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Siyumim During the Nine Days: Sanctioned or Sacrilege?

(Originally published in Torah Musings)


I. The Prohibition of Consuming Meat and Wine During the Nine Days

The Talmud (Bava Basra 60b) relates a fundamental anecdote in which, following the destruction of the second Temple, a portion of the Jewish population sought to abstain from consuming meat and wine. Rabbi Yehoshua, being troubled by this extreme measure, engaged in a dialogue with these individuals to ascertain their rationale. The ascetics responded, “How can we eat meat, the food that was brought on the altar, and how can we drink wine that was used for libations in the holy Temple!” Rabbi Yehoshua replied that this would lead to a reductio ad absurdum: By their logic, they would have to abstain from water too, for water was also brought as a libation in the Temple! Therefore, Rabbi Yehoshua declared, “To not mourn at all is untenable … but to mourn excessively is also impossible.” (The continuation of the Gemara gives moderate suggestions for commemorating the loss of the Temple such as leaving a small part of one’s house unfinished.)

While Rabbi Yehoshua makes it clear that we do not abstain from meat all year long, there is a Mishnah (Ta’anis 26b) that prohibits the consumption of meat and wine during seudah hamafsekes, the final meal prior to the fast of Tisha B’Av. It would seem that aside from the short amount of time prior to Tisha B’Av, one would be permitted to barbeque, go wine tasting and enjoy consuming meat whenever he deems fit. However, later authorities reasoned that prohibiting meat and wine beyond the seudah hamafsekes would not constitute a breach of excessive mourning. The Shulchan Aruch (O.C. 551:9) codifies three opinions as to when the prohibition of consuming meat begins:

1) During the week that Tisha B’Av takes place (“shavuah shechal bo”).

2) From the beginning of the month of Av (“The Nine Days”).3) From the onset of the Three Weeks, starting with Shiva Asar B’Tammuz.

The Rema (and Mishnah Berurah more explicitly) rules that Ashkenazim have accepted the second opinion, which prohibits the consumption of meat and wine during the nine days prior to Tisha B’Av.

The question that begs to be asked is, if that is the case, why do we see so many Ashkenazi Jews consuming meat and wine during the Nine Days? One answer, of course, is that some people are either not aware or not careful about this stricture. However, the other answer is that there are significant dispensations to this rule.

For the people of the first category, Rabbi Yechiel Michel Epstein (Aruch HaShulchan 551:24) penned a scathing rebuke: “How can we not be embarrassed and ashamed? For there are many nations that abstain from meat, milk and eggs for weeks at a time, and we, the Children of Israel, who are commanded ‘you shall be holy’ are not capable of restraining ourselves for eight days to remember the destruction of our sacred and glorious Temple!”

How do those who are abiding by the strictures of the Nine Days circumvent the ban on meat and wine?

For that, we return to the Rema (O.C. 551:10), who permits the consumption of meat and wine at a seudas mitzvah, a meal which celebrates the completion of a significant religious milestone or achievement. The examples listed are a bris (circumcision), pidyon haben (redemption of firstborn child), engagement meal, and most notably, a siyum meseches, the completion of a Talmudic tractate. (1)


II. Two Issues With Siyumim For Summer Camps

There is a common occurrence that takes place in Jewish summer camps, where a brave trooper will valiantly rush his way through Meseches Horiyos (which is not even 14 full pages), recite the concluding passage in the cafeteria — thereby effectuating a siyum meseches and enabling the camp’s kitchen to avoid deviating from its regularly scheduled meat meals. This clearly smacks of a harama, a loophole. Our goal will be to discover whether this practice is permissible. However, before we ask whether these deliberate mass siyumim are permissible, we must first understand why they are seemingly forbidden.

(1) The first issue is for the individual making the siyum. Rabbi Yisroel Meir Kagan (Mishnah Berurah 551:10:73) as well as other recent authorities, quote the Elya Rabbah who prohibits an individual to accelerate or delay his learning schedule so that it can coincide with the Nine Days. To give a practical example, if someone learns a daf (one page) of Gemara each day, he would be forbidden to learn an extra daf or skip a daf with the intention of making it coincide with the Nine Days for the sake of eating meat. Rabbi Epstein (Aruch HaShulchan 551:28) calls this a davar m’chuar, a detestable practice. Moreover, if someone would not make a siyum meal for finishing such a tractate during other points of the year, he would not be permitted to make a seudas mitzvah for the sake of permitting meat during the Nine Days. [2]

Rabbi Yitzchok Yaakov Weiss (Shu”t Minchas Yitzchok 2:93) suggests that this is not just a meta-halachic issue. When it comes to a mitzvah that does not have a concrete action assigned to it, the individual performing the mitzvah must have the special intention of performing it for the sake of the mitzvah. Therefore, if one is only making a siyum for the sake of eating meat, his joy is not the joy of mitzvah but the joy of food, thus precluding the right to make a seudas mitzvah. (What is fascinating about this approach is that if someone disregarded the Mishnah Berurah the siyum would technically still be valid, according to the Minchas Yitzchok it would still remain forbidden to eat meat since this meal does not have the status of a seudas mitzvah!)

(2) Let us suppose we are addressing a case in which the individual making the siyum did not intend to finish his mesechta (tractate) during the Nine Days, but it occurred by happenstance, i.e. as intended by halachah. There is still a second issue to contend with —who is allowed to partake in this meat meal? The Rema (ibid) delineates two periods that are important for our purposes: (1) The Nine Days and (2) the week that Tisha B’Av takes place (shavua shechal bo).

(3) In regards to the Nine Days, the Rema says “… all who are connected to the meal (may eat meat). However, one should make sure to limit and not to add (additional people).” But how much is too much? The Mishnah Berurah (ibid, 75) understands that the people who qualify for the dispensation by attending the meal are those who would go out of their way to attend the same siyum had it occurred outside of the Nine Days. In the following note, he writes that: “He who does not come because of closeness and comradery, but instead to eat and drink bears a sin.”

(4) Once we reach the week of Tisha B’Av, the Rema limits the attendees to a “precise minyan.” Mishnah Berurah (ibid, 77) elucidates that this means 10 people, in addition to the family members.

After all is said and done, it is difficult to make the case that one can deliberately schedule a siyum for a camp to eat meat during the Nine Days. Besides for the scheduling issue, the assortment of staff and campers would likely not make a point to attend a siyum in camp had it not occurred during the Nine Days; hence, they would not qualify for the dispensation to eat meat during the Nine Days and, all the more so, during the week of Tisha B’Av.


III. Possible Yet Tenuous Grounds for Leniency

Now, that we have established our baseline that deliberate mass siyumim for the sake of eating meat are prohibited; we will analyze possible leniencies and explore whether they can be applied to our camp scenario:

(1) The Aruch HaShulchan (ibid) remarks that it might be possible to allow a deliberate siyum during the Nine Days, if it will encourage further Torah learning. However, he gives an important qualification which limits the beneficiaries of the siyum to “Torah scholars who are connected to the enterprise of learning Torah.” This source would not help our scenario, as it is fair to assume that middle school children generally do not qualify as Torah scholars.

(2) The Beiur Halachah (551:10) cites Rav Yaakov Emden who holds that the people who facilitate the learning through sponsorship or helped organize the meal would be permitted to take part in the meat and wine. While this would include waiters and kitchen staff, it still would not be helpful for permitting an entire camp.

(3) The Piskei Teshuvos (551:10:38, Footnote 196) quotes a number of Chassidic sources that not only defend deliberate siyumim during the Nine Days as permissible, but go on the offense, suggesting it be treated as a mitzvah:

(4) The Chiddushei HaRim reasoned that if the Temple was destroyed due to baseless hatred, creating gatherings where people build social bonds with each other can be viewed as a commendable way to rectify such a transgression.

(5). The Kedushas Yom Tov believed that since Tisha B’Av would one day become a time of joy, it is incumbent upon us to imitate that which we aspire to attain.

(6). The most intriguing opinion is attributed to the Sha’ar Yissoschor who says that Esav’s (Esau) angel, Samael, is an acronym for: “Siyum meseches ein la’asos (do not make a siyum).” Since the months of Tammuz and Av are under the power of Samael, it is imperative to make a siyum in order to counteract his power.

While these are certainly fascinating opinions, Rabbi Eliezer Melamed (Peninei Halachah, Zmanim 8:15, Footnote 11) notes that these are not accepted in normative halachah. In other words, these sources would would theoretically justify camps and other institutions which facilitate mass siyumim during the Nine Days — however, since these opinions have bear little significance in normative halachic discourse and are clearly not in accordance with the rest of our halachic tradition they cannot be used to justify such practices.

(7) At some point, we may be wondering, how do many religiously devout institutions, such as yehivas, get away with making mass siyumim during the Nine Days? [3] One answer is that in the charedi community, the school year for high school and beyond does not end in June. Many yeshivos and batei midrash will continue their studies in summer camp locations. In Israel, the zman (semester) actually concludes with Tisha B’Av. Hence, the yeshiva will likely complete whichever mesechta it decided to learn shortly before Tisha B’Av i.e. the Nine Days. Therefore, such institutions are not scheduling their siyum deliberately for the Nine Days and the yeshiva students are certainly considered a part of the learning community, thus being eligible to be included in the dispensation to eat meat at the meal (Peninei Halachah, ibid).


IV. Conclusion

Returning to our regular, run-of-the-mill Orthodox summer camp, what recourse exists to schedule a siyum which can legitimately include everyone? Rabbi Gavriel Zinner (Netaei Gavriel, Bein Hametzarim, Volume One, 41:4, Footnote Six) cites Rav Moshe Feinstein as permitting siyumim to be made for the benefit of a yeshiva, camp or “the country,” i.e., Jewish bungalow colonies in Sullivan County, New York. The definitive work on the laws of siyumim, Yoma Tava L’Rabanan (8:9 Footnote. 10, page 94) explains that “since during the summer months, it is the norm that when a simcha (Jewish celebration) is made we call out (invite) to all the members of the yeshiva or all the members of the bungalow colony,” so too, we invite them all during the Nine Days.

This is important to understand properly: We saw in the Mishnah Berurah, one is only allowed to partake in a meat siyum during the Nine Days as long as he would attend it outside of the Nine Days. The permission being extended by Rav Moshe is ostensibly in line with the same logic —since someone
making a siyum during the Nine Days invites their entire bungalow colony or yeshiva to attend during other times of the year, it is therefore reasonable that those same people should be able to attend and eat meat when it happens to occur during the Nine Days.

If we are to apply this to a camp setting the same principle would apply. If it is the norm for the camp to host a siyumim and cater a meat meal in the cafeteria when it is not the Nine Days, it would be permissible to continue that practice during the Nine Days and put meat back on the menu.

However, my experience as a member of more than one camp’s beit midrash (Torah learning program) was that whenever we made a siyum we only made it exclusively in the presence of the beit midrash crowd. In that case, it would appear to be forbidden to utilize one of the members of the beit midrash simply as a means to legitimizing others’ consumption of meat during the Nine Days.

The purpose of a seudas mitzvah, a meal celebrating a mitzvah, is to glorify a religious milestone or accomplishment. If we celebrate the glory of God’s Torah all year long, then it would be proper to continue doing so during the Nine Days. However, if we do not glorify God’s Torah all year long by celebrating siyumim, then the siyum publicized exclusively during the Nine Days risks becoming a farce. As the Minchas Yitzchok put it, instead of celebrating the Torah, we are — God forbid — appropriating it for our own mundane benefit.

[1]Rav Moshe Feinstein, (Igros Moshe O.C. 1:157) holds that the completion of a book of Tanach (Bible) learned rigorously with traditional commentaries can qualify for a seudas mitzvah. However, he requires that it be learned with a traditional medieval commentary as opposed to recent writers. The question of what qualifies for a siyum other than a tractate of Talmud is beyond the scope of this essay.

[2] However, Rabbi Yaakov Emden (cited in Yoma Tava L’Rabanan, Chapter Seven, footnote 12) suggests that there is nothing wrong with finishing a mesechta faster than scheduled since it is always laudable to fulfill a mitzvah with alacrity (“zrizin makdimin l’mitzvot”). See also the Teshuvos Maharam Mintz (number 119) who rules that a siyum may be delayed “l’kavod haTorah v’talmideihon —for the glory of the Torah and those who study it.” While this position is generally cited to permit delaying a siyum for the Nine Days, one must inquire whether delaying siyum in order to eat meat truly qualifies for “l’kavod haTorah v’talmideihon.”

[3]There is a story recorded in Kra Ali Moed (Chapter Five) that during the first World War, Rabbi Yaakov Yisrael Kanievsky (the Steipler Gaon) only had meat in his yeshiva. Due to the extenuating circumstances, the students decided to schedule siyumim during the Nine Days. This is, of course, not generalizable to our summer camp scenario in which there are presumably alternatives to meat.

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