Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Question: Who leads the siyum bechorim in your synagogue?

My husband points out that my ongoing dispute with our rabbi about leading the siyum bechorim may be the result of a cross-cultural misunderstanding. It may very well be that our rabbi spent so many years in the Orthodox world that it's never occurred to him that not every Conservative Jew is a yeshiva graduate capable of even reading, much less completing, a masechet (tractate, chapter?) of Talmud (Gemara?), and that the rabbi of a Conservative synagogue is, therefore, often the only person qualified to lead a siyum.

I'm curious to know, particularly from my Orthodox readers, who leads the siyum bechorim in your synagogue. Is it the rabbi, the cantor, or a congregant (or a person in another category that I've somehow overlooked)? Am I being unfair to my rabbi, who's a part-timer, by insisting that this is part of his job, even though, technically, it's not in his contract?

19 Comments:

Blogger Unknown said...

dunno, sorry. not a bekhor, so never been to one (or at least never paid attention)

Tue Apr 08, 08:21:00 AM 2008  
Blogger Gil Student said...

Always a congregant.

Tue Apr 08, 09:08:00 AM 2008  
Blogger treppenwitz said...

There are a few issues here:

First of all, one should be learning 'Lishma' (for its own sake), not just to be able to get out of fasting one day out of the year.

That having been said, Finishing a tractate/mesechta of anything every single year is a lot to ask of a Rabbi considering all the other duties that fall on his shoulders... especially if he is not a bachor and will essentially be doing his learning to allow the few congregants in a typical Conservative shul who bother to fast on that day, to eat.

I have seen a few shuls where members of a regular minyan or study group (or even the mens club/sisterhood) set a goal of finishing a study project in time for this particular fast day.

However, it seems to me that if someone really wants to avoid fasting they should take it upon themselves to organize a daily learning project that will allow them to finish in time to make a siyum. With the wealth of translated texts in the stores today, there is no excuse for not doing the work to be able to reap the secondary benefit of not having to fast.

Just my 2 cents.

Tue Apr 08, 09:23:00 AM 2008  
Blogger Unknown said...

It would seem to me that if he's the only one qualified and/or available..then yes, he should. However, if not, then a congregant who is willing and able should be able to do it. We don't even do ANY of this. Oh G-d I need a new synagogue!!!!

Tue Apr 08, 09:53:00 AM 2008  
Blogger rivkayael said...

In my shul, sometimes a rabbi, but a congregant has finished something (which happens to multiple people usually), they can lead. We usually split up siyumim in that case, eg. 1 person gives the devar Torah, another person reads the last mishna, another person says kaddish. I agree with treppenwitz, we should be learning lishma in any case. Maybe my shul is unusual in that sense, but for many it's a matter of timing something to finish at the right time, rather than learning at all.

Tue Apr 08, 09:54:00 AM 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In our yishuv the teenage boys (over 13 of course) are given this duty. One, because the Rabbi is not a bechor, and two, because they usually have time off from yeshiva starting on the first or second of Nissan. This gives them time to learn, even if they are being good and helping their mothers clean and kasher the kitchen. I think you should have mercy on your Rabbi, since pre-Pesach is one of the busiest times. There are a lot of people asking shailot, he has to take the time for everyone to come to him to sell the chametz, he has to organize and supervise the hagalat keilim (in Israel not everyone has a complete set just for Pesach, so a lot of people kasher dishes.) Not only that, but our Rabbi collects tzedaka for the poor who can't always afford everything for the chag. In addition he has to prepare his drashot for the holiday, and for the seder itself - which is usually a big production. In our yishuv we also have matza baking - which means the Rav has to be there three evenings in a row (complete with stopwatch to make sure it is all completed within 18 minutes).

Tue Apr 08, 11:42:00 AM 2008  
Blogger Alex in Miami said...

Definitely NOT a Rabbinic responsibility. It's whoever is close adjusting their timing to complete it in time. Given your congregation can't get a regular minyan together anyway, why don't the first borns that would actually fast and don't want to fast (which is probably just your husband) go to a Minyan at a nearby Orthodox Shul for a Siyum. This seems like an unreasonable burden to put on the Rabbi just for you.

Besides, the Fast doesn't even go into the seder this year... it's "shorter" than the Fast of Esther that we did a month earlier... so either find a Minyan with a Siyum or suck it up and fast... no room for whining.

Tue Apr 08, 12:39:00 PM 2008  
Blogger Unknown said...

Sorry, what Gil and others said. My brother always had to either learn something on his own, or find someone who had and join in theirs.

Tue Apr 08, 01:06:00 PM 2008  
Blogger Elie said...

My shul has three daily minyanim, so there are three siyumim each year. They aren't necessarily done by the same people every year either; generally either someone will volunteer, or get tapped by the Rabbi (I was tapped a few years back!) In all the years I've been going, it's never been the Rabbi himself doing the siyum.

Tue Apr 08, 01:24:00 PM 2008  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

I've been outvoted. If you'll pardon the pun on a post discussing a fast, you've given me much food for thought. :) In all seriousness, I thank all of you who have already commented for your thoughful responses, and invite anyone else wishing to join the conversation to add their comments.

Tue Apr 08, 06:03:00 PM 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sorry, I came late to the party. ;-)

Looks like everyone has covered pretty much all the angles. I was asked by a bechor here how thorough the learning has to be. It doesn't, really. Despite the ideals, it would be enough to have gone through the mesechet with a a simple understanding. And of course, doing a short mesechet is fine. Yerushalmi Makot is the shortest, IIRC. It is okay, too, to the use the same mesechet more than one year; though I would suggesst at least adding some new insights to the learning.

Personally, I don't like the 'read the last few lines and be done' style of siyum. There should be at least one or two short but good insights shared. Also, Rav Mordechai Eliyahu told us years ago that the siyum should have real food; at least substantial m'zonot. It is not enough to 'macaroons'.

Finally, I seem to recall that Rav Ovadya Yosef had said that one can even do a siyum on a mesechet mishnayot. That makes the task much easier for whoever has to prepare.

Just my 5 agorot...

Okay, back to organizing sale, etc. before we get ready to go to Beit Shemesh for Yom Tov. :-)

Wed Apr 09, 12:44:00 PM 2008  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

My husband and I have spoken to one of the more learned members of the congregation about putting together some divrei torah/words of Torah/a study session, which he frequently does for Seudah Shlishit, the "Third Meal" on Shabbat/Sabbath. If he is unable to arrange a late arrival at work, I suggested to my husband (who's our shul's Ritual Committee chair) that we just have a look at the last chapter of Pirkei Avot, or at least the last three verses. I don't know whether that's exactly up to halachic standards, but it may have to do.

Wed Apr 09, 01:32:00 PM 2008  
Blogger Elie said...

Since the fast itself is pushed back to Thursday this year, there may be more room for leniency - e.g., using a maseches of mishnah instead of talmud. Still, I would consult a halachic authority on what the minimum legitimate "siyum" should be, rather than decide something arbitrary. IMHO, it may be better for you to try to attend a siyum in a different synagogue, instead of taking on a responsibility you are not comfortable with.

Thu Apr 10, 11:15:00 AM 2008  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

I don't know how strict we're going to be about our choice of study material. The rabbi of one of our best friends buys a new haggadah every year and writes a commentary on the commentaries, has it printed, then presents that as study material at his congregation's siyum. It's an unorthodox, not to mention unOrthodox, approach, but it works for me. In any case, it's a bit late to do anything else this year, but maybe we should put more thought into next year's siyum.

As to your--and our rabbi's--suggestion that we go to another synagogue for the siyum, that may be logical, but it doesn't seem quite right. Ours is a Conservative synagogue, and should be providing a siyum for its own members (and visitors, if any), as it always has. It's a sad situation when one has to go to a synagogue other than one's one to find what one needs.

Fri Apr 11, 10:12:00 AM 2008  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Make that "one's own."

Fri Apr 11, 10:13:00 AM 2008  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

This just in via e-mail:

The rabbi's job is to make sure that a siyyum is available. It does not neccessarily need to be done by him. In orthodox shuls, there are usually many people around who can and will do it, so it is not an issue. In shuls where the populace may be learning less gemara independent of the rabbi, it is up to the rabbi to make sure that a siyyum is available, even if it means doing it himself.

noam

Sun Apr 13, 01:54:00 PM 2008  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Noam, I think you may have "nailed" part of the issue that not even I explained properly, which is that the rabbi seems to be of the opinion that whether or not we have a siyum, no matter who leads it, is none of his concern. The first year, there was simply confusion on the part of everyone--the rabbi was surprised, and unprepared, because it had never occurred to any of us congregants that a rabbi wouldn't automatically be the one leading thy siyum, as had always been the case, and, consequently, we hadn't said anything to him in advance. But the following year, knowing from the previous year that we'd expected him to lead, he never said a word about it, simply assuming that someone else would take his place without even asking who would be leading in his absence.

Sometimes, our rabbi is scrupulous about the congregation observing mitzvot and/or minhagim (commandments and/or customs) properly, but sometimes he seems indifferent. For example, one year, he refused to teach at our Tikkun Lel Shavout because it wasn't going to be an all-nighter. Isn't it better to study *some* Torah than *none*?

It can be challenging to work with a rabbi who insists on being asked and paid for so many things that aren't specifically detailed in his contract (which is entirely too vague). We're a congregation with a number of Holocaust and Kindertransport survivors, yet our rabbi refuses to attend the annual Shoah commemoration a few blocks from his apartment. To the best of my knowledge, *no one* gets paid for participating in the Shoah commemoration. I've been accused of being unreasonable and exploitative, and maybe that's true, considering how underpaid our rabbi is, but I still wish he'd be a bit more community-minded, and not be in it only for the money. As you were saying, Noam, he should at least ensure that *someone's* taking care of business, even if that someone isn't him. See this related post.

Sun Apr 13, 09:36:00 PM 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Late to the party, but here goes -

I have a friend who started his rabbinical career leading a "dying congregation." He was the youngest member of the shul by a good forty years. In addition to being the rabbi, he was also the chazzan, baal koreh, gabbai, shamash, and the guy who took out the garbage. He used to refer to himself as "the little red hen."

My point - yes, it's the rabbi's job. But ultimately, by default, everything is the rabbi's job. The question is, how much default is there? I guess it depends on what the congregants are either able or willing to take on themselves, and that varies from congregation to congregation. And much depends on the relationship between rabbi and congregants as well.

I guess this is a complicated way to say, "Figure it out for yourself." Sorry - best I could do.

Have a Happy Pesach.

Mon Apr 14, 10:56:00 AM 2008  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Psacman, same here--our rabbi's about 20 years younger than the president, who's about 10-20 years younger than half the other members of the board. (At 59, I'm one of the youngest members of the synagogue.) Fortunately for the rabbi, we do have a chazzan/cantor, who's also the baal koreh/Torah reader.

"I guess it depends on what the congregants are either able or willing to take on themselves, and that varies from congregation to congregation." I think the problem is that our congregants got very used to ours being a ninety-fifties-style Conservative synagogue, meaning that they were passive onlookers watching the rabbi, the cantor, and the then-separate baal koreh do everything for them. They never had any reason for, or interest in, learning to "Jew for themselves," as the slang phrase goes. So, as the few older guys who actually knew how to lead services and read Torah, and/or how to chant a haftarah, died, there was almost no one to replace them. Of the surviving members of the congregation, there are perhaps 4-8 people willing to pick up the slack. Only about 7 congregants know how to chant a haftarah, and 4 know how to lein (read Torah from the scroll) and lead a service. (One of those 4 is usually forbidden to do so unless there's no one else available, because she's a she.)

"And much depends on the relationship between rabbi and congregants as well." Sometimes, I think that most of our congregants care only about sermons and eulogies, and the rabbi is very happy to accommodate that majority. I guess he figures that, given his low salary, we should have low expectations, as well, and only insist on him doing the minimal amount that the majority asks for.

It's challenge for those of us who want more than a minimalist version of Judaism. I guess there isn't an easy answer, as you were saying.

Thanks for your good wishes. A Happy Pesach to you, as well.

Mon Apr 14, 12:21:00 PM 2008  

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