Megillah 27

Torah for sale.

Today’s daf continues the Gemara’s discussion of the limits imposed on the sale of sacred items. As we saw yesterday, there’s a hierarchy of holiness surrounding synagogues, beginning with the ground on which a synagogue stands and proceeding right up to the Torah scroll itself, the pinnacle of holy items. As a rule, money earned from the sale of a sacred item can only be used to purchase something of greater sanctity. 

Today, the Gemara entertains a question that sounds like it comes straight from the smart aleck in the back of the classroom: Oh yeah? What if you want to use the proceeds from the sale of a Torah scroll to buy another Torah scroll? What then?

The question isn’t as snarky as it might sound (or as I rendered it to sound). On the one hand, we have the general rule we learned yesterday, that proceeds from the sale of a sacred item can only be used to buy items of greater sanctity. Since there’s no object more sacred than a Torah, buying a Torah with proceeds from the sale of another Torah would violate that rule. But maybe since the rule is impossible to follow in this case, a Torah should be an exception. After all, what else could a community do with the proceeds from the sale of a Torah? If the answer is nothing, that would imply that selling a Torah scroll is itself impermissible.

The Gemara makes a few efforts to resolve the dilemma and rejects each one in turn. We won’t review them all, but here’s one to give you a flavor. 

Come and hear a resolution to this dilemma: As Rabbi Yohanan said in the name of Rabbi Meir: A Torah scroll may be sold only if the seller needs the money in order to study Torah or to marry a woman.

The Gemara attempts to infer from Rabbi Meir’s teaching that selling a Torah scroll to buy another scroll is permitted. The logic here is that since, per Rabbi Meir, one kind of Torah (the scroll) can be exchanged for another kind of Torah (Torah study), it should be allowed to sell one scroll to purchase another. But the Gemara rejects this logic. Perhaps Torah study is only in a special category because study is what leads to the fulfillment of the commandments. Ergo, we cannot conclude from Rabbi Meir’s teaching that selling a scroll to buy another scroll is permitted. 

That marks the Gemara’s final attempt to resolve the matter. What comes next is its last word on the subject: 

On the same topic, the sages taught: A person may not sell a Torah scroll, even if he does not need it. Furthermore, Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel said: Even if a person has nothing to eat, and out of his need he sold a Torah scroll or he sold his daughter to be a maidservant, he never sees a sign of blessing (from the proceeds of either sale). 

The Gemara’s bottom line is that Torah scrolls should never be sold. And if you have to because you’ll starve to death otherwise — recall: selling a Torah scroll is not one of Judaism’s three cardinal commandments that one is required to die rather than transgress — the sale will not lead to blessing. In fact, it’s tantamount to selling one’s own child into servitude. 

Interestingly, Rabbi Meir’s position is generally understood to be the rule today. According to the Shulchan Aruch, selling a Torah scroll is prohibited except to support Torah study or to marry off orphans. There may be more leniency with respect to a privately owned Torah, but even then some say that it may only be sold except for these two cases. Maimonides goes even further, writing that these two exceptions apply only if the seller has nothing else to sell. 

It’s surely no surprise to see that, for the ancient rabbis, Torah was of supreme importance — an importance reflected not only in their dedication to its study, but also in their reverence for the scroll itself. So if you do plan on buying a Torah scroll someday, be forewarned: It’s probably going to be with you for life. 

Read all of Megillah 27 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on January 8th, 2022. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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