Megillah 26

Holiness inheres in the community.

The mishnah that begins today’s page sets out a model of synagogue holiness that extends outward in concentric circles, starting from the Torah scroll at the center. 

Residents of a town who sold the town square may purchase a synagogue with the proceeds of the sale. If they sold a synagogue, they may purchase an ark (in which to house sacred scrolls). If they sold an ark, they may purchase wrapping cloths (for the sacred scrolls). If they sold wrapping cloths, they may purchase scrolls (of the Prophets and the Writings). If they sold scrolls (of the Prophets and Writings), they may purchase a Torah scroll.

According to the mishnah, a community may sell something sacred and use the proceeds only to purchase something of greater holiness. But as the mishnah further describes, the proceeds from a sale of a Torah scroll may not be used to purchase scrolls of the Prophets and the Writings, which are of lesser sanctity. The rule of thumb is a community may use money from the sale of an object to buy something of more significance, but not less.

This mishnah deals with the relatively prosaic question of a synagogue selling off its assets amidst a period of change — moving from one location to another, say, or maybe even closing down. However, these rules also raise a larger question about the nature of holiness itself. 

The Torah appears to generate the initial holiness. Objects decline in stature as they move outward from the Torah: wrappings that directly touch the Torah scrolls, followed by the ark that houses them, then the synagogue building itself, and finally the town square. This last item, the town square, is the most interesting on the list. Why can’t a city sell a public square and use the funds to build a park? Only a synagogue can be built with the proceeds?

The Gemara immediately raises this very question. The position in the mishnah, we are told, is that of a single rabbi, Rabbi Menahem bar Yosei, who believes that since people sometimes pray in the town square, it is a sacred place. The majority of rabbis disagree and maintain that since the town square is only occasionally used for prayer, consequently it has no sanctity.

This debate provides us a fascinating insight into the powers that create holy space. The rabbis maintain that only a place where people come to pray day in and day out has the power to constitute holy space. But Rabbi Menahem bar Yosei disagrees, citing two particular times when the town square is used for prayer to justify his position. 

The first is public prayer during communal fasts, which were declared when there was not enough rain. Held in public, passersby joined who might not usually enter the synagogue. The anxiety of impending drought engendered the most intense of prayers. And the outdoor setting created a direct line of sight to the heavens. Presumably, these gatherings had a degree of heartfelt communication with the divine that was more elevated than normal prayers.

Rabbi Menahem bar Yosei also mentions the non-priestly watches. We’ve learned about these before. Every town had an appointed day when it was responsible for providing the Temple with the daily sacrifice. On those days, the townspeople would go into the streets and pray at the time of offering. Here, the town square enables a sacred connection that defies distance, linking the community to events in the Temple.

While the first side of our daf treats holiness, once generated, as everlasting, like an invisible force that can’t be left untended and must be properly directed, on the second half of the daf we learn something very different:

Rava said: They taught (that there is a limitation on what may be purchased with the proceeds of the sale of a synagogue) only when the seven representatives of the town (who were appointed to administer the town’s affairs) had not sold the synagogue in an assembly of the residents of the town. However, if the seven representatives of the town had sold it in an assembly of the residents of the town, then even to drink beer with the proceeds seems well and is permitted. 

According to Rava, if a community unanimously decides to sell a synagogue, they may buy anything, even booze, for there is no lasting holiness inherent within walls or funds. At the end of the day, holiness inheres in the community and lasts within the synagogue only while a community continues to think of a place as holy. When a community gathers to learn and pray, their spiritual force is present and tangible in the synagogue building. But if it chooses as a group, it may disband the community or transition to a new location with no lingering holiness to steer.

Read all of Megillah 26 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on January 7th, 2022. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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