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Mesechet Zevachim: Torah in the Bathroom

by Rabbi Dov Linzer (Posted on February 25, 2011)
Topics: Machshava/Jewish Thought, Talmud, Torah and Mesorah, Zevachim

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The Gemara Zevachim (102b) ends its discussion of the Kohanim who are not entitled to a portion of the daily sacrifices with an analysis of R. Elazar ben R. Shimon.   We had learned that a Kohen who was tamei, and thus not able to do the avoda that day (or, according to another formulation, not able to eat the korbanot that day), was not entitled to a portion of the korbanot that evening.  It should be noted that this is only a loss of property rights, not a ritual exclusion – he can eat if a fellow Kohen offers him a portion of his meat.  The Torah also spells out that such a Kohen is excluded from a portion in 3 cases: (1) the meat of the chatat; (2) the remnant of the mincha and (3) the breast and  the thigh from the shelamim. 


R. Elazar ben R. Shimon, in his analysis, looks at why the Torah needed to address all three cases – could we not have learned one from the other?  He points out that in each case, an argument – based on a kal va’chomer, an a fortiori argument- could have been made to allow the Kohen to have a portion, and that thus an explicit verses were needed for all three cases.  What is interesting and unusual about his analysis is that rather than discussing the issues abstractly, he chooses to tell it in a narrative style, imagining a Kohen who is a tevul yom who has gone to the mikveh and will be pure that night.  This Kohen comes to argue with, and demand a portion from, another Kohen, one from his shift who worked that day. He claims   “You may be able to push me away in one case, but not in this case,” to which the other Kohen responds, “Just like I could push you away in the first case, I can push you away in the second case as well.”   The narrative ends with the tamei Kohen being denied any portion and walking away in utter defeat:


Thus the tevul yom departs, with his kal va’chomers on his head, with the

onen (one who has just suffered a death) on his right and the mechusar kippurim (one who lacks a korban to end his impurity) on his left. 

Analyzing the issues this way certainly brings it to life, and serves as an effective memory aid.  More significantly, it underscores the human dimension here – that a person is being excluded, that it is a debate not about ritual but about property rights, and that this poor tevul yom, together with his fellow impure Kohanim, are literally pushed away, walking away from the Temple with their heads down, despondent over their exclusion.

The Gemara, however, does not end the discussion there.  For, when Rava had introduced the statement of R. Elazar ben R. Shimon, he said that R. Elazer had told it over in a bathroom!  So, naturally, the Gemara now asks how that was permitted:


Now, how might he [R. Elazar son of R. Simeon] do this? Surely Rabbah b. Bar Hanah said in R. Yochanan’s name: One may think [about Torah] in all places, except in a bath-house and a bathroom? – It is different [when it is done] against his will (i.e., involuntarily).


What is the purpose of this discussion here, at the end of this sugya?  While it may be nothing more than a side point, it seems significant that Rava made a point of relating that the original statement was made in a bathroom, and this is how the tradition was remembered.  Again, perhaps this was just to teach us the principle that this was allowed when it is against someone’s will, but of course, if the person can’t do anything about it, what purpose is served by telling us that it is allowed? 


I believe that the issue around Torah in the bathroom is brought in here to show the stark contrast that exists between the Mikdash as the center of kedusha and Torah as the center of kedusha, that is – between a Temple-based Judaism and a Torah-based Judaism.  When Mikdash is the primary locus of kedusha, access to that kedusha is very limited – the Mikdash is only in one physical space and true access is restricted to a very select group.  Only male Kohanim can enter the inner parts of the  Mikdash, only a male Kohen without a blemish can do the avodah, and only a Kohen who is not tamei can eat the meat of the sacrifices.  Not only that, our sugya teaches that even if a Kohen is just tamei temporarily, and is able to eat that night, then no matter how hard he argues, how hard he tries, and although his state is not his fault, he is nevertheless not entitled to a portion – he is pushed away, and leaves despondent. 


Not so in the case of Torah.  All can access – Kohen or Yisrael, man or women, rich or poor.  Even when attempts are made to push some away – like R. Akiva who was turned away because he did not have the entrance fee to enter the beit hamidrash, if you are committed and persevere – you will get your portion in Torah and be allowed in.  And, as the Gemara in Berakhot (22a) famously says, being impure is certainly not an obstacle, because “the words of Torah are not susceptible to impurity.” 


Torah, unlike Mikdash, is accessible to all, and can be accessed in all places.  There are only 2 places that Torah cannot be learned: a bathhouse and a bathroom.  And then we find out that even in a bathroom, if a person is not to blame and can’t control his thinking, it is permissible as well!  Unlike the tevul yom who is pushed away due to no fault of his own, R. Elazar’s statement is remembered, accepted and passed down, and he is none to blame for where he thought of them.  Such is the difference between access to Torah and access to Mikdash!


Two final notes: 


(1) R. Elazar not only thought Torah in the bathroom, he actually said the Torah in the bathroom, and presumably formally passed it on while there.  The argument that “he could not control it,” is even harder to accept when it comes to verbally articulating his thoughts.  Perhaps it means that he couldn’t hold his thoughts in his head, and the only way he could stop thinking about it was to talk about it.  Even so, it is fascinating that we allow this – it would seem to be a serious affront to the words of Torah – and that the teaching remains untainted.   Truly, the words of Torah do not receive tumah!


(2) The tevul yom tried to make his argument and be included through the use of a fortiori arguments, i.e., through Rabbinic hermeneutics.  This was rejected based on verses, and he left with his kal va’chomers on his head.  In the Mikdash, it was the verses that trumped Rabbinic methodology, one that would have allowed for greater inclusion.  Outside the Mikdash, even in the bathroom of R. Elazar, Rabbinic methodology could be learned and used, and it was indeed used to be more inclusive – to allow one who cannot control his thoughts to think – and even teach! – Torah in the bathroom itself.