Siyyum : Studying for Sustenance

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December 1, 2008
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Jane Kanarek

The Talmud teaches that whenever the sage Abaye saw a young scholar finishing a tractate, he would make a festive meal for his students ( B. Shabbat 118b-119a). That meal was eventually designated a seudat mitzvah , a festive meal that marks the completion of a commandment. And the celebration marking the conclusion of studying a talmudic tractate has come to be known as a “ siyyum ,” a completion. A siyyum traditionally consists of a study session about the tractate, the reading of the last lines of the tractate, and the recitation of two special passages: the hadran and the kaddish de-ithadita , “the kaddish of renewal.” It concludes with a seudat mitzvah .

While it is striking that learning is an event to be marked with study, communal prayer, food, and drink, equally striking is what kind of study we usually celebrate — Talmud. We rejoice over the mastery of the central book of our oral tradition, a book that teaches us how to understand and live our written tradition, the Bible, the Tanakh.

When Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, the 20th-century rabbinic authority for American Orthodox Jewry, was asked whether a meal marking the conclusion of studying a book of Tanakh could also be considered a seudat mitzvah , he responded that it could as long as the book was studied in depth along with authoritative commentary, and in a group setting over a significant amount of time.

Rabbi Feinstein’s comments are instructive. They point us to the idea that while a siyyum is a celebration of reading, it is a celebration of reading “Jewishly.” It is a celebration of reading in community and through the lens of our tradition. A siyyum marks not only the accomplishment of prolonged and in depth study, but also the engagement in the layers of commentary that make up our oral Torah. The siyyum teaches us that our own ideas are insufficient; we also need our interpretive tradition.

And yet as we engage the words of the past, we are bringing our current lives into the process, shaping the past through our study. This multivocal element of learning is ritualized in the hadran passage, which begins with the words, “ hadran alakh maskehet ‘x’ ve-hadrakh alan. ” “We return to you tractate ‘x’ and you return to us.” However, a more accurate translation is: “Our glory on you tractate ‘x’ and your glory on us.” The passage teaches us that as much as the Talmud has the power to glorify and beautify us, we also have the power to glorify and beautify the Talmud. This is a two-way process, where we shed light on one another. This dual conversation is essential to maintaining community and a living interpretive tradition.

Because a siyyum celebrates such deep engagement with our ongoing interpretive tradition, should we widen our conception of which books are appropriate to celebrate through a festive meal? Should we include the study of the Eish Kodesh , the teachings of the Warsaw ghetto rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira? What about the study of the book of Exodus along with Aviva Gottlieb Zornberg’s The Particulars of Rapture ? What about Mordecai Kaplan’s Judaism as a Civilization ?

The ritual of siyyum challenges us to consider which books are so central to Jewish life that we should mark their study with a seudat mitzvah . It asks us to open ourselves to our tradition, to realize that these words — old and new — can enrich us now. It asks us to not take studying lightly, but to realize that reading is a Jewish communal process. By telling us to learn and eat and drink together, the siyyum teaches us that reading our books sustains our very lives.

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Rabbi Jane Kanarek, PhD, is assistant professor of rabbinics in the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College. After many years of study, she celebrated a siyyum of the Mishnah.

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