Siyumim During the Nine Days: Sanctioned or Sacrilege?

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

by Moshe Kurtz

I. The Prohibition of Consuming Meat and Wine During the Nine Days

The Talmud (Bava Basra 60b) relates a fundamental anecdote in which, following the destruction of the second Temple, a portion of the Jewish population sought to abstain from consuming meat and wine. R. Yehoshua, being troubled by this extreme measure, engaged in a dialogue with these individuals to ascertain their rationale. The ascetics responded, “How can we eat meat, the food that was brought on the altar, and how can we drink wine that was used for libations in the holy Temple!” R. Yehoshua replied that this would lead to a reductio ad absurdum: By their logic, they would have to abstain from water too, for water was also brought as a libation in the Temple! Therefore, R. Yehoshua declared, “To not mourn at all is untenable…but to mourn excessively is also impossible.” (The continuation of the Gemara gives moderate suggestions for commemorating the loss of the Temple such as leaving a small part of one’s house unfinished.)

While R. Yehoshua makes it clear that we do not abstain from meat all year long, there is a Mishnah (Ta’anis 26b) that prohibits the consumption of meat and wine during seudah hamafsekes, the final meal prior to the fast of Tisha B’Av. It would seem that aside for the short amount of time prior to Tisha B’Av one would be permitted to barbeque, go wine tasting and enjoy his meat and wine whenever he deems fit. However, later authorities thought that prohibiting meat and wine beyond the seudah hamafsekes would not constitute a breach of excessive mourning. The Shulchan Aruch (O.C. 551:9) codifies three opinions as to when the prohibition of consuming meat begins:

1) During the week that Tisha B’Av takes place (shavuah shechal bo)

2) From the beginning of the month of Av a.k.a “The Nine Days”

3) From the onset of the Three Weeks, starting Shiva Asar B’Tammuz.

The Rema (and Mishnah Berurah more explicitly) rules that Ashkenazim have accepted the second opinion which prohibits the consumption of meat and wine during the nine days prior to Tisha B’Av.

The question that needs to be asked is, if that is the case, why do we see so many Ashkenazi Jews consuming meat and wine during the Nine Days? 1) One answer, of course, is that some people are either not aware or not careful about this stricture. 2) However, the other answer is that there are significant dispensations to this rule.

For the people of the first category, R. Yechiel Michel Epstein (Aruch HaShulchan 551:24) pens a scathing rebuke: “How can we not be embarrassed and ashamed? For there are many nations that abstain from meat, milk and eggs for weeks at a time, and we the Children of Israel who are commanded ‘you shall be holy’ are not capable of restraining ourselves for eight days to remember the destruction of our sacred and glorious temple!”

We will not be addressing the first category, as our premise, of course, is that halacha is binding. Therefore, for those who are abiding by the strictures of the Nine Days, how do they circumvent the ban on meat and wine?

For that, we turn to the subsequent Rema (O.C. 551:10), who permits the consumption of meat and wine at a seudas mitzvah, a meal which celebrate the completion of a significant religious milestone or achievement. The examples listed are a bris (circumcision), pidyon haben (redemption of firstborn child), engagement meal, and most notably, a siyum meseches, the completion of a Talmudic tractate. [1]R. Moshe Feinstein, (Igros Moshe O.C. 1:157) holds that the completion of a book of Tanach (Bible) learned rigorously with traditional commentaries can qualify for a seudas mitzvah. However, he … Continue reading

II. Two Issues with Siyumim for Summer Camps

There is a common occurrence that takes place in Jewish summer camps where a brave trooper will valiantly rush his way throughout Meseches Horiyos (which is not even 14 full blat), recite the concluding passage in the cafeteria, thereby effectuating a siyum meseches and enabling the camp’s kitchen to not deviate from its regular schedule of serving meat meals. This clearly smacks of a harama, a loophole. Our goal will be to discover whether this practice is permissible. However, before we ask whether these deliberate mass siyumim are permissible, why they might be prohibited.

1. The first issue is for the individual making the siyum. R. Yisroel Meir Kagan (Mishnah Berurah 551:10:73) as well as other recent authorities, quote the Elya Rabbah who prohibits an individual to accelerate or delay his learning schedule so that it can coincide with the Nine Days. (To give a practical example, if someone learns a daf (one page) of Gemara each day, he would be forbidden to learn and extra daf or skip a daf with the intention of making it coincide with the Nine Days for the sake of eating meat. R. Epstein (Aruch HaShulchan 551:28) calls this a davar m’chuar, a detestable practice. Moreover, if someone would not make a siyum meal for finishing such a tractate during other points of the year, he would not be permitted to make a seudas mitzvah for the sake of permitting meat during the Nine Days.

R. Yitzchok Yaakov Weiss (Shu”t Minchas Yitzchok 2:93) suggests that this is not just a meta-halachic issue. When it comes to a mitzvah that does not have a concrete action assigned to it, the individual performing the mitzvah must have the special intention of fulfilling the mitzvah for the sake of the mitzvah. Therefore, if one is only making a siyum for the sake of eating meat his joy is not a joy of mitzvah but a joy of food, thus precluding the right to make a seudas mitzvah. What is fascinating about this approach is that if someone disregarded the Mishnah Berurah the siyum would technically still be valid, according to the Minchas Yitzchok it would still remain forbidden to eat meat since this meal does not have the status of a seudas mitzvah!

2. Let’s say we are dealing with a case where the person making the siyum did not intend to finish his mesechta (tractate) during the Nine Days, but it occurred by happenstance i.e. as intended by halachah. There is still a second issue to contend with – who is allowed to partake in this meat meal? The Rema (ibid) delineates two periods that are important for our purposes: (1) The Nine Days and (2) the week that Tisha B’Av takes place a.k.a shavua shechal bo.

(1) In regard to the Nine Days the Rema says “…all who are connected to the meal (may eat meat). However, one should make sure to compact and not to add (additional people).” But how much is too much? The Mishnah Berurah (ibid, 75) understands that the people who qualify for the dispensation by attending the meal are those who would go out of their way to attend the same siyum had it occurred outside of the Nine Days. In the following note he writes that “He who does not come because of closeness and comradery but instead to eat and drink bears a sin.”

(2) Once we reach the week of Tisha B’Av the Rema limits the attendees to a “precise minyan”. Mishnah Berurah (ibid, 77) elucidates this as meaning 10 people in addition to the family members.

After all is said and done, it is difficult to make the case that one can deliberately schedule a siyum for a camp to eat meat during the Nine Days. Besides for the scheduling issue, the assortment of staff and campers would likely not make a point to attend a siyum in camp had it not occurred during the Nine Days, hence, they would not qualify for the dispensation to eat meat during the Nine Days and all the more so during the week of Tisha B’Av.

III. Possible Yet Tenuous Grounds for Leniency

Now that we have established our baseline that deliberate mass siyumim for the sake of eating meat are prohibited, we will analyze possible leniencies and explore whether they can be applied to our camp scenario.

1. The Aruch HaShulchan (ibid) remarks that it might be possible to allow a deliberate siyum during the Nine Days if it will encourage further Torah learning. However, he gives an important qualification which limits the beneficiaries of the siyum to “Torah scholars who are connected to the enterprise of learning Torah”. This source would not help our scenario as it is fair to assume that middle school children generally do not qualify as Torah scholars.

2. The Beiur Halachah (551:10) cites R. Yaakov Emden who holds that the people who facilitate the learning through sponsorship or helped organize the meal would be permitted to take part in the meat and wine. While this would include waiters and kitchen staff, it still would not be helpful for permitting an entire camp.

3. The Piskei Teshuvos (551:10:38 Fn. 196) quotes a number of Chassidic sources that not only see deliberate siyumim during the Nine Days as permissible, but distort it into being treated as a mitzvah:

1)  The Chiddushei HaRim reasoned that if the temple was destroyed due to baseless hatred, creating gatherings where people build social bonds with each other can be viewed as a commendable way to rectify such a transgression.

2)  The Kedushas Yom Tov believed that since Tisha B’Av would one day become a time of joy, it is incumbent upon us to imitate that which we aspire to attain.

3)  The most intriguing opinion is attributed to the Sha’ar Yisoschor who says that Esav’s (Esau) angel Samael is and acronym for Siyum Meseches Ein La’asos (do not make a siyum). Since the months of Tammuz and Av are under the power of Samael, it is laudable to make a siyum in order to counteract his power.

While these are certainly fascinating opinions, R. Eliezer Melamed (Peninei Halachah, Zmanim 8:15 Fn. 11) notes that these are not accepted as normative halachah. In other words, these sources would be helpful for understanding how camps allow deliberate mass siyumim during the Nine Days – however, since these opinions have no significance in normative halachic discourse and are clearly not in accordance with the rest of our halachic tradition on the topic they cannot be used to justify our practices.

4. At some point we may be wondering, how do many religiously devout institutions, such as yehivas, get away with making mass siyumim during the Nine Days? [2]There is a story recorded in Kra Ali Moed (Ch. 5) that during the first World War, Rabbi Yaakov Yisrael Kanievsky (the Steipler Gaon) only had meat in his yeshiva. Due to the extenuating … Continue reading One answer is that in the charedi community, the school year for high school and beyond does not end in June. Many yeshivos and batei medresh will continue their studies in summer camp locations. In Israel the zman (semester) actually concludes with Tisha B’Av. Hence, the yeshiva will likely be finishing whichever Gemara it decided to learn that year around Tisha B’Av i.e. the Nine Days. Therefore, they are not scheduling it deliberately for the Nine Days and the yeshiva students are certainly considered a part of the learning community, thus being eligible to be included in the dispensation to eat meat at the meal (Peninei Halachah, ibid).

IV. Conclusion

Returning to our regular run of the mill Orthodox summer camp, can we turn to anyone who gives an actual heter for mass siyumim which can legitimately include everyone? R. Gavriel Zinner (Netaei Gavriel, Bein Hamitzarim Vol.1, 41:4 Fn. 6) cites R. Moshe Feinstein as permitting siyumim to be made for the benefit of a yeshiva, camp or “the country” i.e. Jewish bungalow colonies in Sullivan County, NY. The comprehensive book on the topic of siyumim, Yoma Tava L’Rabanan (8:9 Fn. 10 p. 94) explains that “since during the summer months it is the norm that when a simcha (Jewish celebration) is made we call out (invite) to all the members of the yeshiva or all the members of the bungalow colony” so too we invite them all during the Nine Days.

This is important to understand properly: We saw in the Mishnah Berurah, one is only allowed to partake in a meat siyum during the Nine Days as long as he would attend it outside of the Nine Days. The permission being extended by Rav Moshe is in line with the same logic – since someone making a siyum during the Nine Days invites their entire bungalow colony or yeshiva to attend during other times of the year, it is therefore reasonable that those same people should be able to attend and eat meat when it happens to occur during the Nine Days.

If we are to apply this to a camp setting the same principle would apply. If it is the norm for the camp to host a siyumim and cater a meat meal in the cafeteria when it is not the Nine Days, it would be permissible to continue that practice during the Nine Days and serve the same kind of meat meal.

However, my experience as a member of a camp beis medresh (Torah learning program) was that whenever we made a siyum we only made it exclusively in the presence of the beis medresh crowd. In that case, it would be forbidden to utilize one of the members of the beis medresh simply as a means to allowing others to eat meat during the Nine Days.

The purpose of a seudas mitzvah, a meal celebrating a mitzvah, is to glorify a religious milestone or accomplishment. If we celebrate the glory of God’s Torah all year long, then it would be proper to continue doing so during the Nine Days. However, if we do not glorify God’s Torah all year long by publicizing siyumim, then the siyum publicized exclusively during the Nine Days is a farce. As the Minchas Yitzchok put it, instead of celebrating the Torah, we are, God forbid, appropriating it for our own mundane benefit.

Endnotes

1R. Moshe Feinstein, (Igros Moshe O.C. 1:157) holds that the completion of a book of Tanach (Bible) learned rigorously with traditional commentaries can qualify for a seudas mitzvah. However, he requires that it be learned with a traditional medieval commentary as opposed to recent writers. The question of what qualifies for a siyum other than a tractate of Talmud is beyond the scope of this essay.
2There is a story recorded in Kra Ali Moed (Ch. 5) that during the first World War, Rabbi Yaakov Yisrael Kanievsky (the Steipler Gaon) only had meat in his yeshiva. Due to the extenuating circumstances, the students decided to schedule siyumim during the Nine Days. This is, of course, not generalizable to our summer camp scenario in which there are presumably alternatives to meat.

About Moshe Kurtz

Rabbi Moshe Kurtz is Assistant Rabbi at Congregation Agudath Sholom of Stamford, CT. He welcomes questions, feedback and speaking requests at: [email protected].

3 comments

  1. While there certainly are poskim who frown on timing a siyum to coincide with a specific time (e.g. the 9 days), as you point out in your article, there are many who do approve of this practice. For example, see Shach, YD 246:27 (quoting Maharam Mintz), Da’as Torah, O. Ch 551:10, Piskei Teshuvos, 551:38, Moadei Yeshurun (R. Aharon Felder) page 132, Yesodei Yeshurun (R. Gedaia Felder) pp. 38-39. The son of the Kesav Sofer, Rav Shimon Sofer (author of Hisorerus Teshuva) purposely delayed making a siyum until the 9 days (see Piskei Teshuvos cited above footnote 196). There are many, many more examples. I would suggest that פוק חזי מאי עמא דבר, this is the practice of many today, and it would be unfair to ascribe nefarious intent to those who do time a siyum, considering the large amount of historical halachic support. Thank you for your informative article.

  2. Thank you for your response.
    There are certainly sources as you cited that indicate that one need not be be precise with the timing of his siyum. I didn’t elaborate on this point as our scenario primarily concerns someone scheduling a siyum for the Nine Days l’chatchila as opposed to realizing he is finishing the mesechta around the Nine Days.
    Other than Rav Shimon Sofer, do any of these indicate that one can schedule their siyum for the Nine Days from the outset?

  3. An additional point – לפענ”ד, while the Maharam Mintz is often cited as the precedent for delaying siyumim, he is discussing postponement until an appropriate time for kavod haTorah: יומא דראוי לתקן סעודה נאה לכבוד התורה ותלמידיהון
    Therefore, it seems to me that postponing a siyum specifically for the Nine Days would be antithetical to this logic – especially if the purpose if for kavod habasar as opposed to kavod HaTorah.

    (Some Chassidic sources believe that the Nine Days is an appropriate time, but I addressed in the article how these positions run contrary to normative Ashkenazic tradition.)

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: