Talmudic pages

Megillah 29

Study break.

One of the most famous statements about Torah study, found in multiple places in the Talmud and in the daily morning prayer service, is Talmud Torah k’neged kulam, which means “the study of Torah surpasses them all.” The “all” is typically understood to mean the rest of the mitzvot. Torah study, in other words, is of greater importance than every other commandment.

Today’s daf begins with a twofold exception to this rule: 

One interrupts Torah study to carry out the dead (for burial) and to escort a bride (to her wedding). They said about Rabbi Yehuda, son of Rabbi Elai, that he would interrupt his Torah study to carry out the dead (for burial) and to escort a bride (to her wedding). In what case is this statement said? Only where there are not sufficient (numbers of other people available to honor the deceased or the bride appropriately). However, when there are sufficient numbers, additional people should not interrupt (their Torah study to participate).

According to the initial teaching, one can take a break from learning Torah only to accompany a person to their burial or to their wedding. But the Gemara then narrows the ruling by stating that this is so only if there isn’t a crowd of sufficient size to honor the bride or the deceased. 

How many people are enough to provide honor at a funeral? (We’ll leave the question of the bridal procession for its turn in Tractate Ketubot.) As it turns out, the answer is a lot: 12,000 mourners and 6,000 shofar blowers (or possibly 12,000 mourners, of whom 6,000 are also blowing shofars). In the case of a Torah scholar who has died, that number increases to 600,000, or the number of men presumed to have assembled at the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai.

And what if the deceased wasn’t just a scholar, but also a teacher? In that case, the Gemara notes:

For someone who taught others, there is no limit (to the honor that should be shown to him).

So while the Gemara starts by saying that a student of Torah may only interrupt her studies to attend a funeral if she is needed to help swell the crowd, the numbers given for sufficient honor are so high that it would mean that one’s presence is presumably always necessary. If that’s the case, listing an actual number of required attendees hardly makes sense. So what’s really going on?  

A clue can be found in the moving manner in which Rav Sheishet explains the significance of the number of 600,000:

As the Torah was given, so it should be taken away. Just as the Torah was given in the presence of six hundred thousand men, so too its taking should be done in the presence of six hundred thousand men.

In other words, the same honor that was provided when the Torah was given at Mount Sinai should be provided when the Torah is taken through the passing away of a Torah scholar.

In his Daf Shevui commentary, Rabbi Joshua Kulp, commenting on an identical passage in Ketubot 17b, writes: “It sounds to me like what these rabbis are basically saying is that there is no such thing as ‘enough’ people at a funeral procession. At the conclusion of this passage, the soul is compared with the giving of the Torah — just as the Torah was given in front of 600,000 people, so too the soul, the inner Torah, should be taken away in the presence of 600,000 people. This is a beautiful image — our neshamot [souls], our inner spirits and life force, are our own personal Torah.”

If an individual’s soul contains an entire Torah, then perhaps setting aside one’s studies to attend a funeral isn’t pausing Torah learning so much as it is turning one’s attention to a different “passage” — that of a person from their earthly life. The day of burial is a unique opportunity to pause our Torah in exchange for the opportunity to learn their Torah — the lessons borne of a person’s life that remain after their soul has returned to its creator. And so inspired, we can then return to our own learning. 

Read all of Megillah 29 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on January 10th, 2022. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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