Is It A Mitzvah to Attend A Siyum Ha-Shas?

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by R. Gil Student

I. Sources For A Siyum

Is it a mitzvah to attend a Siyum HaShas, a celebration of completing the study of the entire Babylonian Talmud, if you have not done the learning yourself? To answer that, first we need to explore the reason to celebrate a siyum. The Gemara (Ta’anis 31a) says that Tu Be-Av is a minor holiday because during the time of the Temple, this is the day on which we stopped cutting wood for the altar. Completing this annual mitzvah was sufficient reason to celebrate. Similarly, completing any mitzvah — including learning a specific text — merits celebration.

Rav Yosef Karo (16th cen., Israel; Beis Yosef, Orach Chaim 669) quotes the midrash (Shir Ha-Shirim Rabbah 1:9) about King Shlomo’s reaction to divinely achieving great wisdom: “And he came to Jerusalem, and stood before the ark of the covenant of the Lord, and offered up burnt-offerings, and offered peace-offerings, and made a feast to all his servants” (1 Kings 3:15). The midrash learns from this feast that we also make a feast whenever completing the Torah. Beis Yosef and others apply this to the annual completion of the Torah reading cycle on Simchas Torah. Presumably, it applies to any siyum, as well.

The Gemara (Shabbos 118a) says that whenever Abaye saw a Torah scholar finish a masechta (tractate of Mishnah or Talmud), Abaye would celebrate a holiday for rabbis. Rav Shlomo Luria (Maharshal; 16th cen., Poland; Yam Shel Shlomo, Bava Kamma, end of ch. 7) infers from this brief mention that even those who do not study the material should celebrate. Abaye did not study and not only did he celebrate, he invited other rabbis to celebrate as well. That is why it is called a “holiday for rabbis.” Maharshal says that it is an obligation for others to celebrate with the person making the siyum. Similarly, in the previous case of cutting wood for the Temple, all Jews celebrated even though very few actually cut the wood.

II. Who Should Attend?

However, we can see a test of who is really supposed to celebrate when the celebration conflicts with another obligation. During the Nine Days of Av, Ashkenazim refrain from meat and wine except for mitzvah meals, including a siyum. Only those who really should be at a siyum may eat meat. Rav Yaakov Moelin (Maharil; 15th cen., Germany; Sefer Maharil, Hilchos Tisha Be-Av) says that during the Nine Days, only relatives and friends may eat meat and drink wine at a siyum. Strangers who attend just to eat meat or drink wine, and who otherwise would not attend, are committing a sin by violating the Nine Days custom. According to Maharil only family and friends should attend a siyum. Of course, technically all Jews are family because we descend from the biblical Ya’akov. Magen Avraham (651:35) says that family here means those who are invalid witnesses due to close relations.

How does Maharil understand the Gemara that Abaye would celebrate whenever a Torah scholar completed a masechta? If Abaye wasn’t the scholar’s friend or family, why did he celebrate and invite other rabbis? Perhaps Maharil explained like Rav Yair Chaim Bacharach (17th cen., Germany; Chavos Yair, no. 70). While agreeing with Maharshal’s conclusion, Rav Bacharach disagrees with his proof from this text. Abaye simply enjoyed celebrating Torah study. It wasn’t an obligation but a personal expression of enthusiasm. Similarly, Rav Yosef said he would make a holiday for rabbis if someone told him that blind men are obligated in mitzvos (Kiddushin 31a). Rav Yosef wasn’t declaring a new mitzvah to celebrate but merely expressing his personal enthusiasm.

So far, it seems that Maharshal envisions all Jews as potential celebrants at a siyum while Maharil sees only close family and friends as celebrants. According to Maharil, the celebration is for the person who studied the text. His friends and family come to enhance his celebration. According to Maharshal, everyone celebrates when a mitzvah is completed.

Perhaps we can read Maharil differently. He lists two types of people, those who are close to the person making the siyum and those who come just for the food. What about people in between, such as those who come to inspire or to be inspired, to celebrate Torah learning in general, or otherwise idealistically rather than selfishly? Maharil is silent. Perhaps he allows those also, and only means to forbid those who come for selfish reasons.

III. Honoring The Torah

Rav Moshe Mintz (Maharam Mintz; 15th cen., Germany; Responsa, no. 119) describes the custom in his time. When a yeshiva would begin and finish a masechta, the Rosh Yeshiva (dean) invited the entire community to join the first day, the last day and the celebration. In this way, everyone takes part a little in the Torah learning and joins the celebration. Maharam Mintz adds that the entire community is invited to the celebration to show honor to the Torah — the larger the crowd, the greater the honor.

According to Maharshal, people should attend a siyum to enhance the celebration of those who learned the text. According to Maharam Mintz, the siyum should include the end of one cycle and the beginning of the next, so attendees take part in the bookends of the learning. Additionally, every individual’s attendance shows honor to the Torah being celebrated. So, yes, it would seem that it is a mitzvah to attend a Siyum Ha-Shas to celebrate with those who make the siyum and show honor to the Torah.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student serves on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and as Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He also serves on the Editorial Boards of Jewish Action magazine, the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society and the Achieve Journal of Behavioral Health, Religion & Community, as well as the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

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