Daf 8. Summary. What is the meaning of “let my prayer be unto You . . . in a time of favor? At the time the congregation is praying.
Reish Lakish says, “One who has a synagogue nearby but does not enter to pray there is called an evil neighbor.”
Rabbi Yochanan (in Israel) heard there were elders in Babylonia and asked how this could be. They told him it was because they regularly attended the synagogue, thus extending their lives.
As praying in the synagogue is linked to “For whoso finds Me finds life,” the Gemara asks, “what is the time of finding” and provides several answers: “the time one must find a wife”; “the time of finding Torah”; “death”. A baraita teaches that 903 types of death were created in the world. The most difficult death is croup; the easiest is the “kiss of death.”
Other “times of finding” are burial (“a person should even pray for mercy until the final shovelful of dirt is thrown upon his grave”); finding a lavatory (they were few and far between outside the city).
The Gemara turns its attention back to the importance of the synagogue, but also acknowledges that it is permitted for scholars to pray wherever they study, and that “one who benefits from his hard labor is greater than a God-fearing person.” An unresolved issue: may one leave during a break in the Torah reading? Other questions: until when may one who has fallen behind catch up on Torah readings; how ahead may one read? Ideally, one should complete the reading with the congregation, “And be careful to continue to respect an elder who has forgotten his Torah knowledge due to circumstances beyond his control.” Do not pass a synagogue while the congregation is praying lest someone suspect you don’t want to pray (unless there are other entrances or other synagogues nearby).
The Gemara returns to the question of when one may recite the evening Shema, affirming that the halakha is in accordance with Gamliel. If one recites the Shema just before dawn and just after, have they fulfilled both the evening and the morning obligations?
Comment. The resolution between expectations and appearances are present throughout this daf. The fact that Babylonians who declined to return to Israel when there was no impediment (following Ezra) might be blessed with long life– how to explain it? Can even the dead keep praying for mercy as the dirt is shoveled onto their graves? Who would fail to treat the elderly Torah scholar as if he still had control of all his wisdom? Does one day turn into another in the moment before and after dawn? Do we worry that an ordinary person standing outside a synagogue while a service is taking place will assume I am not among the God-fearing if I walk past rather than enter? How does the laborer merit more than the God-fearing? I infer two expectations from this daf: (1) that I should not avoid doing something if the omission will cast doubt on my integrity (why aren’t I in Israel– and if not there, in sysnagogue?); and (2) that I should not doubt the “best” interpretation of what I can’t see– that the dead have agency and the lowest laborers haves merit.