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The Kedusha of Kohanim and Torah in the Bathroom

by Rabbi Dov Linzer (Posted on May 6, 2015)
Topics: Disabilities, Emor, Machshava/Jewish Thought, Mikdash, Korbanot and Kohanim, Sefer Vayikra, Torah, Torah and Mesorah

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Parashat Emor opens with the prohibition against a Kohen coming into contact with a corpse, which would make him impure due to his special kedusha, his priestly sanctity. Such impurity would compromise his kedusha and keep him out of the Temple. Even a Kohen with a physical blemish is barred from serving in the Temple: “Any man from your offspring, for all future generations, who has a blemish, may not draw near to offer up the food of his God” (Vayikra, 21:16).

There is, however, a significant difference between the Kohen who is tamei, impure,and the one who has a blemish. The one who is tamei is completely removed from the Sanctuary and all that occurs there. He may not enter the Temple or eat the sacrifices. In fact, according to the Talmud, if he was tamei during the day when the sacrifice was offered, he cannot demand a portion to eat in the evening when he will be pure once again. In contrast, a Kohen who has a blemish is allowed in the Temple and has a right to his portion of the sacrifices: “The food of his God, from the holiest of sacrifices… he may eat” (Vayikra, 21:22). His blemish prevents him from serving, but it does not exclude him as a person.

According to the Gemara Zevachim (102b), there are actually three verses in the Torah which exclude the rights of a Kohen who is tamei to any portion of the sacrifices. Rabbi Elazar ben Rabbi Shimon concludes that the Torah needed three separate verses to address three different types of sacrifices. What is unusual about his analysis is its narrative design: He imagines a Kohen who was a tevul yom, impure in the day and pure in the evening, and comes to demand a portion from a Kohen who worked that day. “You may be able to push me away in one type of sacrifice, but I should at least be entitled to a portion in this other type of sacrifice,” he says. 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’chomer[logical arguments] 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.

R. Elazar ben R. Shimon’s use of such a graphic narrative to make an analytic point underscores that we are dealing with more than intellectual mind games here. The human dimension is front and center: a person is being excluded. This is not just a question of ritual; it is one of rights and membership. In the end, this poor tevul yom and his fellow impure Kohanim are pushed out, and they walk away from the Temple with their heads down, despondent over their exclusion.

The Gemara, however, does not end the discussion of R. Elazar ben R. Shimon’s analysis there. In what appears to be a total digression, the Gemara tells us that Rava reported that R. Elazar delivered his analysis while in the bathroom! The Gemara then questions how such a thing is possible.

Said Rava: “This law I learned from R. Elazar ben R. Shimon, which he said in the bathroom…”

But how might he [do this? Surely Rabbah bar bar Hanah said in Rabbi Yochanan’s name: One may think [about Torah] in all places, except in a bathhouse and a bathroom? – It is different [when it is done] involuntarily.”

This exchange is not a mere digression. The possibility of Torah in the bathroom is introduced here to show the stark contrast between the Mikdash as the center of kedusha and Torah as the center of kedusha, that is, the difference 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, as we have seen, 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 Temple service; and only a Kohen who is not tamei can eat the meat of the sacrifices. More than that, as R. Elazar’s narrative illustrates, it makes no difference if a Kohen is only tamei temporarily or if he is blameless for his state of tumah. Regardless of how hard he argues, he is denied a portion; he is rejected and leaves despondent.

Not so in the case of Torah: Kohen or Yisrael, man or women, rich or poor, all have access. “Israel was crowned with three crowns: the crown of Torah, the crown of priesthood, and the crown of kingship. The crown of priesthood was taken by Aharon… [But] the crown of Torah is sitting and waiting for all people; whoever wants to may come and take it” (Rambam, Laws of Torah Study, 3:1).

Even when attempts are made to push someone away – as Hillel was turned away because he did not have the fee to enter the beit midrash (Yoma 35b) – the Torah is still there waiting. If one is committed and perseveres one will get a portion in Torah and be allowed in. And impurity is no obstacle, for “the words of Torah are not susceptible to impurity” (Berachot 22a).

Torah is different from the Mikdash in another way as well. In addition to being accessible to all people, it can also be accessed in all places. The bathhouse and the bathroom are the only two places that Torah cannot be learned, and even these exclusions are not absolute. For as the Talmud tells us, if a person can’t control his thinking he cannot be faulted for learning Torah in the bathroom! Unlike the tevul yom who is pushed away through no fault of his own, R. Elazar’s statement is remembered, accepted, and passed down. Not only is he not to blame, but his Torah – even a Torah that emerged from the bathroom – remains pure and untainted.

Let us not forget that R. Elazar did more than just think Torah in the bathroom; he actually verbalized it and taught it to others. The Talmud’s argument that “he could not control it” presumably 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. For many of us, this would seem to be a serious affront to the words of Torah, and yet the teaching remains untainted. Truly, the words of Torah do not receive impurity! Such is the difference between the kedusha of the Torah and that of the Mikdash!

In thinking about our own communities and practices, we must consider whether we are guided by the Mikdash or the Torah model. There are undoubtedly certain instances in which the Mikdash paradigm would be appropriate, where we want to emphasize hierarchy and limited access to the holy. Even in such cases, we would be well-advised to remember the difference between the person who is tamei and the person who has a blemish. Tumah is a state inherently antithetical to the kedusha of the Mikdash. Some people may have certain character traits or behaviors that warrant a full exclusion, but external, nonessential issues – blemishes, disabilities, and other limitations – should never lead to a person’s real or felt exclusion from the community. The Kohen with a blemish is not only able to eat the sacrifices, but he has full rights to them as well.

We, however, live in a post-Mikdash reality. We live in a religious world whose center is the Torah, not the Temple. This world, with its inclusivist and universalist ethos, is what should most define our practices and our community. This is a kedusha of universal access: All can get to it, and if they cannot, we must make it possible for them to do so. And it can get to all people, everywhere – in their synagogues, study halls, workplaces, and even in their bathrooms. And wherever it reaches, wherever it is learned, it will remain holy and connect us to the source of all that is holy.