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Question: May a firstborn who is weak join in someone else’s siyum on Erev Pesach to avoid fasting?

Name withheld by request

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Answer: In today’s times, when we are all considered to have weaker constitutions, many authorities, including the Steipler Gaon (HaRav Yaakov Kanievsky, zt”l), cited by Rabbi Moshe Sternbuch (Responsa Teshuvot Ve’Hanhagot, Vol. 2:210), are of the view that we may be lenient and allow such participation and thus enable one to eat on Erev Pesach. This is halacha and is common practice in our days (and according to many, even during the Nine Days – a matter for a later discussion), as we shall now discuss.

Tur (Orach Chayyim 470) cites Tractate Soferim (21:3) as the source for the requirement for all firstborns to fast on Erev Pesach. While Soferim offers no reason, Tur explains that they fast due to the great miracle that saved all the firstborn Israelites during the plague of the firstborns in Egypt. He also cites Avi Ezri that not only does this apply to a firstborn of the mother [peter rechem imo] but even to firstborn of the father (even if not peter rechem imo).

Both Bach and Beit Yosef in their commentaries (ad loc.) cites sources, (Teshuva Ashkenazit and Agudah) that firstborn women as well are to fast because they were also included in the miracle. We may cite the source as the verse in Parashat Bo (Exodus 12:29), “… and Hashem smote all firstborn that were in the land of Egypt . . .” Rashi notes that it included even the firstborn of another nation who happened to be there; thus, we might assume that firstborn girls were included. Ba’al HaTurim (to verse 11:5) cites “All the firstborn in Egypt will die . . .,” explaining that even the “oldest” of the household, [lit., the head of the households], even if not a firstborn, was included (see also Shulchan Aruch HaRav (O.C. 470:sk3)).

Bach (ad. loc.) cites Agudah as a source that firstborn girls were also included in the heavenly decree. He states that Batya, the firstborn daughter of Pharaoh, should have died, but it was the merit of Moses that uniquely saved her.

However, Shulchan Aruch HaRav (ibid. 470:sk3) states that in our lands, such is not the custom for women or non-firstborn heads of households to fast, since the fast is only due to custom.

The difficulty with a siyum is that usually only the one who is making the siyum has actually completed the particular tractate. Thus, how can others suddenly join in? More so, in light of their requirement to fast, how can this siyum of another be sufficient to include them and nullify their obligation to fast?

Rabbi Moshe Sternbuch, as we cited at the outset, discusses this matter in depth (Responsa Teshuvot Ve’Hanhagot, Vol. I:300, Vol. II:210). He cites opposing views (2:210) in this matter: Noda B’Yehuda (Responsa Teshuva MeAhava, Vol. II: 266) and Chatam Sofer (cited by Likutei Bet Ephraim, ot 29), who were strict in this regard and did not allow one to eat at a seudat siyum to absolve the obligation to fast. Magen Avraham (470) cites Responsa Maharash HaLevi who is lenient in this matter (regarding participation in a seudat brit milah to free one of the obligation to fast) but does not agree and opts similarly to the stringency espoused by Noda B’Yehuda and Chatam Sofer.

Rabbi Sternbuch, however, notes that today there is a tendency toward leniency, perhaps due to the absence of any mention of ta’anit bechorim in the Talmud (Mishnayot). Rambam does not mention it either. The main source for the fast is custom, which in itself is treated quite seriously in Jewish law.

As to the mention in Tractate Soferim, the latter authorities explain that it is not brought as a requirement but rather as a matter of custom. Therefore, there is sufficient reason to allow leniency and permit one to join in with another’s siyum and nullify the need to fast.

However, Rabbi Sternbuch does note that it is probably better for one who seeks to derive benefit from the siyum to participate in the actual seuda at the siyum. Nonetheless, even where one did not join in – i.e., eat at the seuda –there is room for leniency according to Rabbi Sternbuch.

He cites Rabbi Yaakov Kanievsky, zt”l, who was of the opinion that even when one [a firstborn] did not hear the actual siyum and merely wishes to join in to eat at the siyum seuda on Erev Pesach, he would be able to do so.

Rabbi Sternbuch actually turns the matter on its head and explains that such is the power of a minhag – custom. The prevailing custom is to join a siyum and thus not have to fast, and that is acceptable.

In conclusion, we note the Mishnah in Tractate Soferim (21:1), which refers to the Mishnah’s earlier statement regarding fasting the three days of the fast of Mordechai and Esther, which was done in the West (Eretz Yisrael). They also fasted Ta’anit B’HaB (Bet – 2, Hey – 5, Bet – 2 – the days of the week Monday, Thursday and the following Monday) after Purim. All these fast days occurred right before Pesach. The Mishnah teaches, “And why don’t we fast on those days in the month of Nissan? Because on the first of Nissan, the Mishkan was erected and the twelve nessi’im [the princes, one from each tribe] brought their sacrifice for twelve days – a day for each tribe – and each on his day celebrated as a festival and so will it be in the future time to come when the Holy Temple will be rebuilt in Nissan . . .”

Now, if we are to include these twelve days, and the days of Pesach, and all the Shabbatot of the month, we see that most of the month is considered to be festival days and as such, we are not to fast during Nissan.

Therefore, [even] in times of old, though they would have preferred to fast right before Pesach, they did not (see Tur, Orach Chayyim 429).

We thus see that the fast of the firstborn is one that is treated with great leniency, and joining in with a siyum would not only be allowed, but is a perfectly proper and accepted practice.

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Rabbi Yaakov Klass is Rav of K’hal Bnei Matisyahu in Flatbush; Torah Editor of The Jewish Press; and Presidium Chairman, Rabbinical Alliance of America/Igud HaRabbonim.