The interpretation of the verse from II Kings is related to the above debate over which is greater, the house of prayer or the house of study. The verse says that Nebuchadnezzar burned “every great house.” What were these “great houses”?
One opinion (R. Joshua ben Levi) holds that they were study halls and uses as proof a verse that refers to the Torah as great. The other opinion holds that they were synagogues and uses as proof a verse that refers to the great things accomplished by the prophet Elisha through prayer. These opinions match the opinions from the above dispute about whether one can convert a study hall into a synagogue and vice versa.
Today’s section deals with the issue of selling a Sefer Torah in order to buy another.
The Talmud asks the question whether it is allowed to sell an old Torah scroll in order to use the money to buy a new one. On the one hand, he is not raising the level of sanctity by buying something of an equivalent level of sanctity. Thus, perhaps it is prohibited, and one can sell sacred items to buy other things of a higher level. On the other hand, the Torah is already of the highest level of sanctity and therefore maybe it is permitted to sell a Torah to buy a Torah.
The first attempt at an answer is from the mishnah itself. The mishnah says that one may not buy other biblical scrolls. It doesn’t say that one may not buy another Sefer Torah.
However, the Talmud says that the mishnah refers only to an “ex post facto” case. If one already sold a Sefer Torah he may use the proceeds to buy another Sefer Torah. But this does not mean that ab initio one may sell a Sefer Torah with the intention of buying a new one.
The baraita talks about using the coverings of one scroll to cover another. The principle here is that coverings can be moved to cover scrolls of higher sanctity but not those of lower sanctity. A full Sefer Torah is of the highest sanctity, below it is the humash, a scroll containing only one of the five books of the Torah. Lower yet are scrolls containing the prophets or the writings.
From this baraita the Talmud tries to conclude that it would be prohibited to wrap a Torah scroll in the wrapping used for another. The common idea is that one may only go up in sanctity and not move within the same level of sanctity.
However, we could draw the opposite conclusion from the second clause—it is prohibited to go down in sanctity, but one can stay on the same level. Therefore, in its totality, there is no way to learn anything from this baraita concerning our question.
One Sefer Torah may be put on top of another Sefer Torah. This seems to prove that one could also sell an old Sefer Torah to buy another one. As long as they are of the same level of sanctity, it is permitted.
This is rejected because putting one scroll on top of another is sometimes inevitable, such as for storage. If it were not allowed to do so, then we would not even be allowed to roll up a Torah scroll because one sheet is placed on top of the other. Since it is inevitable in the case of rolling a Torah, it is also allowed in general to put one Sefer Torah on top of the other. But from here we cannot draw the conclusion that one can sell a Sefer Torah to buy another. This is not something that is unavoidable.
Rabban Shimon ben Gamaliel seems to say explicitly that one may not sell a Sefer Torah to buy another one. This seems to answer our question conclusively. However, the Talmud presses on, proposing that Rabban Shimon ben Gamaliel referred only to a case where the new Torah had not yet been written. In such a case we might be concerned that he will sell the old one and not buy a new one. This would clearly be a problem. But if a new one is already on hand and only needs to be paid for, we would not have such a concern. Thus it might be permitted.
The baraita says that a person cannot sell a Sefer Torah except to pay for the costs of studying Torah or getting married. From here we could conclude that just as it is permitted to sell a Torah to study, it is permitted to sell a Torah to buy another Torah.
This answer is also rejected. It may be allowed to sell a Torah in order to study Torah because study leads to the observance of the commandments. In other words, studying Torah is more sacred than the Torah itself! [I find this to be a very powerful message. The object itself is sacred, but the contents are even more sacred for they are what lead to a higher goal]. And marriage and procreation are the reason why God created the world in the first place. They are at the highest level of sanctity [another powerful idea] and therefore one can sell a Torah to afford marriage. But one cannot deduce from here that it is allowed to sell one Torah to buy another.
The baraita says that it is strictly prohibited to sell a Sefer Torah. Even if the Torah is not needed, one should not sell it. And if one sells the Torah (or his daughter, see Exodus 21:7-10) he will never receive any blessing from the proceeds.
We should note that the passage never really answers the question of whether it is prohibited to sell one Sefer Torah to buy another. Like many questions in the Talmud, it remains unresolved.
The mishnah says that if one sells something sacred all of the proceeds must be used to buy something even more sacred. If he buys something more sacred and money is left over, then he must also use the extra money to buy another more sacred item.
Rava limits this to a case of selling one sacred item to buy another. If money is collected to buy a Sefer Torah and there is left over from the purchase, the money can be used to buy less sacred items, and potentially even non-sacred items.
Abaye cites a baraita in objection to Rava. The baraita says that if they “made a stipulation” and money is left over, they may even give it to the “dukhsusya” a word which the Talmud will interpret below. The question is what does this refer to? If it refers to a sale, then the left over money can certainly not be used for any purpose. Therefore it must refer to a collection. But even when it comes to a collection they have to stipulate at the outset that if there is leftover money it can be put to other purposes. Otherwise, even in the case of a collection it is prohibited. For instance, if they collect money to write a Sefer Torah and they stipulate at the outset that any left over money will be used to pay to have the pipes fixed, then it is okay. But without a stipulation the money could not be used in this way.
Rava emends the baraita so that it reads something else entirely. If the seven good men of the assembly who are allowed to sell sacred items do not stipulate that if there is left over money they may use it for other purposes, then the left over money remains sacred. But if they stipulated that the left over could be put to other use, then they may do so. The implication is that if they just collected the money, they can put it to whatever use they want.
Abaye sees a student who used to recite and arrange his mishnah, the halakhot that he knew, in front of R. Sheshet. This refers to a type of memorization learning that was common in Talmudic times. Abaye asks the student what a “dukhsusya” is. The answer is the town horseman. Under certain circumstances the extra funds from the sale of a Torah or from a collection to fund a Torah may even be used to pay the town horseman to bring packages and messages from place to place.
Abaye learns from here that it is in general a good idea to ask questions of students who are frequently in front of “great men” such as R. Sheshet. In my opinion, this is still good advice.
If a group of people from one town visit another town, and the charity collectors there assess them to pay the charity tax, they should pay it. But when they leave, they may reclaim the money and use it to provide for the people of their own town. This is sort of like a tax agreement between the two towns.
However, if an individual goes from one town to another and pays the charity tax there, he may not reclaim it. The Talmud does not explain why there is a difference between these two situations. Probably the assumption is that if there is a group of people, then their charity really belongs to the people of their own town.
Huna declared a fast day, probably due to some distress that his city was experiencing. R. Hana b. Hanilai and other men were visiting him and R. Huna made them give some charity. When they were leaving, they asked for it back, in accordance with the baraita from above. R. Huna cites a different baraita that said that he has to give it back only when there is no person in charge of the tzedakah in that city. But if there is a person in charge of giving out the tzedakah, then he receives it. R. Huna would have made a great fundraiser in our times as well.