Introduction to the Study of Talmud
by Rav Michael Siev
Megilla 25: 26a-26b
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Last week, we learned the mishna and gemara on 25b-26a which discuss the laws relating to sale of a shul; one cannot sell a shul that is in a city, and the proceeds from the sale of a shul in a smaller community must be used only for something that has even greater kedusha than a shul. The gemara continues this theme on the bottom of 26a, where we will start our shiur today. We begin with the second to last line of 26a.
Rava said: They did not teach (our mishna) except when it was not sold by the seven "good ones" of the town in the presence of the townspeople,
but (if) the seven "good ones" of the town sold it in the presence of the townspeople -
even to drink beer with it is good (=permissible).
Ravina had a certain ruin of a synagogue.
He came before Rav Ashi, (and) said to him: Is it permissible to plant it (on that spot)?
He said to him: Go buy it from the seven "good ones" of the town in the presence of the townspeople, and plant it.
אמר רבא: לא שנו אלא שלא מכרו שבעה טובי העיר במעמד אנשי העיר,
אבל מכרו שבעה טובי העיר במעמד אנשי העיר -
אפילו למישתא ביה שיכרא שפיר דמי.
רבינא הוה ליה ההוא תילא דבי כנישתא
אתא לקמיה דרב אשי, אמר ליה: מהו למיזרעה?
אמר ליה: זיל זבניה משבעה טובי העיר במעמד אנשי העיר, וזרעה.
The gemara's discussion here refers back to the rule of the mishna, which was that the proceeds from the sale of a shul must go toward the purchase of an object of even greater holiness, such as a Torah. Rava now gives an exception to this rule; if the shul was sold by the seven "good ones" of the town in the presence of the townspeople, the rule of the mishna does not apply. The seven "good ones" of the town are the people appointed by the town's residents to run the community's affairs. If the shul is sold by the town council, as it were, in the presence of the townspeople, the mishna's rule does not apply. The gemara forcefully expresses this idea by saying that the proceeds may even go towards the purchase of beer.
The phrase למישתא ביה שיכרא, which we have translated "to drink beer with it," the "it" being the money from the sale, can also translated as "to drink beer in it," meaning that it would be permissible to drink beer in the building that was formerly used as a shul. In fact, this translation actually fits the words slightly better, as the term 'money' in the gemara is generally plural ('moneys'), and if money were the subject of the sentence, it should have said "to drink beer with them." If Rava is referring to the building itself, this section of gemara is not so relevant to our mishna (and therefore it would be out of place here), but would relate to one of the upcoming mishnayot, which teaches that a building formerly used for a shul may not be used for unbecoming purposes. Our gemara would be qualifying that and stating that if the shul is sold by the town council together with the town's residents, it may be used even for such purposes. On a practical level, poskim agree that the money from the sale may be used for any purpose, and most (though not all) agree that the same is true regarding the use of the building.
The gemara moves on to tell a story that illustrates the principle just discussed, namely that the sale of a shul by the town council together with the town's residents is a sale which is total and does not leave any remnant of the shul's former kedusha. Thus, Rav Ashi told Ravina that if he purchased the ruined shul from the community in this fashion, he could plant on the site of what had previously been a shul. Of course, if we understand that Rava's statement here was referring to the shul building itself, this story directly parallels what we just learned (and because in this story the shul was destroyed, everyone agrees that the site can be used for any purpose). If we accept our original translation of Rava's statement, according to which he refers to the money from the sale, the gemara here takes a jump and moves from discussing the money to discussing the site of the shul. Nevertheless, the principle is the same; the holiness is completely removed from this shul, such that there is no more kedusha in the building site, nor is it transferred to the proceeds of the sale.
Why should there be a difference if a shul is sold by the town council in the presence of the town's residents, or just one of the two groups? Why should the sale be more effective in removing holiness if it is done by both groups together? Can the shul's kedusha simply cease to exist, or not?
The significance of the joint sale on the part of the town council together with the residents of the town, as opposed to the mishna's case in which one of the two groups acts independently, is that the sale is considered to have been made by the town in its entirety. The town in its entirety has more authority than any sub-group within the town. Why this makes a difference regarding whether or not the holiness is transferred to the proceeds of the sale, is the subject of debate, and actually depends upon the very fundamental question of the nature of a shul's holiness. There are two main approaches suggested by the commentators:
1) Ramban claims that a shul does not really have any inherent holiness at all. Rather, it is like an object used for a mitzvah, which must be treated with respect as long as it is still fit for this use. Thus, a shul which is fit for use cannot be sold, as that would be disrespectful - unless the proceeds are used for a different, higher level mitzvah. That is the case of the mishna. In the gemara's case, the entire town has effectively decided that the shul is no longer to be used for its mitzvah. It is therefore treated as an object that is no longer fit for its mitzvah, which may be disposed of.
2) According to Ran, the Sages decreed that a shul should be treated as though it does in fact have inherent kedusha. It is this kedusha that is transferred to the money when a shul is sold by the town council or the town's residents. However, the Sages decreed that when both groups come together, they have the power to nullify this kedusha - but not from the shul itself, as that would be too direct. They can sell the shul, thus transferring the holiness to the money. The holiness is weakened, as it were, through the transfer, and the town can then nullify it completely.
Back to the gemara
We continue with the gemara - we are now up to the fifth line of 26b.
Rami bar Abba was building a synagogue;
there was an old synagogue, he wanted to disassemble it and take bricks and beams from it, and bring them to there (=the new synagogue).
He sat and wondered about (the statement of) Rav Chisda;
for Rav Chisda said: "One should not disassemble a synagogue until he builds a different synagogue."
There (Rav Chisda's statement) - it's because of negligence; in this situation, what (is the halacha)?
He came before Rav Papa - and he forbade it to him; in front of Rav Huna - and he forbade it to him.
רמי בר אבא הוה קא בני בי כנישתא,
הוה ההיא כנישתא עתיקא הוה בעי למיסתריה ולאתויי ליבני וכשורי מינה, ועיולי להתם.
יתיב וקא מיבעיא ליה הא דרב חסדא.
דאמר רב חסדא: לא ליסתור בי כנישתא עד דבני בי כנישתא אחריתי.
התם - משום פשיעותא, כי האי גוונא מאי?
אתא לקמיה דרב פפא - ואסר ליה, לקמיה דרב הונא - ואסר ליה.
The gemara here digresses from our previous discussion regarding sale of a shul to discuss the related issue of how one can treat a shul that is no longer needed. Rami bar Abba wanted to take materials from an old shul to use in the construction of a new one. Rav Chisda forbade disassembling an old shul before a new one has been built, but the reason behind that ruling was a concern about negligence; does that apply here as well? Rav Papa and Rav Huna both held that the rule still applies.
What is this "negligence" that was Rav Chisda's concern? Rashi (s.v. mishum p'shi'uta, 4th line of Rashi on 26b) helps us understand:
Because of negligence - lest he be negligent and despair, and not build another.
We are concerned that despite the intention to build a new shul, it may not come to pass, in which case the old shul would have already been torn down and the community will not have a permanent house of worship. Rami bar Abba thought that perhaps this concern may not apply in his situation; here, there is no gap between the destruction of the old shul and the construction of the new. The old shul is being taken apart in order to build the new shul! Nevertheless, we are still concerned that the construction may not take place, due to the negligence of the builders or to unavoidable circumstances that may come their way.
The gemara continues
We pick up with the 13th line of 26b.
Said Rava: This synagogue, trading it or selling it is permitted, renting or giving it as collateral is forbidden.
What is the reason? It's holiness remains.
Bricks also, trading and selling them is permitted, lending them is forbidden.
This is true with old ones, but new ones - there is nothing wrong with it.
And even according to the one who says that 'setting aside' (designation) is significant - that is in an instance like one who weaves a garment for a corpse,
but here - it is like spinning in order to weave, and there is no one who says (that 'setting aside' is significant).
אמר רבא: האי בי כנישתא, חלופה וזבונה - שרי, אוגורה ומשכונה - אסור.
מאי טעמא - בקדושתה קאי.
ליבני נמי, חלופינהו וזבונינהו - שרי, אוזופינהו - אסור.
הני מילי - בעתיקתא, אבל בחדתא - לית לן בה.
ואפילו למאן דאמר הזמנה מילתא היא - הני מילי כגון האורג בגד למת,
אבל הכא - כטווי לאריג דמי, וליכא למאן דאמר.
The gemara here addresses itself to different ways in which a community can - or cannot - transfer control of a shul. The general rule - both for an entire structure or for building materials - is that they can be fully exchanged, whether for money or goods. They cannot, however, be rented, lent out, or used for collateral. What is the reason for these distinctions? The gemara explains that when a shul is lent out, leased or used as collateral, it is still in its state of holiness.
Clearly, this explanation will have to be understood in light of the issue of how it is that a shul's holiness is transferred or nullified when a shul is sold; we can then understand why that does not happen when a shul is lent out, rented or given as collateral. If we assume, as Ramban did, that there is no inherent kedusha in a shul and the whole issue here is the requirement to relate respectfully to mitzvot, our distinction follows that model. If the community sells or trades its shul, it has clearly demonstrated that it does not intend to use this building for davening anymore, and it is no longer considered an object used for a mitzvah. If they keep it in their ownership but allow it to be used for other things - as is the case when it is lent out, rented or used as collateral - they are in effect taking something that can be used for a mitzvah, and is specially designated for such use, and using it for something else.
If we take the Ran's approach, that a shul possesses inherent holiness - in order to remove that holiness, it has to be transferred to something. When a shul is sold or traded, it's holiness is transferred to whatever is received in return. If it is merely rented or lent out, the community retains ownership of the shul; the kedusha has nothing to transfer to, and it remains with the shul.
Our gemara indicates that in addition to the restrictions with regard to the synagogue building itself, those same rules apply to raw materials for the construction of a shul. But here we have a distinction - if the materials have already been used in a shul - as in the story we learned earlier of Rami bar Abba - all of the restrictions apply. If the materials are new, meaning they have been designated for use in a shul but have not yet been used for that purpose, the restrictions do not apply. The gemara makes reference to a general debate about whether "hazmana milta", meaning if something is designated for a holy purpose, does it already attain that status before having been used. However, this debate does really apply to our case. If the building had been built but not yet used as a shul - that would be a potential case of hazmana milta. So too if one made a garment for use in the burial of a corpse. But if we are just dealing with the raw materials of an unfinished product - bricks for the building or cloth for the shrouds - they do not attain the status of a d'var mitzvah, something used for a mitzvah, even if they are designated for such use.
To sum up: we learned the gemara's treatment of three topics:
1) That when a shul is sold by the town council and its residents together, the money does not retain the shul's holiness.
2) One may not tear down a shul until another is in place, even if the destruction of the old shul could aid in the construction of the new one.
3) A shul may be sold or traded, but not rented, lent out, or mortgaged. The same is true for raw materials that have already been used in a mitzvah-object.
We pointed as well that our understanding of several of these issues hinges upon the fundamental question of whether the status of a shul stems from a degree of inherent holiness or from the fact that it is a vehicle to perform mitzvot.