HADRAN ALACH - THE LAWS OF SIYUM
The notion of having some form of celebration upon the completion of some section of Torah learning comes from the gemara in Shabbat 118b. There, Abaye states that when he saw a Rabbinical student who had completed a tractate of the Talmud, he would make a holiday for the Rabbis in honor of the occasion. In commenting on this piece, Maharsha cites the second source for this practice, namely the Medrash on Shir HaShirim that speaks of King David making a celebration upon bringing the Torah up to Jerusalem, and learns from there that one should make a siyum upon completing the Torah. A third source for this practice comes from Bava Batra 121b (in conjunction with a gemara in Ta'anit), which states that one of the causes for rejoicing on the 15th day of Av (recognized as one of the two happiest days in the Jewish calendar) was that it was the day that the chopping of the wood to be used in the Temple was completed. AsRashbam in Bava Batra notes, it was considered to be a happy day since they had completed a big mitzvah.
Ramo (Y.D. 246:26) states that the meal made at a siyum fall under the category of a Se'udat Mitzvah, a classification whose ramifications we will explore shortly. The Chavot Yair (#70) goes to great lengths to demonstrate this point. He cites the Maharshal (in his Yam Shel Shlomo) who states that any feast that a person makes with friends for the purpose of expressing gratitude to Hashem or so as to publicize a miracle that occurred (to him or otherwise) is considered to be a Se'udat Mitzvah. Thus, even where only one person is making the meal, all those who join him in celebrating and thanking Hashem are considered to be taking part in a Se'udat Mitzvah. However, the Chavot Yair notes that merely having one say words of Torah at a meal does not constitute a Se'udat Mitzvah (although one does thus fulfill Avot 3:3, which says that three people who eat together must talk about Torah), and at a siyum it is the attendant happiness, and not the actual Torah that is spoken of, that gives the meal the status of a Se'udat Mitzvah.
So, all seems good and well. However, there are larger issues to be dealt with. The focus of our discussion from here on in will be concerning what it means for a siyum to have the status of a Se'udat Mitzvah. This is not merely an honorary title. A true Se'udat Mitzvah can have the power to override other areas of law. For example, the main participants in a Brit Mila (father, mohel, sandek [one who holds the baby]) would not have to fast if the circumcision day fell out on one of the minor fast days. Is it possible that a siyum could override a fast day as well? Even further, would all partaking in the meal be exempt from fasting, or would only the one making the siyum receive such a leniency (such as by a Brit Mila)? The two main issues with regard to a siyum tend to be Ta'anit Bechorot (or Bechorim, if you are so inclined), the Fast of the First-Born on Erev Pesach, and the Nine Days from the beginning of Av until Tisha B'Av, when one would normally be unable to eat meat and drink wine.
What are the questions that have to be asked in this regard? The first is what type of siyum constitutes a bonafide occasion that can lead to a Se'udat Mitzvah? Does one need to finish specifically a tractate of Talmud? Can one make a siyum upon finishing a book of the Bible? Certainly, some may argue that completing a short tractate that is rife with Talmudic stories is easier than working one’s way through the poetic and often difficult style of the Later Prophets! Does one engender more happiness than the other? Is there a standard definition of halachic happiness, or is it based on each individual's personal sense of fulfillment? Although I have not seen this issue raised directly, one could ask about a siyum made by a person who begun learning only later in life, and for whom finishing even one tractate of Mishnayot is a major accomplishment.
Beyond that, we must also address the issue as to whether anyone can make a siyum. Can women and children, whose obligations to learn Torah are less than that of males, make a siyum? No doubt that they would experience a sense of joy upon completing some area of learning, but does that "count"?
First, we will deal with the issue of what level of learning is required for a "valid" siyum. The sources themselves present us with somewhat of a problem in this regard. The statement of Abaye seems to be referring specifically to one who finishes a tractate of Talmud, yet the Medrash about King David apparently speaks of any part of Torah. Which one is "correct"? Are both applicable?
Beginning with the issue of making a siyum on learning Tanach (Bible), Rav Shlomo Kluger, in his responsa Ha-Elef Lecha Shlomo (O.C. #386) states that one may make a siyum on one book of the Bible, assuming that it has been learned in depth. He draws a distinction between learning Tanach and learning Gemara, stating that if one learns Tanach just to make a siyum, the happiness (simcha) aspect is lacking and thus it would not attain the status of a Se'udat Mitzvah. However, since Gemara by its nature requires a higher level of involvement, even if one learns solely for the purpose of eventually making a siyum, that siyum would be valid, and one would thus be able to eat meat during the Nine Days or would not have to fast on Erev Pesach. Rav Moshe Feinstein concurs with this view, citing the aforementioned Rashbam that the completion of any mitzvah creates the opportunity for a Se'udat Mitzvah. He does note that if a siyum is to be made on a book of the Bible, it should be learned in depth with appropriate commentaries.
Rav Ovadiah Yoseif (Yechaveh Da'at 1:40) rules that one may make a siyum upon completing a section of the Mishna with the commentary of Rav Ovadiah Bartenura (the main commentary on the Mishna - perhaps other commentaries would be valid as well). However, he qualifies this by saying that such a siyum should not be made into a public affair, and that only the individual who learned the mishnayot would be allowed to eat meat or drink wine on such an occasion if it occurred during the Nine Days.
Regarding women, Rav Shlomo Wahrman, in She'erit Yoseif #4, discusses whether or not their obligation to learn Torah affects the status of any siyum that they might make. In general, the obligation of women to learn Torah is significantly less than that of a man, although she nevertheless has a stake in Torah in a general sense (thus she says the blessings on the Torah every morning). Rav Wahrman concludes that the actual obligation, or lack of, ultimately does not change the fact that a woman who finished a tractate experiences a feeling of joy and satisfaction comparable to that of a male, and thus she may make a siyum for her family or for other women. He concludes by saying that a women should not make a siyum for other men, as that would violate the spirit of tzniut (modesty) that the Torah and the Sages require of Jewish women. Rav Pinchas Scheinberg argues on this point, taking the position that one's ability to make a "real" siyum does depend on one's obligation, and thus a women would be unable to do so.
As far as children go, I have not found anything written on this topic. Rav Shlomo Borenstein, in an article in the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society (vol. 28), offers conjectures in both directions. On the one hand a child has no obligation to learn, yet on the other hand a child will one day have the obligation, this differentiating him from a female whose non-obligated status is not subject to change.
What about cheating? There is a well-known practice in many camps to have someone learn something and finish it during the Nine Days so that the weekly barbecue is not missed. Is this a valid practice? Can one "aim" their learning so that the leniencies that come with a siyum become part of the goal? The troubles on this issue stem from the Maharam Mintz. He claims that when one reaches the end of a tractate, he should delay learning the end until an appropriate time comes for making a siyum. Minchat Yitzchak (2:93) qualifies this by distinguishing between waiting a little and waiting a lot. One who finishes a tractate the week before Pesach may draw out his learning a bit so as to make a siyum on Erev Pesach, but one who finishes in December should not save the last page for the four months until he needs it to avoid having to fast. He says that in such a case, one's siyum would not be made out of simcha, but rather out of a desire to satisfy one's physical needs. He then goes on to note that some people presumably rely on the Ya'avetz, who states that one may speed up the normal pace of his learning as long as he does not sacrifice comprehension for speed in doing so. Rav Ovadiah Yoseif is a bit stricter on this point, saying that one should not alter one's pace at all, and that we should be strict and only allow a siyum for the purpose of eating meat or not fasting if it is made by a person who is constantly learning and regularly makes siyumim. However, a "set-up" of someone to learn just for this purpose should not be done.
The Minchat Yitzchak also addresses the issue of one who learns a tractate out of order. He writes that even though one may not read the Megillah on Purim out of order, nevertheless in our case the focus is that one learn an entire tractate, regardless of the order. Thus, one may certainly make a siyum in such a situation.
Finally, we should note that the Minchat Yitzchak points out that any eating of meat is permissible only at the siyum itself and not for the entire day of the siyum. This is an issue since we know that King Shlomo made a seven-day feast when he consecrated the Temple, and thus there is an idea that perhaps the period of happiness stemming from the completion of a mitzvah would extend beyond the exact moment of its completion. This being so, why can first-borns eat all day on Erev Pesach once they have broken their fast? Why not restrict their eating to the siyum and make them fast the rest of the day? In answer to this, he states (8:45) that there are two components to a fast day - the negative prohibition of eating and the positive commandment to fast. However, on the Fast of the First-Borns the prohibition of eating, which stems from the need to afflict oneself, is not present as it is a different type of fast from the others on our calendar. As such, when one eats in the morning, the fast day aspect is gone and there is nothing left of the fast for the rest of the day.
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