top of page

Thoughts on Studying Talmud for a Siyyum 

Every year around this time, as we approach the new month of Adar (this year the second Adar), I begin preparing for a Siyyum for the eve of Passover.  A siyyum is a celebration of the completion of the study of a traditional Jewish text, most commonly a tractate of the Talmud, though other books may be utilized instead.  On the eve of Pesach, the anniversary of the final plague in Egypt that killed the firstborn throughout the land, Jewish firstborn, in thankfulness for being spared, customarily, at least since medieval times, observe a fast day, Ta’anit Bechorot. For those not so inclined to fast, another option offered was to attend a seudat mitzvah, a festive meal celebrating the performance of a mitzvah which overrides the fast.  A briss would be an appropriate occasion, but one can’t count on babies being born on schedule.  A wedding ceremony would work, but who wants to get married on the eve of Pesach?  The ideal solution then would be to find someone who is completing the study of a text and will hold a siyyum on that day.  So, every year, I, like many of my colleagues, plan to complete some text just in time to celebrate with a seudat mitzvah on the eve of Pesach and override the fast of the firstborn.


It may seem bizarre to begin studying a text simply to be able to complete it. For this occasion, though, it is all about completing something and celebrating the event.  Of course, in the process it is nice to learn some new things through one’s studies.  This is what we mean by lifelong learning.  To be honest, I look forward to this study each year even though by starting so late, I need to rush through the pages of the tractate I choose. However, there are still a bit more than six weeks until Passover begins.


As mentioned, the text need not be the Talmud, though that is generally the tradition.  Some people study the Mishnah or a work of Midrash or, as one of my colleagues did for years, he’d pick a different commentary on the Haggadah to study each year.  Looking back, I actually have done some of that myself, completing the lengthy tractate of Kelim from the Mishnah one year, going through an entire order of the Mishnah another, and completing a short volume of the Midrash on Proverbs, edited and translated by an old friend and colleague, one year as well.  However, I generally have stuck with a tractate from the Talmud, a few tractates more than once.


I probably should step back a moment and explain a bit about the Talmud.  In Jewish tradition we have not only the written Torah, the books of the Bible, but an Oral Torah as well. While some traditionalists believe that God revealed to Moses not only the written Torah, but all of the interpretations and commentaries that would ever be derived from it through the ages, others take a less extreme view. It seems to me, that from the beginning, when the Torah was first promulgated, there were things that needed explaining, contradictions that had to be reconciled, customary practices like weddings that had to be regulated, and the rabbis needed a method to apply ancient laws to more modern circumstances. All of this led to the creation of a multitude of oral laws transmitted from one teacher to his students and beyond.


Modern Talmudic scholars discuss the processes by which all this oral law eventually came to be crystallized into our vast written rabbinic heritage.  The short version is that these laws, customs, and traditions were so overwhelming that nobody, or hardly anyone, could remember them all.  Even though there was a rule that oral teachings should remain oral and not written, around the year 200 CE, the head of the rabbinic high court, the Sanhedrin, Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi, Judah the patriarch, decided that rather than lose this precious tradition, it was time to write it down. 


He organized the laws into six orders of the Mishnah (Remember the Passover song: Who knows six? I know six.  Six are the orders of the Mishnah) and within them, divided up the laws by subject into tractates, 63 in all. These six orders deal with Agricultural laws (Zeraim), Shabbat and holidays (Moed), Marital law (Nashim), Civil and Criminal cases (Nezikin), Temple law and sacrifices (Kodashim), and Ritual Purity laws (Toharot).


Even though it had been committed to writing, the Mishnah continued to be taught orally.  A kind of human tape recorder, a tanna, would recite a text from the Mishnah, and it would be discussed and analyzed and compared to outside texts (boraitot) that did not appear in the Mishnah and might provide a different opinion, often by the same rabbi cited in the Mishnah.  These differences needed to be reconciled, if possible.  These discussions then became part of that oral tradition as well and eventually, they were collected around the text of the Mishnah and published as the Gemara.  There are two collections of Gemara, one from the academies in the land of Israel, completed around 400 CE and the other from the yeshivot of the major Jewish centers in Babylonia, sometime after 500 CE.  The combination of Mishnah and Gemara is known as Talmud.  Not every tractate of the Mishnah has Gemara around it.  The Babylonian Talmud, the Bavli, covers only 37 tractates and the Talmud of the Land of Israel, generally known as the Yerushalmi, the Jerusalem Talmud, has 39.  While the Yerushalmi covers all of the tractates of Zeraim, since most of those agricultural laws apply only in Israel, the Bavli omits those.  On the other hand, the Bavli deals with nearly all of the tractates in Kodashim, on sacrifices and such, while the Yerushalmi does not. There were no sacrifices being offered in either place at the time these works were produced.  Go figure.  Neither Talmud covers Toharot except for the tractate of Niddah, the laws of the menstruant, which both Talmuds deal with.


For the last few years, I have chosen to study tractates from the Yerushalmi instead of the Bavli, since there is now a full translation and commentary of both Talmuds available in English to assist in one’s study.  About one hundred years ago, a worldwide program was created to encourage the study of the Talmud (the Bavli is generally referred to as THE Talmud).  This program is known as Daf Yomi, a daily page.  When the Babylonian Talmud was first printed in Italy, it appeared on two-sided folio pages, a or alef, and b, bet.  Ever since, every subsequent edition of the Talmud Bavli follows the same page numbers and one refers to a passage by the name of the tractate, the page number, and then indicates side a or b.  Since the original printer counted the title page as one, every tractate begins on 2a.  A daf then is a two-sided folio page from the Talmud.  The Yerushalmi was not so fortunate, thus there are two ways to refer to a passage in it.  One can cite a tractate and give the chapter and the halachah (the Mishnaic passage it discusses), but that is not always very convenient, because the Gemara on any halachah can sometimes run for many pages.  The other way to cite a passage is to give the location in the Venice edition of the Yerushalmi, the tractate, the page, and the column (there are two columns of text on each page, thus they are designated as a,b,c, and d.)  Many people use both methods to try to make it a bit easier to find the reference.


Since all the editions of the Talmud Bavli have the same pagination, in the Daf Yomi program, one is expected to study an entire two-sided daf each day, completing the entire Talmud, over 2700 pages, once every seven years or so.  Some dapim (plural of daf) are relatively short and others are rather lengthy, but with daf yomi, it does not matter, one daf every day is the rule.  If you are studying on your own, it is easy to fall behind.  There are calendars that indicate the daily daf.  There are study groups in some synagogues and yeshivot, on-line programs, and other study aids, but it is a major accomplishment if one manages to get through the entire Talmud.  Of course, going at such a rapid pace, it is hard to absorb it all.  I tried daf yomi for a while, jumping in at the tractate of Gittin on divorce law and continuing for the next six tractates, holding seven small siyyums. However. I dropped out in the midst of some rather difficult passages in the next tractate of Shevuot and didn’t make it to the grand siyyum at the end of a seven-year cycle where hundreds of people gather around the world, in places like Madison Square Garden to celebrate their accomplishments.  Looking back over past siyyums, I have probably finished about 25 tractates, some more than once, and pieces of several more.  These are mostly the shorter tractates, 25 – 30 pages, other than the ones I covered in my two years of Daf Yomi study and a few others that are longer.


So, this year, I am working on the tractate of Megillah in the Yerushalmi.  Previously, I have done the Yerushalmi for Kiddushin and Berachot. Though ostensibly this tractate focuses on Megillat Esther, the rules for reading it along with halachot for the other mitzvot of Purim, much of tractate Megillah also teaches practices connected with the reading the Torah in the synagogue and other laws relating to synagogues as well.  I am still in the first chapter, which runs for quite a number of pages, including lengthy digressions on other laws than those of the megillah. The other three chapters of this tractate seem to be much shorter.  At the point which I’ve reached, as is not uncommon, the teacher of the Mishnah goes off the track with a series of laws that follow the pattern of “there is no difference between A and B, except for C.” We started on topic, discussing the similarities and differences between the first Adar and the second Adar in a leap year, particularly when the holiday of Purim should be celebrated.  But I’m now looking at the differences between Shabbat and Yom Tov laws, and the rest of the chapter deals with comparing and contrasting laws in a wide variety of topics.  Only when we get to chapter two, will we return to talking about Purim once more.


My plan is to finish this tractate on Monday morning, April 22, the eve of Passover, following a morning service. Everyone is welcome to join us whether or not you are a firstborn son or daughter.  Since this is a medieval custom, the definition of “firstborn” is much looser than for the ritual of redemption of the firstborn son.  So, feel free to participate.  I do not anticipate holding an actual feast, but we will provide light refreshments so the firstborn can break their fast.


The study always concludes with a special prayer known from its first word as “Hadran,” an Aramaic word that is taken to mean “we will return.”  Studying Talmud or any rabbinic text is intended to be a never-ending process.  So, if one did not truly understand every passage on the first go-round, don’t worry, when we return to this text once more, one hopes to get a bit deeper insight into its teachings. So we pray, may we return to this tractate and may it return to us, hadran alach v’hadrach alan.  If there is a minyan, we recite a special version of the Kaddish utilized only for this occasion.


In the meantime, I’m also currently reading the wonderfully-written, but rather frightening, account by Rabbi Haim Sabato of his experiences 50 years ago as a young tank gunner during the Yom Kippur War, “Tiyum Kavanot,” “Adjusting Sights.” As a yeshiva student, a person of deep faith, one sees how he incorporates that faith so naturally into his experiences of warfare. He writes at one point of his experience waiting in the Jerusalem bus terminal following his first 24-hour leave at home from the battle front from which he and his companions in his tank had barely survived, while his best friend had not.  As he waits for the bus that will take him back to his unit by way of Tiberias, an old man accosts him and asks if he is in the right place for the bus to Tiberias as he is heading there himself for a celebration; he is holding a siyyum.  He has been studying the Mishneh Torah of Maimonides for three years, one chapter a day, and is now completing the very end of the 14th volume of this law code, the Laws of Kings and their Wars.  He has decided that the place to hold this siyyum is at the gravesite of the author, Rabbi Moses Maimonides, in Tiberias.  Though young Haim needs to get back to his unit and cannot join him, this gentleman manages to involve him in his study nonetheless and has him read the closing lines of this last section.  He himself will wait until he is standing next to Maimonides’ grave to read it and officially complete the work.


Maimonides concludes his teachings on the laws of warfare with this statement:  “Not to rule the world, and not to lord it over the Gentiles, and not to be favored among the nations, and not to eat, drink, and be merry, but to study Torah and its wisdom free of oppression and distraction, and to merit life in a World to Come that has neither war nor hunger, nor envy nor contentiousness, but endless beauty for all, amid which the pleasure of this life will be as dust, for the world will care only for the knowledge of God.”  With this teaching in his head, Sabato returns to the reality of this world, to his tank and to his gun, to the battles remaining ahead, to defend the land and its people.  Hadran alach, but we pray today, once again in the midst of a terrible war, to speedily return to this idyllic vision of Maimonides, to a world of peace and security for all people.




4 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All

Thoughts on Giyur (Conversion to Judaism)

I have often noted that, if one gets technical about it, there is really no such thing as “Juda-ism.”  It is a convenient catchall term, but we all seem to have our own way of defining our Jewish iden


bottom of page