doubt that the select mitzvah is to do a se’udatsiyyum on the completion of a Tractate of the Mishnah as was the custom of Abbaye, or on a Tractate of the Babylonian Talmud as was the general custom from the 12th century until today. It is also permissible to do a se’udat siyyum on the completion of a Tractate of the Jerusalem Talmud, because even if we do not find explicit precedents for this, the Jerusalem Talmud includes the Mishnahand explains it.
2) It is permissible to do a se’udat siyyum on the completion of learning the Six Orders of the Mishnah or of one Order as it was the custom in Eastern Europe and also in our days, but there is certainly no need for this. First, it is in contradiction to the simple meaning of the text in Shabbat. Besides this, this would limit the possibility of doing a siyyum to the select few who are able to learn an entire Order or all Six Orders of the Mishnah. From an educational point of view, it is better that as many Jews as possible should be able to complete a tractate of the Mishnah and to celebrate that fact.
3) It is permissible to do a Se’udat Siyyum on the completion of learning a biblical book. This resembles the siyyum of R. Elazar/R. Yitzhak on the completion of the Torah and the holiday of SimḥatTorah. One who follows this method can rely on R. Yair Hayyim Bachrach’s opinion regarding the completion of a Book and on the three responsa quoted above.
4) It is also permissible to do a se’udat siyyum on the completion of one of the Minor Tractates (including Massekhet Derekh Eretz) or on the Book of the Zohar (or a part of it). One who does this, can rely on the author of Ḥavot Yair and on the customs and responsaquoted above.
5) There is no reason to do a siyyum specifically on the completion of three Tractates of the Mishnah. There is no halakhic justification for such a method and we have not heard of such a custom.
6) It would seem that we could follow the testimony and responsum of R. Joseph Mashash and do a siyyum on the completion of one chapter of Gemara; this is now buttressed by the evidence from the Cairo Genizah and the Geonim. However, it is preferable to study a complete tractate as per the custom of Abbaye and the past 800 years in order to afford the joy of completing an entire massekhet.
7) In any case, it is recommended to go back to the original custom and to do se’udot siyyum frequently during the year. Similarly, we should not be content with light refreshments; it is preferable to make a real feast, as was the custom of Abbaye, R. Isaac of Vienna, Maharam Mintz and R. Yuzpe Shamesh. In this way, we will publically demonstrate that there is no study like the study of the Torah sake and that there is no joy like the joy of studying Torah, and we will fulfill the verse (Psalm 119: 162) “I rejoice at Your word, as one who finds great spoil”.
29 Tammuz 5769
Meron Bialik Lerner, “Towards a History of the Hadran” in David Golinkin et al, eds., Torah Lishmah: Essays in Jewish Studies in Honor of Professor Shamma Friedman, Jerusalem, 2007, pp. 162-204
Aryeh Palshinitzky, Hadrakh Alan, Jerusalem 5757, 32 pp.
All four volumes of Rabbi Prof. David Golinkin’s Responsa In A Moment – Halakhic Responses to Contemporary Issues as well as other books by the author are available for purchase from the Schocken-JTS Press Bookstore.
David Golinkin is President of The Schechter Institutes, Inc. and President Emeritus of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies. For twenty years he served as Chair of the Va’ad Halakhah (Law Committee) of the Rabbinical Assembly which gives halakhic guidance to the Masorti Movement in Israel. He is the founder and director of the Institute of Applied Halakhah at Schechter and also directs the Center for Women in Jewish Law. Rabbi Professor Golinkin made aliyah in 1972, earning a BA in Jewish History and two teaching certificates from The Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He received an MA in Rabbinics and a PhD in Talmud from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America where he was also ordained as Rabbi. For a complete bio click here.