This sugya deals with three of the most important mitzvoth in the eyes of the rabbis: study of Torah, marriage and proper care for the dead.
Studying Torah is of supreme value to the rabbis. Nevertheless, if one is studying Torah and a funeral or wedding procession goes by, he should suspend his study and go and accompany the dead or the wedding. This shows that as important as Torah study is, it does not supersede these two values: burial and marriage.
However, when it comes to a funeral, this is only true if his presence is necessary. But if there are already enough people to honorably accompany the dead, he should not suspend the study of Torah.
The piece here refers to how many are sufficient for a funeral procession. Rav says that a proper number is no less than twelve thousand men either including or not including another six thousand trumpets! Less than that is not enough and therefore he should stop studying Torah to join the procession.
Ulla provides a large but more reasonable answer—enough so that a line could be made from the cemetery to the town gate.
Sheshet gives an even higher number. Just as at Mt. Sinai the Torah was given in the presence of 600,000 men (not including women and children) so too its taking away, meaning the burial of a person who knew Torah should be in the presence of 600,000. Ironically what this means is that if someone is buried and there are not 600,000 people to attend his funeral procession, one studying Torah can cease doing so.
The sugya concludes with another value statement. 600,000 is sufficient for one who merely knows how to read Scripture or recite Mishnah. But one who knows how to teach Mishnah, a teacher, there simply is no measure. [Okay, I expect you all to attend my funeral and bring 600 friends, that should get us to around 600,000].
This section continues to discuss the importance of the synagogue.
This baraita conveys one of the most central theological messages of the rabbis—God was with Israel in their times of trouble, when they were exiled in the past, and God has not abandoned them now that they are in exile for the foreseeable future. The baraita cites a variety of verses that teach this message. Clearly after the destruction of the Temple and with competing groups, including Christians, claiming that God had abandoned Israel, it was very important for Jews to believe that God remained with them. This was surely a message of great comfort.
Abaye has a very concrete view of where God is, indeed I would argue that this is what the above source itself said as well. This is not the idea that God is everywhere at all times. Rather, God’s presence is in a particular place at a time. In Babylonia He goes back and forth between two synagogues. I’m sure there’s a third one even God never sets foot into. He’s Jewish after all.
Abaye even makes sure he sets foot in each of these synagogues when he passes by them. If you knew that God was in synagogue, wouldn’t you go out of your way to go there?
The synagogue Shaf Veyativ seems to have been prone to earthquakes. Its very name means “was destroyed and then rebuilt.” In any case, the rabbis interpret these movements as being signs of the presence of the Shekhinah.
When this occurred to R. Sheshet, he stayed in the synagogue. The angels came and threatened him, trying to get him to leave. R. Sheshet brazenly says to God—why should I, a person afflicted with blindness, leave? In general, an afflicted person does not give way to one who is not afflicted. God tells the angels to leave R. Sheshet alone. Lesson learned.
In Ezekiel, God promises Israel that he will remain with them in exile, that He will be for them a “little sanctuary.” To R. Yitzchak this refers to synagogues and study houses. Indeed, historically the synagogue has been called a “little sanctuary”— a “mikdash me’at.”
Elazar provides a more limited and particular definition—the house of our teacher in Babylonia. Rav, the Babylonian amora, was R. Elazar’s teacher. It may be that this is a subtle jab at Babylonia. God, according to R. Elazar, is not found everywhere in Babylonia, in any old synagogue or study house. He is only found in one particular place, the house of Rav.
Rava’s midrash provides another source for the idea that God is present in synagogues and study houses.
Abaye’s midrash relates to Rava’s for both verses use the word “maon—dwelling place.” Abaye says he used to study at home and only pray at the synagogue. But when he heard Rava’s interpretation of “meon” he started studying in the synagogue. I should note that this statement contradicts a statement found elsewhere that at first he would study at home and pray in the synagogue but later he started praying at home too. I should also note that “home” here may really be synonymous with the Bet Midrash.
Elazar HaKappar reads Jeremiah as if it says that Mt. Tabor and Mt. Carmel came to Sinai to hear the Torah being given. If these places which only heard the Torah being given once merited being returned to Israel and planted there for eternity, all the more so the synagogues and study houses in Babylonia will be restored at the end of times to the land of Israel.
This source is very interesting in terms of the value of Israel vis a vis Babylon. It seems that the source is in essence saying that right now, the highest level of Torah is found in Babylonia, but the land of Israel is the holiest place. At the end of times, this Torah will be restored to its proper place—Israel.
In this derashah the mountains come to Sinai with a complaint (a litigation)—why was the Torah given on you and not on us? [Note this is based on a pun on the word “terazedun.”] God responds that in comparison with Sinai, these mountains are full of blemishes. This is cleverly based on another pun on the word “gavnunim” which here means “mountains of peaks” but sounds like the word for “humpbacked” in a list of blemishes that disqualify a kohen from serving at the altar.
Ashi adds a lesson learned from this derashah. The mountains were disqualified due to their arrogance. This is a blemish as much as any physical blemish.
Today’s section continues to explain the mishnah which taught what one is not allowed to do in a synagogue.
“Kapandaria” is a Greek word for short cut. The rabbis explain it that way, and then make a pun in Hebrew hinting at its meaning. This is something that they often do with Greek words.
There are three limitations to the Mishnah’s rule that one may not make a short cut through a synagogue.
If the synagogue was built around an already existing path, one may continue to use the path.
If one entered for another purpose he can then use it as a short cut.
If one entered it to pray, he can use it as a short cut.
There are commentators who say that reasons two and three are really the same.
While the Mishnah said that one should not pluck the grass that grows in a destroyed synagogue, the Talmud limits this to plucking and giving the grass to an animal. This would cause a high level of distress, seeing the synagogue in essence being used as a grazing area. But just plucking the grass and leaving it is taking care of the synagogue and would not be distressful.
The baraita teaches that one does not act disrespectfully in a cemetery. As we said above with regard to the synagogue, if one does gather/pluck grass in them, they should not use it to feed an animal. The baraita says that if he does gather grass, he should burn it immediately.
The rest of this chapter deals mainly with the portions of the Torah read on holidays and special Shabbatot. In mishnaic times they did not complete the Torah once a year as they did in Babylonia and as we do today, but rather about once every three years. Another difference between the ancient custom and that of today is that today when certain holidays fall on Shabbat we read the regular Torah portion and then we add a special reading for that day. In mishnaic times, since they didn’t really have a regular Torah portion, they only read the special reading. Thus if Rosh Hodesh fell on Shabbat they would read only the portion for Rosh Hodesh and interrupt the regular continuous reading of the Torah.
Today’s mishnah deals with the four special Shabbatot that precede Pesah. They are:
1) Shekalim—to remind people that on Adar they would have to bring the half-shekel to the Temple (see tractate Shekalim). This was read before Rosh Hodesh Adar.
2) Zakhor—Deuteronomy 25:17-19. This is read before Purim and connects Amalek with Haman.
3) Parah—Numbers 19. We read about the red heifer to remind people that before Pesah they must be pure in order to eat the Pesah sacrifice.
4) Hahodesh—Exodus 12:1-20. Read the Shabbat before Nissan to remind people that Pesah is approaching and that they must begin preparing.
Section one: On Rosh Hodesh Adar which falls on Shabbat they read Shekalim, which is Exodus 30:11-16. However, if Rosh Hodesh Adar falls during the week, they would read Shekalim on the Shabbat before Rosh Hodesh. On the Shabbat following Rosh Hodesh they would go back to reading where they had last left off in the regular cycle. This week would then be a break from the four special portions enumerated in our mishnah.
Sections 2-5: The mishnah now enumerates the four special portions, described above in the introduction. After Hahodesh, the order returns to its regular cycle. We should note the concept of Shabbat Hagadol, the Shabbat before Pesah, did not exist in mishnaic or talmudic times.
Section six: The regular reading of the Torah is interrupted for any special occasion. This includes all holidays. On fast days, meaning Mondays or Thursdays when they would fast for rain, they would not read the regular portion but rather the special readings for fasts. Ma’amadot were described in greater length in tractate Taanit. These were gatherings by people in towns when their kohanim would go to the Temple. The people in the town would read from the beginning of Genesis and not from the regular Torah portion.