י״ב באב ה׳תשע״ד (August 8, 2014)

Megilla 28a-b: Eulogies in the Synagogue

Given its holiness, a synagogue should not be used for private or profane purposes:
Eating and drinking in a synagogue should be avoided.
One should not take refuge there on a rainy (or hot) day.
It should not be used for a private funeral, although a larger funeral can be held there.

The Gemara tells of Sages who offered eulogies for others in the synagogue, arguing that it was a public occasion since people would come either to honor the dead or to hear speak.

The Gemara contrasts two such funerals. In the first, Reish Lakish offered a eulogy for a scholar who occasionally visited Israel and passed away there, teaching “in the 24th row.” In his eulogy, Reish Lakish cried over the loss of this great Sage. When Rav Nahman was asked to offer a eulogy for a scholar who was known to have studied all of the Rabbinic works, he refused to do so, saying, “What should I say? ‘The great bookcase is missing?'” (i.e. he had little respect for the scholar who had studied much material, but did not have a deep understanding of what he had learned). The Gemara uses this to contrast the sensitivity of the Rabbinic Sages of Israel (where Reish Lakish lived) with the lack of sensitivity shown by the Sages of Bavel.

This contrast is highlighted further by an alternate view of the scholar who received the eulogy from Reish Lakish. The story related that he taught in the 24th row. Rashi understands this to mean that he taught 24 rows of students, attesting to his prowess as a scholar and teacher. Others understand it differently. During the times of the Mishna and Talmud – particularly in Israel when the was still operating – the typical seating arrangement in the Torah academies was set up by knowledge and seniority. At the head sat the Sage, who taught the group while facing his students. The first row of students was the most scholarly in the group; the second row had the lesser scholars, and so on until the very last row – the 24th row – where the weakest students sat. Thus, the visiting Babylonian student who received a eulogy from Reish Lakish may have been a very weak student.

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