With the festival of Pesach coming up, many of us will be thinking of which siyum to make on Erev Pesach. The reason for this is that while there is a custom for firstborns to fast on Erev Pesach because they were spared from death at the time of the death of Egyptian firstborns, this custom is waived if the firstborn makes a siyum (or attends one; see below).
For this reason, many plan a siyum on Erev Pesach—either for their own benefit as firstborns, or for the benefit of family and friends who require a siyum to allow them to eat.
In the present article, we will therefore discuss the laws and customs related to making a siyum, both during the year and specifically for Erev Pesach. Which Torah works warrant the making of a siyum upon their completion? Which foods ought to be served as part of the siyum celebration? What other halachic ramifications does making a siyum have?
These questions, among others, are discussed below.
Joy of the Siyum
The idea of celebrating the completion of a significant section of Torah study is noted by the Gemara (Shabbos 118b). The Gemara details how Abaye, upon seeing a talmid chacham who completed a tractate of the Talmud, would honor the occasion by making a “holiday for the rabbis.” The study of an entire tractate of Talmud is clearly a reason for special joy, and the event warrants a celebration by means of a festive meal.
Another source for this practice is the Gemara in Bava Basra (121b), which states that one of the reasons for rejoicing on the 15th of Av (which is a joyous occasion, as noted by the Mishnah at the end of Taanis) is that this was the day on which the gathering of the wood to be used in the Temple sacrifices was completed. The Nimmukei Yosef notes that this reflects the joy latent in completing a mitzvah (as the Rashbam also explains), and the Maharshal (Yam Shel Shlomo, Bava Kama 7:37) derives the corresponding joy of completing a Talmudic tractate, explaining that the siyum celebration is an expression of thanks to Hashem for the opportunity to have completed the tractate.
The Rema (Yoreh De’ah 246:26) rules that the celebratory meal at a siyum is considered a se’udas mitzvah (see below). The Taz (246:9) adds that even others, who have not completed the material, have a mitzvah to celebrate with the person making the siyum. This ruling is elaborated upon at in Shut Chavos Yair (no. 70), who explains that since completing a section of Torah study involves the completion of a mitzvah, it is certainly a seudas mitzvah.
What Needs to be Competed?
The Gemara mentions the completion of a tractate of Talmud as worthy of a celebration. Which other Torah sections qualify for a siyum?
The Pnei Yehoshua (Berachos 17a) writes that a siyum can be made upon completing the study of a book of Tanach (he refers to the book of Iyov), writing that if a siyum is made on a tractate of Talmud, this is all the more true for a book of Tanach. This is also the opinion of Shut Iggros Moshe (Orach Chaim 1:157; 2:12).
Rav Shlomo Kluger (Shut Ha-Elef Lecha Shlomo, Orach Chaim 386) likewise writes that a siyum can be made over completing a book of Tanach. However, he stipulates that it must not be studied solely for the sake of completing a siyum. Unlike a long tractate of Talmud, which can be studied only for the sake of the siyum, Rav Kluger maintains that a book of Tanach only qualifies for a siyum if studied for the sake of study and the Sefer is completed by chance on Erev Pesach. Since this qualifies as a siyum, it will be sufficient for the purpose of eating on Erev Pesach (and also for eating meat in the Nine Days, as mentioned by the Iggros Moshe).
Rav Sternbuch (Teshuvos VeHanhagos 1:300) writes that under extenuating circumstances, one can be lenient to make an intentional siyum by completing a book of Tanach with the commentary of Rashi.
Completing the Maseches
The Shach (Yoreh De’ah 246:27, citing Maharam Mintz) writes that in order to make the siyum upon finishing a tractate, it is important to leave over a small portion to be recited at the actual siyum. Note that there is no need to study the tractate in the regular order, and even when studied out of order the siyum can be made (Shut Minchas Yitzchak 2:93:4).
Some authorities recommend that the person making the siyum should leave over a relatively simple passage of Gemara, so that others present at the siyum should understand it and be able to fully participate in the siyum—including eating even when fasting as firstborns on Erev Pesach, or eating meat during the Nine Days (Ben Ish Chai, Tzav 1:25). The Mishna Beruro (470, 10) likewise writes that the minhag was that everyone would listen to the one who concluded the learning.
However, the common custom is that those present at the siyum fully participate even they did not understand the portion of Gemara left over for the siyum.
Fast of the Firstborns
The Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 470:1) notes the custom that the firstborn of each family fasts of Erev Pesach, commemorating the miracle that the firstborns of Israel were saved from makos bechoros (see Mishnah Berurah 1). The Mishnah Berurah (10) notes the custom to make a siyum on Erev Pesach and the firstborns present partake in the siyum, which permits them to eat during the rest of the day. This parallels the ruling of the Rema concerning the Nine Days: Although we do not eat meat and drink wine in the Nine Days, the Rema (551:10) rules that it is permitted to do so at a siyum meal.
Although the Mishnah Berurah mentions that some are stringent in this matter (and are particular to actually complete the fast; see also Shut Teshuvah Me’Avaha, as cited by Shut Minchas Yitzchak 2:93, who is especially stringent in this matter), the Aruch Hashulchan (470:5) writes that the universal custom for several generations is for firstborns to eat at a siyum. He explains this custom as developing because of the relative weakness of later generations, and because the fast itself is not Talmudic in origin, but rather became a custom in later generations.
The wording of the Aruch Hashulchan implies that one must actually partake of some food at the time of the siyum, which then permits the firstborn to continue eating later. Rav Moshe Sternbuch (Teshuvos VeHanhagos 1:300) makes this ruling explicit, stating that if a firstborn did not himself make a siyum, but was only present when somebody else made a siyum, he must eat at the siyum in order to permit him to eat later. He disputes the lenient ruling given on this matter by Shut Rivevos Efraim 1:296.
In fact, Shut Minchat Yitzchak (8:45) points out for the purpose of eating meat in the Nine Days, it is only permitted to eat meat at the siyum, and not to continue eating meat later, at home. Although King Shlomo made a seven-day feast when he consecrated the Temple, which is also a potential source for the siyum concept—as noted by the Pischei Teshuva (246:8)—we do not extend the idea to the same degree for making a siyum.
This being the case, the Minchas Yitzchak asks—citing Eretz Tzvi (79)—why is it permitted for firstborns who made a siyum (and the more so for those who were only present at a siyum) to eat the whole day on Erev Pesach after they broke their fast at the siyum? In response to this he explains (also from Eretz Tzvi) that there are two components to a fast day: a negative prohibition against eating, and a positive instruction to fast. On the Fast of the Firstborns, there is only an obligation to fast but no prohibition against eating, since there is no need to afflict oneself. Therefore, after eating in the morning, the obligation to fast is no longer applicable since one has already eaten, and there never was a prohibition against eating.
- If one cannot partake in the siyum in person, some permit listening to it via the telephone. This should only be relied on in extraordinary situations (sefer Yoma Tova L’rabanan 70, footnote 16, citing Rav Shlomo Zalman Aurbach zt”l; also cited in Maadanei Shlomo (Moadim), p. 2)
- Some Poskim rule that when a siyum will be taking place in a shul, no tachnun is said (this ruling is given by Shut Yabia Omer 4:13). However, others rule that tachnun is recited as usual (see Shut Tzitz Eliezer 11:17:6). The latter is the common custom. Of course, this does not pertain to Erev Pesach when we anyway don’t recite
- Some write that a tractate may be divided up between many people, each one finishing a portion, and a siyum made by all of them together (Kinyan Torah 5:52). Others say that this should not generally be relied upon for eating meat in the Nine Days (see Yoma Tava Le’Rabanan 95, note 16).