Megillah, Chapter Three, Mishnah Three
In this mishnah Rabbi Judah teaches that the holiness of a synagogue remains even if it has fallen into ruins. Rabbi Judah applies the holiness of the Temple in Jerusalem to the synagogue of the post-destruction period. Just as the holiness of the Temple and the Temple Mount remained even when Jerusalem was destroyed, so too the holiness of a synagogue remains when it physically lies in ruins. There is a deep message in this mishnah. The holiness of the synagogue is not dependent upon the existence of its physical structure. Once people have treated the place as holy, it will retain that sanctity forever.
- Rabbi Judah said further: a synagogue that has fallen into ruins, they may not eulogize in it, nor twist ropes, nor to spread nets [to trap animals], nor to lay out produce on its roof [to dry], nor to use it as a short cut, as it says, “And I will desolate your holy places” (Leviticus 26:31)—their holiness remains even when they are desolate.
- If grass comes up in it, it should not be plucked, [in order to elicit] melancholy.
Section one: One may not use a synagogue that lays in ruins for a profane, every day purpose. One cannot deliver eulogies in it because eulogies are not delivered in synagogues, even when they have been destroyed. [As an aside, the custom to deliver eulogies and conduct funerals inside synagogues is a modern custom, probably borrowed from the Christians. Jews used to deliver eulogies either at the cemetery on the path on the way there.] One can’t use it as a place of work. The mishnah uses the example of “twisting rope” because twisting rope requires space, but it means that no work should be done there. It should not be used to trap animals nor should its roof be used to dry out fruit. One shouldn’t use it as a short cut. In summary, it should only be entered for its intended purpose—as a place of worship and Torah study.
The mishnah uses a midrash, exegesis of a biblical verse, to prove this point. In a section in which God rebukes Israel, He threatens that He will “desolate your holy places.” The fact that the verse calls these places holy implies that they retain their holiness even when they have been destroyed.
Section two: The mishnah now changes direction and seems to acknowledge that there is some significance to the synagogue’s having been destroyed. According to the theology reflected in this mishnah, a destroyed synagogue is sign of God’s wrath, which comes as a result of Israel’s sin. When one sees grasses growing in a synagogue, a person will surely experience deep sadness. It will remind him that the synagogue was destroyed and that he should repent. It will also remind him that he should dedicate himself to rebuilding the synagogue as quickly as possible.