The first three mishnayot of this chapter and the Talmud that comments on them deal with the holiness of the synagogue and the articles found in it. The chapter begins with a mishnah discussing what one may do with the proceeds of a sale of the synagogue or the things in it.
Section one: One can sell an object and buy something that is somewhat holier. The town square has some holiness to it because it is occasionally used for gathering in prayer, such as during a public fast (see Taanit 2:1). “Scrolls” refers to books of the Tanakh not part of the Five Books of Moses.
Section two: Conversely, one cannot sell an object and buy something with an object of less holiness.
Section three: If there is money left over from a permitted sale then they must still use that money to buy something with greater holiness. Thus if they sell covers and use the proceeds to buy scrolls and there is money left over, they must use the proceeds to buy other scrolls, or a Torah.
The other sages respond that it is problematic to quantify holiness based on the number of people within an entity. If a community is holier than an individual, than a large community is holier than a small community. Since this doesn’t make sense, the sages reject Rabbi Meir’s halakhah altogether.
The mishnah accords sanctity to the town square. If the people sell it, only something of greater sanctity may be bought. Rabbah b. Bar Hannah says that that is only a minority opinion. Most rabbis accord no sanctity to the town square. Thus if it is sold anything could be purchased with the proceeds.
The Talmud then explains R. Menahem b. Yose and the rabbis’ dispute. R. Menahem holds that there is sanctity to the square because it is occasionally used for prayer. Specifically people pray there on fast days and on gatherings of the ma’amad. This refers a group of people who would pray and read from the Torah in the townsquare at the same time that the priests from the town were serving in the Temple.
But the other sages say that these temporary occasional gatherings are not enough to justify considering the space sacred. Therefore it can be sold.
This sugya is about selling a synagogue. It brings up an interesting issue—is a synagogue to which many people come considered as if it belongs to the public, and therefore cannot be sold under any conditions.
The mishnah allowed a community to sell a synagogue as long as they use the proceeds to buy a Torah ark (or something of greater sanctity). But R. Yonatan limits this to a synagogue found in a village. A synagogue in a larger town cannot be sold under any circumstance because it really belongs to the public and there would simply be no way to get their permission.
Ashi says that he can sell the synagogue in his town, although people stream to it from all over (who wouldn’t miss the opportunity to pray with R. Ashi!). It is in essence his choice because Jews from all over come to pray near him. Humble guy, this R. Ashi!
The baraita seems to say that it is permitted to sell a synagogue even in a large town such as Jerusalem. This would reject the statement of R. Yonatan from above. The Talmud resolves the difficulty by saying that although the synagogue was in a large town, it was a small synagogue built by private individuals.
It is interesting to note the existence of a synagogue of “coppersmiths.” Did people divide up by profession to pray?
This baraita is a midrash on the passage in Leviticus that discusses some sort of “leprosy” that occurs to houses. The first opinion says that none of Jerusalem can be considered to have this “leprosy.” The Talmud will explain this more deeply later on. R. Judah says that this is true only of the Sanctuary itself. The rest of Jerusalem, including the synagogues and study houses can be defiled, even though they belong to the town, for many people come there. Thus we can see that there is no consideration of “general ownership” for public synagogues. Their status is the same as that of the houses—both are subject to leprosy defilement.
The Talmud emends the baraita so that R. Judah says that any sanctified place, including the synagogue is not subject to the laws of leprosy. This implies that synagogues belong to the public, and therefore could not be sold.
Yesterday’s section included the following baraita: “In a house of the land of your possession” (Leviticus 14:34): Your possession is defiled by leprosy, but Jerusalem is not defiled by leprosy. R. Judah said: I have not heard this said except about the area of the Sanctuary alone.” Today’s Talmud explains the basis for the dispute in this baraita.
The two tannaim in the baraita from yesterday’s section disagree over whether the city of Jerusalem was apportioned to the tribes. R. Judah says that it was and therefore the houses of Jerusalem are subject to the laws of house leprosy. They are part of “your inheritance.” The first tanna holds that Jerusalem was not part of any tribe’s inheritance and therefore its houses are not subject to the laws of house leprosy.
The Talmud now cites a baraita which accords with R. Judah’s view, that Jerusalem was appointed to the tribes. Jerusalem is right on the border between the tribes of Judah and Benjamin. So part of Jerusalem belongs to Judah and part belong to Benjamin.
The baraita then goes back and describes why Benjamin merited having the best parts of Jerusalem in his territory. There was a strip that went out from Judah’s territory and into Benjamin. This strip belonged to Judah, but Benjamin really wanted it. He “crouched over it all day” a verse that appears in Moses’s blessing of the tribes at the end of the Torah. As a reward for his intense desire, Benjamin merited being the “Host of the Shekhinah” for the Holy Ark was in his territory.
The tanna from above who holds that Jerusalem was not apportioned to any of the tribes agrees with the tanna found in this baraita here. This tanna holds that since Jerusalem belongs to all of the tribes, homeowners cannot rent out their homes for a fee to guests coming to visit Jerusalem. Their homes do not really belong to them. R. Elazar b. Zadok says they may not even rent out beds. Of course, this sounds great—free rooms in Jerusalem. But even the baraita admits that such a halakhah can have deleterious consequences. The householders wishing to recoup the cost of hosting guests would actually seize property belonging to their guests, the hides of the sacrifices offered by their visitors. These are valuable items, probably worth more than the cost of renting out a place.
To the economist in me, this little baraita proves the danger in playing with a free market economy. While we would all love free rooms, we probably realize that forcing people to let out their homes for free, or at least preventing them from renting them out for a fee, will not end up in anyone’s benefit.
Abaye learns a normative lesson from here. A person who is a guest at someone’s home should leave the host with some gifts. This is a good lesson, one my mother tried to teach me and I try to teach my children as well.