‘Siyyum’: Closing the Book

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January 3, 2013
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Dorothy Richman

I knew there had to be a chocolate fountain.After almost eight years of daily learning, I was planning a siyyum haShas, a celebration of completing the 2,711 pages of the Babylonian Talmud. I began learning a page of Talmud each day (daf yomi) shortly after finishing rabbinical school in 1999, and since then I’d carried the heavy Talmud volume with me wherever I went. The Talmud accompanied me when I met and married my husband, gave birth to two sons, served in my first three jobs, and traveled across four continents. I began to think affectionately of the Talmud as “the boys in my backpack.” Wherever I went, the books accompanied me.

Much of that time, I didn’t understand the arcane and complicated conversations on the page. Still, I felt that I had come to know the rabbis who explicated and argued with the text and with each other, and, somehow, they came to know me. I swam daily in the “Sea of Talmud.” The rabbis were a tangible presence in my life.

So, when that final page of Tractate Niddah loomed in the not-so-distant future, I began to plan a celebration of our time together, a siyyum. In the second tractate of the Talmud, the fourth-century scholar Abayye teaches: “May I be rewarded, for when I saw that a disciple had completed his tractate, I made it a festive day for the scholars.” For centuries, the completion of a tractate of Talmud has been celebrated with communal teachings, prayers, and a festive meal.

In a traditional siyyum, the last lines of the Talmud are recited along with special prayers, and the learning of Talmud may then begin anew. It is similar to the reading of Torah on the holiday of Simchat Torah, when reaching the end of the book of Deuteronomy is joyously celebrated and feeds directly back to beginning of the book of Genesis again. Ending? Beginning? It is one seamless cycle.

But my siyyum haShas would not follow that model. I didn’t know how I would continue to learn, but I knew it would not include a rereading of the Talmud. Not for a while. This siyyum was a real ending.

I don’t like endings. I try to avoid goodbyes. After living with his father-in-law Laban for 14 years, Jacob leaves without a farewell. Laban catches up to him and asks: “Why did you run away and deceive me by not informing me? I would have sent you off with festive songs, with hand-drum and lyre! Nor did you give me a chance to kiss my sons and daughters — how foolishly you acted!” (Genesis 31, 27-28)

Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, a Harvard sociologist and educator, suggests that this ancient expression is also a contemporary attitude: Americans like celebrating beginnings but often avoid marking endings. She concludes that we need more ritualized closings: “ceremonial moments that give us a chance to channel our conflicting emotions of joy and sorrow, a chance to stand up and be counted, an opportunity for bonding and community building…”

We need the siyyum. I willed myself to create one.

I borrowed a chocolate fountain and created a Facebook event. Though I had learned alone each day, I knew from Abayye that I needed others to mark this milestone.

The formulaic prayers recited at a siyyum begin with the Hadran, a prayer attributed to R. Hai Gaon from the 10th century that speaks, anthropomorphically, to the completed tractate in the first-person plural: “We will return to you, Masechet Niddah, and you will return to us. Our thoughts will be on you, Masechet Niddah, and your thoughts will be on us. We will not be forgotten by you, Masechet Niddah, and you will not be forgotten by us, not in this world and not in the world to come.”

On the night of my siyyum, surrounded by community, I recited this piece alone. It felt right to address the Talmud directly. It felt important to articulate that even though the physical books of the Talmud would no longer be my constant companions, they were now a part of me.

The prayers for the siyyum end with the Kaddish D’itchadita, the kaddish of renewal. Some may find it strange that this kaddish is recited on just two occasions: a siyyum and a burial. But both occasions, in their distinct ways, honor the ending of a physical relationship while affirming the bonds of spirit continuing beyond that end. And they both require a minyan to witness the prayer and  to respond.

When all is said and done, the siyyum itself was a significant part of the daf yomi learning. It taught me to pause, to realize a completion, and to articulate to others how I had absorbed the journey of learning. It taught me to celebrate an end with conflicting emotions of joy and sorrow, to stand up and be counted, and to make my learning an opportunity for community building.

Strawberries, champagne, and a chocolate fountain? Bittersweet.

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Dorothy Richman serves as rabbi of Makor Or: A Jewish Meditation Center in Berkeley, Calif., and teaches widely in the Bay Area.

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