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Which Books May be Studied in Order to Hold a Siyyum? Responsa in a Moment: Volume 3, Issue No. 10, July 2009

Education
Pesah
Rabbinic Literature
Responsa by David Golinkin
Symbols and Rituals

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?

  1. Early Sources

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).

  1. Shir Hashirim Rabbah 1:9, ed. Vilna 2d = Kohelet Rabbah1:1, ed. Vilna 1b:

“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.

  1. Shabbat 118b-119a:

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.

  1. The Siyyum Feast in the Days of the Rishonim (ca. 1000-1500 c.e.)

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.

  1. R. Eliezer b”r Yoel Halevi (Ra’aviyah, Ashkenaz, 1140-1225) mentions this custom in two places. In Hilkhot Pesahim(parag. 494, ed. Aptowitzer, Part 2, p. 118 = ed. Deblitzky, Vol. 2, p. 80) he includes siyyum massekhet as one of the mitzvahfeasts, such as erusin (betrothal), sivlonot (betrothal presents) and brit mila. In the laws of mourning (parag. 841, Part 2, p. 554 = Volume 2, p. 367, later quoted in the Agudah to Mo’ed Kattan, parag. 39, ed. Brizel, Vol. 8, p. 29) he rules that a person in mourning for a parent may not enter a feast of joy such as erusin or a wedding which includes dancing and frivolity “but to other se’udot mitzvah such as a brit or siyyum massekhet it is permissible”.

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.

  1. His pupil, R. Yitzhak ben Moshe of Vienna (1180-1250) mentions the siyyum massekhet in two places. In Part I, parag. 458, fol. 66b he says that “it is a daily occurrence when they want to honor someone important at a siyyum massekhet or at weddings, they put before him an entire chicken and this is a way of honoring”. In part II, parag. 407, fol. 82d, he is discussing a person who made a vow to fast “and cannot”.

“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.

  1. R. Zidkiyahu b”r Avraham (Shiboley Haleket, Italy, 13thcentury, Hilkhot Semahot, parag. 47, p. 362) says that a mourner for a parent may attend a se’udah upon completion of the Torah and quotes sources I, 1 and 2. However, the parallel paragraph in Tanya Rabbati, which was written in Italy by his cousin, R. Yehiel b”r Yekutiel ( See Yisrael Tzvi Feintuch, “Tanya Rabbati”, Mesorot V’nusha’ot Batalmud, Ramat Gan, 1985, pp. 65-75, for a full explanation). (ed. Warsaw, 1873, parag. 70, p. 148), has an important addition:

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

  1. R. Avraham Kloizner (d. 1410) says that it is only required to avoid meat and wine on Erev Tisha B’av beginning at midday

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.

  1. The Maharil himself (Mainz, d. 1427) was asked if a person who usually fasts on his father’s yahrzeit “may eat at a siyyum” without asking a rabbi to release him from his vow (Responsa Maharil, ed. Satz, Jerusalem, 1980, No. 157, pp. 260-261 and parallels). Here too, we see that a siyyum was considered ase’udat mitzvah which can release a person from observing another custom.
  2. R. Yozl Hochstadt reports in Leket Yosher (Austria, ca. 1450) that when R. Isaac Levi was in mourning, he went from his house to the house of R. Yisrael Isserlein (d. 1460) without going outside “and ate in the feast of siyyum massekhet“. He sat at the table and ate a little bread before the others came to the table. (Leket Yosher, ed. Friemann, Part II, Berlin, 1904, p. 98. Apparently, he wanted to somehow participate in thesiyyum even though he was sitting shivah.
  3. The Responsa of Maharam Mintz (Rabbi Moshe Mintz, 1415-1480; ed. Domb, Jerusalem, 1991, Vol. 2, No. 119) contains the first full description of a siyyum feast:

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.

  1. R. Shlomo Luria (Maharshal, Poland, 1510-1574) discussed the siyyum in his Yam Shel Shlomo (to Bava Kama, Chapter 7, No. 37 and at the end of that chapter, after No. 46). He explains that a se’udat mitzvah is not a party for friends, but in order to give praise to God or to publicize a mitzvah or a miracle. “And siyyum hasefer (Siyyum Hasefer, “completing the book”, refers to a tractate of Talmud, because Ashkenazic Jews called the Talmud “Sefer”(book) or “Hasefer” (the book) – see E.E. Urbach, Ba’aley Hatosafot, fourth edition, Jerusalem, 1980­, p. 681, note 5*­­­­­­­). also seems to me that it is ase’udat mitzvah” and he then quotes Abbaye from Shabbat118b. He also says that he once tried to add “shehasimchah bim’ono“, which is recited before Birkat Hamazon at a wedding or a pidyon haben, to Birkat Hamazon at a siyyum, but that feast turned into a disaster so he abandoned that idea. “But in any case, siyyum hasefer is a se’udat mitzvah according to to all opinions”.
  2. R. Moshe Isserles (Rema, Cracow, 1525-1572) rules in theShulhan Arukh (Orah Hayyim 551:10) following R. Avraham Kloizner (parag. III, 1 above) that one may eat meat and drink wine at a se’udat mitzvah such as a siyyum massekhet after Rosh Hodesh Av. In Yoreh Deah (246:26) he rules according to Abbaye: “When he completes a massekhta it is a mitzvah to rejoice and to make a feast and it is called a se’udat mitzvah“.
  3. R. Yosef Yuzpe Hahn (Frankfurt am Main, 1570-1637) fully supports the custom described by Maharam Mintz (above, III, 4) of inviting the entire community to the siyyum (Yosef Ometz, parag. 688, p. 273).
  4. R. Yuzpe Shamash (Worms, 1613-1678) devoted an entire section of his book of customs to “Minhag Siyyum Massekhta” (Minhagim dk”k Vermaiza, Vol. 2, Jerusalem, 1992, No. 263, pp. 118-120; cf. Golinkin, note 5a for earlier printings of this source).

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”.

  1. The last testimony from Europe is that of R. Yair Hayyim Bachrach (Germany, 1638-1702) in his Responsa Havot Yair,No. 70. In 1681, he was asked to define a “se’udat mitzvah” because someone had vowed not to eat at an optional meal. He rules that a siyyum is definitely a se’udat mitzvah (as in source I, 1 above, about making a feast for a completion of the Torah) and so is the next day’s feast, the noch tzech. Interestingly enough, he rejects the proof from source I, 2 about Abbaye since that feast could have been hibuv mitzvah(love of a mitzvah) as opposed to a se’udat mitzvah. In any case, this feast does not require proof. Since it is done at the completion of a mitzvah, it is obviously a se’udat mitzvah. Similarly, a person who makes a feast when he was miraculously saved from danger or a feast made by someone who donated a Sefer Torah…to the synagogue “and also a feast made by a havurah [= study group] who learn together when they have completed a Sefer (book)”.

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.

  1. Sefardic Sources ca. 1530-1750

Until now, we have only quoted Ashkenazic and Italian sources for the siyyum. Now we shall quote two Sefardic sources:

  1. R. Yosef Alashkar (Tlemcen, Algeria, 1529 quoted by Simcha Assaf, Mekorot L’toledot Hahinnukh B’yisrael, Vol. 3, Tel Aviv, 1936, pp. 10-11 = second edition, edited by Shmuel Glick, Vol. 2, Jerusalem, 2001, pp. 485-486):

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.

  1. Rabbi Moshe Hagiz (born in Jerusalem, 1672-1751) mentions the se’udat siyyum tangentially in his book Mishnat Hakhamim (Wansbek, 1743, fol. 89c). In general, he is opposed to feasts with meat and wine because they lead to frivolity which serves no purpose (cf. Kohelet 2:2-3). He then warns those who make a siyyum massekhet in his day who drag out the meal for 4-5 hours and drink wine, beer and whiskey and coffee and tea and smoke “pipe tobacco”.

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.

  1. V. Responsa of the Aharonim [Later Authorities]

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 MeivinOraḥ 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.

  1. Eliezer Deutsch also forbids such a siyyum “because the wordmassekhta refers more to Gemara” and even if mishnayot are also called massekhet, that was for them who knew all of the Gemaracommentaries on the Mishnah, “but for us, a massekhet must include the Gemara” (Responsa Pri Sadeh, Part II, Paks, 1909, No. 92, parag. 2 but cf. his second responsum quoted below). Here again it is difficult to accept his opinion, because he contradicts the simple meaning of the Gemara in Shabbat.
  2. b) It is forbidden on Passover Eve for the Firstborn Siyyum,but it is permissible for the nine days before Tisha B’av:
  3. Shalom Joseph Halevi Feigenboim  admits to the questioner that now, since there are commentaries in the printed editions of theMishnah, he who learns the Mishnah with the commentaries is like one who learns Gemara, but he adds: “go and look what the people do, and one does a siyyum for the Firstborn only on aGemara Tractate and not on mishnayot, even though on the Nine Days of Av people are more lenient and do a siyyum on a MishnahTractate”. (Responsa Meishiv Shalom, Bilgoray, 1931, No. 230, parag. 5.  The responsum was printed again from a manuscript by R. Meir Amsel in Responsa Hamaor, Vol. 1, New York, 1967, p. 508 and from there it was summarized by R. Ze’ev Dov Slonim, Sha’areiHalakhah, Jerusalem , 1978, No. 118, p. 67)

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.

  1. c) One is allowed to exempt oneself from the fast, but should not exempt others:

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.

  1. d) It is allowed for a Talmid Ḥakham who has some knowledge of Gemara:
  2. Eliezer Deutsch (Responsa Pri Sadeh, Part 3, Paks, 1913, No. 91, parag. 1) changed his mind (as many have stressed even though he claimed that there is no contradiction with his precedingresponsum) and ruled under the influence of the inquirer that: “ATalmid Ḥakham who learns mishnayot with commentaries will definitely find many subjects that bring joy to the heart and may therefore do a se’udat siyyum” but ignorant people [amei ha’aretz] cannot do it.

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.

  1. e) It is permissible:

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

  1. Israel Landa (Responsa Beit Israel cited in note 11) testifies that his father R. Shalom Landa used to do a siyyum on the TractateKallah and also saw that it was a custom to do a siyyum on the Minor Tractates. This is also the opinion of R. Natanel ha-Kohen Fried (Responsa Penei Meivin quoted above in V, 1) although he does not give any explanation. R. Ovadia Yossef (Responsa YabiaOmer quoted above in V, 4, c) also rules this way and refers among other sources to Responsa Ḥavot Yair (above, III, 9) who says that one can do a siyyum on any “sefer” that is completed by group of people.

6) The Tractate Derekh Eretz

  1. Sholom Mordechai Schwadron (Da’at Torah on Oraḥ Ḥayyim551: 1, 10, Part 6, Jerusalem, 1973, p. 93) maintains on the basis of Peri Megadim on Oraḥ Ḥayyim 102, Mishbetzot Zahav, subpar. 4 (which is based on Baḥ to Oraḥ Ḥayyim 102 s.v. ma shekatavrabeinu) that “Hilkhot Derekh Eretz are not called Torah”. Therefore the Maharsham rules that one cannot eat meat before Tisha B’Av following a siyyum on the Tractate Derekh Eretz.However, this is an artificial distinction. The author of Peri Megadimspoke about Hilkhot Derekh Eretz and not about MassekhetDerekh Eretz (cf. the author of Pitḥa Zuta cited in YesodeiYeshurun, p. 44). In any case, there is no obligation to rule like Rabbi Schwadron.  Therefore, if one may do a Siyyum on the Minor Tractates, one can do a siyyum on 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.

  1. Shlomo Kluger (Responsa Ha’elef Lekha Shlomo, Bilgoray, 1931-1932, No. 386) allowed a siyyum on one of the Books of the Prophets on Passover Eve on the condition that the person studied this book for its own sake. However if he studied it with the intention of doing a siyyum, he cannot do a siyyum over it. On the other hand, if one learned a lengthy Tractate of Gemara with the intention of doing a siyyum, this is permissible because of the nature of learning. However, R. Kluger does not bring any proof for this distinction; it is simply his own logic.
  2. Moshe Feinstein (Responsa Igrot Moshe, Part 1, New York, 1959, No. 157) allows a siyyum on a biblical book if it was studied in depth “According to the true meaning, which is according to one of the commentaries of our Rabbis the Rishonim”. He bases himself on the Gemara in Bava Batra 121b with the commentary of the Rashba and the Nimukei Yosef ad loc. that one can do a se’udatsiyyum after completing every great mitzvah. But this source is doubtful and it is difficult to base oneself on it alone (see Golinkin, pp. 89-90).
  3. Gedalia Felder (Yesodei Yeshurun, above, V, 2,  pp. 52-53) also allows a siyyum on a biblical book, basing himself on the sameGemara in Bava Batra 121b, Shir Hashirim Raba (above I, 1) andResponsa Ḥavat Yair (above III, 9).  Indeed, the last two sources can serve as a basis for this custom. R. Elazar (or R. Yitzḥak) spoke about the siyyum of the Torah which resembles the conclusion of a biblical book and the author of Ḥavat Yair allows asiyyum on any sefer learned by a group.

8) One book of the Zohar or the entire Zohar

  1. Masud ha-Kohen (Responsa Pirḥei Kehuna, Casablanca, 1948, Part Oraḥ Ḥayim, No. 13) allowed a siyyum on the entire book of the Zohar for the fast of the Firstborn. R. Ovadia Yossef (ḤazonOvadia on the Passover Haggadah, third edition, Jerusalem, 1979, p. 98, note 40) allowed a siyyum even on one of the books of the Zohar, and in two of his books (ibid. and Responsa Yabia Omerloc. cit.) he allowed a siyyum on the Zohar even if the person who learned it did not understand its secrets.  R. Masud ha-Kohen based himself on R. Shlomo Luria and Ḥavot Yair who spoke about a Siyyum Sefer (= Book) which could also include the Zohar. (It is true that Ḥavot Yair spoke about any book, but R. Shlomo Luria, spoke about “Hasefer“, “the book”, which means a tractate of Talmud – see note 9). He adds that the Zohar is full of Mishnayotand Beraitot and the merit of learning it brings the Messiah. He concludes: “And in the past it was the custom in Israel, at the end of  learning  the Zohar, to have a big meal and the joy was great among them” and it is certainly a se’udat mitzvah. Of course this approach is very far from the simple meaning of the Gemara inShabbat and from the custom of the early and later halakhicauthorities that we have reviewed above, but it does correspond to the approach of  Ḥavot Yair.

9) One Chapter of the Gemara

  1. Joseph Mashash (Responsa Mayim Ḥayim, cited in note 1) allows this custom for a few reasons:
  2. a) There is no difference between the siyyum of a Tractate or of a Chapter – the main thing is to complete one branch of the Torah and every Chapter deals with another subject, this is why each Chapter concludes with the words “Hadran alakh…”.
  3. b) It is written in Bava Batra 121b and the Rashbam ad loc. that it is fitting to rejoice and to declare a holiday when one completes a great  mitzvah, all the more so when one completes a Chapter of Torah study. He also adds interesting testimony:

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. VI) Conclusions

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”.

David Golinkin
Jerusalem
29 Tammuz 5769


Bibliography

  1. Shlomo Borenstein, “Siyyum” etc., Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society 28 (Fall 1994), pp. 54-72
  2. Moshe Dinin, Yoma Tava L’rabbanam, Modi’in Ilit, 5764, 376 pp.
  3. David Golinkin, “A Responsum Concerning the Se’udat Siyyum Bekhorot on Arvey Pesahim”, Eit La’asot 1 (Summer 1988), pp. 88-102
  4. Eliezer Grossman, V’ha’er Eineinu:  Inyeney Siyyum Hamassekhet, Jeruslaem, 5765, 392 pp.

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.

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