A woman who is a firstborn usually makes a siyyum (celebration for completing a tractate of Gemara) on the day before Passover, but this year she does not have time to complete a tractate. What should she do?
Responsum from: Rabbanit Rachel Reinfeld-Wachtfogel
I have a friend who is a firstborn, and for the last six years, since she learned in Midrasha, she has been careful to make a siyyum of a tractate of Gemara on the Fast of the Firstborn. This year, she does not have time to complete a tractate before Passover. I have several questions regarding this situation:
1) Can she fulfill her obligation by listening on the phone to the siyyum of a tractate that I will be making the day before Passover?
2) If not, is it preferable that she goes to hear a siyyum of a tractate that someone else in her neighborhood is making (we live far away from each other), or that she herself does a siyyum on a tractate of Mishnah or a similar text? Does the fact that she has been careful, for several years, to make a siyyum on a tractate of Gemara obligate her, like a vow, so that she now has an obligation to make a siyyum on a tractate of Gemara herself?
3) In general – what is the status of a firstborn woman with regard to the Fast of the Firstborn? Is it right for a woman to take on the obligation to fast or to use a siyyum to exempt herself from the fast? I will point out that my friend is Sefardic, of Persian ancestry, and her family did not have a custom prior to this of firstborn women fasting.
4) What is the source of exempting oneself from the Fast of the Firstborn via a siyyum of a tractate? If someone wants to make a siyyum in order to be exempt from the Fast of the Firstborn – does he or she need to complete a tractate of Gemara? Or is a tractate of Mishna, or other books of Torah, sufficient? How advisable is it to participate in someone else’s siyyum and thus exempt oneself?
Congratulations on your dedication to completing a tractate before Passover each year! That is a big effort, and I am sure that it gives additional meaning to how you begin the holiday.
You asked a number of questions, and I hope to respond to all of them through the following words (not necessarily in the order of your questions):
I will begin with a short practical response:
In the situation that you describe, your friend has several options (not necessarily according to order of preference, except for the last option, which is the least preferable option). She can:
- Participate in a festive meal celebrating someone else’s fulfillment of a mitzvah, whether or not she knows that person (she can even eat food from someone else’s festive meal without being present at the meal).
- Make a siyyum on a tractate of Mishna with commentary, or on learning a book of the Bible in-depth (this is a special leniency for a siyyum for the Fast of the Firstborn)
- Decide not to fast, following the position of those rabbis who rule that women do not fast, and officially annul her vow so that she no longer has to fast.
- Participate in your siyyum on the phone, which is the least preferable option and only if necessary.
Now I will answer in more depth your larger questions, and bring the relevant sources:
Source for the Fast of the Firstborn on the day before Passover:
The source for the custom of the Fast of the Firstborn is in Tractate Sofrim (Chapter 21): “We do not fast during the month of Nissan, except for the firstborn who fast the day before Passover.” However, the rishonim (earlier rabbinic authorities, from the 11th to 16th centuries) have different understandings of the Jerusalem Talmud (Tractate Pesahim, Chapter 10, Law 1), and disagree whether this was the custom in the time of the Gemara or not. Regarding the practical law, Maimonides does not mention this custom, whereas the Shulhan Arukh rules that the firstborn fast (Shulhan Arukh Orah Hayyim, Laws of Passover, Siman 470, Seif 1). In addition, the aharonim (later rabbinic authorities, from the 16th century onward) concluded that because the Fast of the Firstborn is a custom, rather than a decree of the sages, and, furthermore, the custom was the subject of debate among the rishonim – there is room to be lenient regarding this fast. Other reasons to be lenient regarding this fast include “the weakness of this generation,” the difficult in doing all the preparations required the day before Passover, and the importance of being at our best at the Seder itself (Arukh Ha-Shulhan, Orah Hayyim, Siman 470; Responsa of Yehaveh Da’at, Part III, Siman 25).
Exemption from the fast via participating in a siyyum:
We are lenient regarding this fast by allowing someone to exempt himself from the fast via participating in a festive meal celebrating the fulfillment of a mitzvah, such as a circumcision or a siyyum of a tractate – even if he does not know the person fulfilling the mitzvah. Some people disagree with this custom, but Rabbi Ovadia Yosef relies on the Mishna Brura and other rabbinic authorities in order to permit it, and today we see that most people have this custom (Mishna Brura, Siman 470, Seif Katan 10; Responsa Yabia Omer, Part I, Orah Hayyim, Siman 26). Rabbi Ben-Tziyon Aba Shaul (Responsa Or La-Tziyon, Part III, Chapter 12) writes that if it is not difficult for a person to fast, and it will not impact on the Seder, it is better from the outset that he is not lenient by exempting himself via a siyyum.
The source for having a festive meal to celebrate completing a tractate is in Tractate Shabbat 118b, when Abaya declares: “I should be blessed because when I saw a sage completing a tractate, I made a festive day for the sages.” The Rama rules that in addition to the festive meals celebrating a circumcision or the redemption of the firstborn, we also make a festive meal for fulfilling the mitzvah of completing a tractate, and we eat meat and drink wine at this meal even during the nine days preceding Tisha Be-Av (Shulhan Arukh there, Siman 651, 10).
As we said, on the Fast of the Firstborn, we have the custom of being lenient and making a siyyum even on completing a tractate of Mishna (which we do not have the custom of doing at other times), whether short or long, if the person learned the tractate with a commentary (rather than just reading it without understanding it). Rabbi Ovadia adds that a siyyum on Mishna is only enough to exempt the person making the siyyum from the fast, and not others (Yabia Omer there). According to Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, there is also joy in completing in-depth study of a book of the Bible, and as a result, this siyyum can also count as a festive meal for the purpose of exempting someone from the Fast of the Firstborn (Responsa Igrot Moshe, Orah Hayyim, Part I, Siman 157).
Do women fast on the Fast of the Firstborn:
The Shulhan Arukh writes: “Some people say, that even a female firstborn fasts.” The Rema (the Ashkenazic rabbinic authority) writes there with regard to women: “This is not the custom.” The Mishna Brura there says that the position that women fast is because the plague of the firstborn also applied to women, as we learn from the Midrash that Batya, Pharaoh’s firstborn daughter, was only saved because of Moses’ prayer (Pesikta De-Rav Kehana Piska 7, “So it was in the middle of the night.”) However, the reason that this is not our custom is that the Torah did not sanctify firstborn women (for the purpose of the Temple). There are some rishonim who say that women fast (Responsa Maharil, Siman 14).
Rav Ovadia mentions rabbis who rule that women fast, but in practice he rules according to the Hida (among others) that women do not fast. Nevertheless, if a women can participate in a siyyum without trouble, “it is advisable to do so” (Responsa Yehave Da’at, Part III, Siman 25). The Sefer Hikhot Hag Be-Hag wrote (Passover, Chapter 3, Note 9) that if a woman wants to fast, it is certainly permitted, even though in general we do not fast in the month of Nissan.
Women who fast can be lenient and not be present at the siyyum, but rather have someone bring them food from the festive meal, and by eating that food they will exempt themselves from the fast (unlike men who need to present at the time of the meal, at least when they are saying words of Torah) (Responsa Yabia Omer, Part IV, Orah Hayyim, Siman 42).
In conclusion, the widely accepted ruling is that women are not required to fast, but if a woman wants to fast or to exempt herself from the fast via a meal celebrating the fulfillment of a mitzvah, there are certainly rabbis who she can rely on to do so. According to Rabbi Ovadia, it is even advisable to do participate in such a meal if it is possible without going to too much trouble.
Participating in a Siyyum via the phone:
Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach is quoted as saying that in a time of need it is permissible to participate in a siyyum via the phone (Haggada with the Rulings and Customs of Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, page 52). Rabbi Sternbuch disagrees (Teshuvot u-Hanhagot, Volume V, Siman 126), and therefore one should only participate via phone if there is no other option.
In contrast, in the case of a live internet siyyum, I believe there is more room to be lenient than on the phone, because in that case the person watching knows that the siyyum is being broadcast to many people simultaneously and is able to see the person who is making the siyyum, giving him or her a greater feeling of participation and celebration than on the phone.
Annulling the vow of the Fast of the Firstborn:
If for three years, a woman followed the position of some rabbis, that a woman is obligated in the Fast of the Firstborn (even if she only participated in a siyyum in order to exempt herself from this obligation), despite the opinions that she is not obligated – her custom of fasting (or exempting herself from the fast) is equivalent to a vow for her. If she wants to stop following this custom, she needs to officially annul her vow before a rabbinical court (three men) (Shulhan Arukh, Yoreh Deah, Siman 214a). This is the ruling for Sefardic women as well. For Ashkenazic women, in a case of need (when there is not a way for her to do the annulment), she can rely on the lenient position that if she annulled her vows before Rosh HaShana, or said “Kol Nidrei” before Yom Kippur, that means that from the outset she did not take this positive custom on herself as a vow, even though she did it three times (Minhat Shlomo, Part I, Siman 91:20; Yabia Omer, Part IV, Yoreh De’ah, Siman 11). However, there is a concern that when she nullified all her vows ahead of time (before Rosh HaShana or Yom Kippur), she did so without understanding, and therefore it does not work to annul her vow (Hevel Nahalato, Siman 28), so ideally, if at all possible, she should annul her vow. In general, if someone wants to take a on a positive custom, it is best to do so on the condition that this is not a vow, and then in the future there will not be any questions or concerns of obligation.
I hope that I answered all your questions! May you continue your dedication to learning Torah, and may God bless you are your friend that just as God helped you and gave you the merit of completing tractates of Talmud in the past, so too God will help you and give you the merit of beginning tractates and other books of Torah in the future, and completing them – “to learn and to teach, to keep, to do, and to fulfill all of the Torah with love.”
Blessings for a happy and kosher Passover,