Sunday, March 11, 2007

Daf Yomi - Megillah 29 - THE SMALL SANCTUARY

By Gil Student


The Talmud (Megillah 29a) expounds on the prophetic verse "I shall become to them a small sanctuary in the countries where they shall come" (Ezekiel 11:16) - that in the times of exile the synagogue is the equivalent of the Temple. Synagogues are not merely a post-exilic invention to facilitate communal prayer but, rather, are part of an historical continuum beginning with the Tabernacle built in the Desert, continuing with the two Temples in Jerusalem, and culminating with the third, messianic Temple. This equation bears clear and documented halakhic ramifications.

The Tosefta (Megillah 3:14) rules that a synagogue’s doors must be opposite its ark as was done in the Tabernacle. This architectural law, based solely on the equation of a synagogue with the Desert era sanctuary, is cited by halakhic authorities throughout the ages. This is certainly an indication that the synagogue’s designation as a "small sanctuary" is an halakhic mandate, particularly in regard to its architecture.

Similarly, the Mishnah (Megillah 3:3, 28a) states that a synagogue that is in ruins and unusable retains its sanctity because the Torah relates God’s statement, "I will make your sanctuaries desolate" (Leviticus 26:31); even in destruction they are still called sanctuaries. Thus, the status of synagogues as small sanctuaries has halakhic ramifications in terms of holiness, as documented in a Tannaitic halakhic passage. The medieval commentators expand on this as follows below.

The precise sanctity of a synagogue is explained by Nahmanides as being the same sanctity of any other item used for a mitzvah, such as a sukkah or shofar. This is a holiness that exists while the mitzvah is being performed. However, at times when a synagogue is neither in use nor set aside for a mitzvah it retains no sanctity. Rabbenu Nissim of Gerona (Ran on Rif, Megillah 8a) disputes this understanding at length and instead explains that synagogues are imbued with a holiness while certain key prayers are being recited and, for other times, the Sages decreed that a rabbinic sanctity be instilled into synagogues. R. Eliezer of Metz (Yere'im, 324), however, is of the view that synagogues always have a biblical sanctity similar to that of the Temple in Jerusalem and, therefore, the biblical obligation to fear the Temple (Leviticus 19:30) applies equally to synagogues. This is echoed by R. Moshe of Coucy (Semag, aseh 164) and R. Yitzhak of Corbille (Semak, 6). Significantly, commentators have deduced from Maimonides' words that he is of the same view. Certainly, according to R. Eliezer of Metz et al., the synagogue is halakhically and biblically a small sanctuary. Even according to Rabbenu Nissim the equation of synagogues and the Temple stands, albeit alternating between a biblical and a rabbinic level. Only according to Nahmanides is the equation left on the aggadic level.

The Gemara (Megillah 28a-b) quotes the Tosefta (Megillah 2:11) that frivolity is prohibited in a synagogue. Many see the root of this prohibition as the holiness due to its status as a "small sanctuary." Just like we are obligated to fear the holy Temple, we are similarly required to act respectfully inside its exilic counterpart.

R. Mordekhai ben Hillel (Megillah, ch. 3 no. 827) writes that the biblical prohibition against tearing down parts of the Temple also applies to a synagogue because it is a "small sanctuary." This is agreed to by many of the scholars mentioned above and is brought down as practical halakhah by R. Moshe Isserles in his authoritative glosses to Shulhan Arukh (Orah Hayim 152:1).

In an important responsum (no. 161), R. Yosef Colon (fifteenth century) contends that the Sages consistently equated synagogues with the Temple. In addition to the passage of "small sanctuary" and the Mishnah regarding a desolate synagogue, R. Colon cites Shabbos 11a where the law is stated that the synagogue must be the tallest building in a town. As a prooftext for this rule the Talmud quotes a verse in Ezra (9:9) regarding the building of the Temple – "To raise the house of our Lord." Evidently, the Talmud considers verses about the Temple to be valid indicators about the proper architecture of the synagogue. R. Colon further cites the Mordekhai who extends this equation to the holiness of the Temple, as we saw above, and then extends the concept himself to equate donations to a synagogue with donations to the Temple.

Clearly, the idea of the synagogue having the status of the Temple is more than a mere homiletic device and has extensive halakhic applications. In the lands of exile our sole refuge of holiness from the mundane world is the synagogue, the sanctuary that accompanies us in our wanderings. All agree that the respect due to such a holy place demands that frivolity be prohibited in the synagogue much as it was in the Temple.

It is also noteworthy that the classical peshat commentaries to Ezekiel – Rashi, R. David Kimhi, R. Yosef Kara, Metzudat David, R. Yitzhak Abrabanel – all explain the phrase "I shall become to them a small sanctuary" (Ezekiel 11:16) as referring to synagogues in exile.


Anonymous said...

Right cause when MOschich they will become actual part of the beis hamikdash

George said...

Where does it say that it will become part of it?