Making a Siyum: Ending or Beginning?
Where Does the Concept of Making a Siyum Come From?
The Talmud, Tractate Shabbat 118b-119a, relates that Abaye would make a special festive meal for anyone who completed a tractate. This concept is codified in the Code of Jewish Law (see Yoreh Deah 246:26) as well. Rabbi Moshe Isserles rules that on finishing a tractate it is correct to rejoice and to make a festive meal, and that is classified as a Seudat Mitzvah – a special meal that is similar to the ones eaten on Festival days. This is why there is a custom to light two candles at the Seudat Mitzvah.
Interestingly enough, one of the classic commentaries on the Talmud, Rabbi Shmuel Eliezer Eidels, known as the Maharsha, cites a much earlier source for making a special festive meal on completing Torah works. The Midrash relates that, after being granted infinite wisdom by God, King Solomon made a festive meal for all of his servants. This, notes the Midrash, is the source for making a celebration upon completing the Torah. Just as the increase of wisdom of one man was a cause for celebration for his entire entourage, so too is the increase of Torah knowledge a reason to celebrate. This is why we celebrate on Simchat Torah when the cycle of reading the Torah is completed, and this is the same reason that we celebrate a siyumon a tractate.
There Is yet another source for making a siyum that is found in the Talmud. The fifteenth day of the month of Av is considered to be a very festive day. The Talmud, Tractates Bava Batra 121b and Ta’anit, explain that the reason for the festivities was that on the 15th of Av all the cutting of the wood that was going to be used in the Temple Services was completed.
What Constitutes a Seudat Mitzvah?
Rabbi Yair Chaim Bacharach, in his Chavot Yair (70), cites Rabbi Sholmo Luria, known as the Maharshal, who writes that any meal that a person makes together with his friends, either in order to show gratitude to God or to publicize a miracle that occurred to him, constitutes a Seudat Mitzvah. Anyone who joins in such a gathering is considered to have partaken of the Seudat Mitzvah together with the person who is actually making it.
The Chavot Yair explains that at a siyum, it is the joy and delight at the person’s achievement that turns the meal into a Seudat Mitzvah.
What Is Served at a Seudat Mitzvah?
It is customary to wash and to eat bread at a Seudat Mitzvah. Many people have the custom to serve a meat meal. However, Rabbi Moshe Sternbuch, in his Teshuvot v’Hanhagot, rules that this is not obligatory. He writes that a Seudat Mitzvah needs to be a meal that one would be happy to serve to important guests.
On What Kind of Works Can a Siyum Be Made?
There are several works that a person can make a Siyum on completing:
- On finishing an entire Tractate of either the Babylonian Talmud or the Jerusalem Talmud
- Completing an entire Order of the Mishna (the Mishna is comprised of six different Orders)
- On completing the entire Five Books of Moses together with a commentary (see Iggrot Moshe Orach Chaim 1:157)
- Learning one of the books of the Prophets together with a commentary from one of the Early Authorities (Rishonim) (see Rabbi Shlomo Kluger’s Haelef Lecha Shlomo, Orach Chaim 386; and Iggrot Moshe ibid.)
- Completing one of the four sections of the Code of Jewish Law
- Learning the whole of the Rambam’s Mishneh Torah
- Completion of the writing of a scholarly work of Torah novella (see She’arim Metzuyanim Behalacha 113:10)
How Must the Tractate Be Learned in Order to be Able to Make a Siyum?
In its simplest terms, the tractate needs to have been understood by the person learning it to be able to make a siyum. According to some opinions, if the person understood the majority of what he learned, he can make a siyum, despite the fact that there were parts that he did not understand – either clearly or at all.
What Does the Siyum Entail?
The very last words of whatever is being learned should be left unlearned until the siyum. That last piece should then be learned at the siyum and all those who attend should participate in the festive meal. In fact, Rabbi Shabbtai HaKohen, known as the Shach, writes (Yoreh Deah 246:27) that it is a great Mitzvah to attend a siyum and the following festive meal, even if the person attending had no part whatsoever in the learning of the tractate that was completed.
There are a series of beautiful prayers that are recited at the conclusion of the tractate and if there is a minyan present, a special Kaddish is recited.
When Should the Siyum Be Made?
Preferably the siyum should be made close to the time that the person learning the material finished it. The reason is that the finishing of a tractate is the source of great joy and if there is a large gap between finishing and making the siyum the joy will have lessened. Rabbi Yitzchak Weiss (Minchat Yitzchak 2:93) defines what is called a long time. He writes that one who finishes a tractate the week before Pesach can take his time over the last part in order to be able to make a siyum on Erev Pesach. However, if someone has basically finished learning the tractate a few months before, they should not wait concluding the tractate just to make the siyum on Erev Pesach.
The Shach (ibid.), citing the Maharam Mintz, explains that if a person does need to wait a little while, so that he can make the siyum on a particular date – for example on a yahrzeit, he should deliberately leave over the last few lines and only finish them on the actual day of the siyum, to ensure that that the joy will be complete.
Is It Permissible for a Few People to Learn Different Parts of the Tractate and Make a Siyum Together?
Yes, it is (see Chavot Yair and Maharshal ibid.). If possible, all those who learned the tractate should endeavor to gather together and to celebrate collectively.
Is It Always Correct to Make a Siyum?
In general. yes. However, this is somewhat difficult to quantify. The Sanz-Klausenberg Rebbe, Rabbi Yekutiel Yehudah Halberstam, in his Divrei Yatziv, has an original perspective, that if a person does not really invest a great amount of effort in his learning, he should not make a Seudat Mitzvah (even if he makes a siyum and invites others to participate). However, Rabbi Halberstam adds that the vast majority of those who make siyumim [plural of siyum] do so by utilizing their most intense intellectual capacities and there is absolutely no reason to assume that the siyum a person is making does not fall into that category.
Rabbi Halbertsam ends his teshuvah with a fascinating and intriguing idea. He cites the opinion of Rabbeinu Gershom, one of the greatest scholars in Jewish history, who lived one thousand years ago, that a major reason for celebrating a siyum is that the person making the siyum is committing himself to begin learning another tractate straight away. That would explain the beautiful custom that many people have to start learning the next tractate immediately after making the siyum.
Organize a Siyum online at Ohr Somayach's www.hadranalach.com