World of the Sages: The depths of the Talmud

Ben Azzai questioned Rabbi Akiva: 'How could you act so brazenly towards your teacher as to investigate his intimate personal behavior!?'

talmud book 88 298 (photo credit: )
talmud book 88 298
(photo credit: )
When we read the Talmud, we are sometimes astounded at the issues discussed. We may be tempted to skip passages that make us uncomfortable, that go against the grain of our lives. Yet these passages have endured as part of our tradition for centuries and discarding them would be somewhat pretentious. Perhaps an honest approach toward such challenging passages would be to seek their relevance to our lives rather than excise them from the canon. One such example is the passage in our tractate that relates how Rabbi Akiva followed his teacher Rabbi Yehoshua into the bathroom (B. Brachot 62a; Derech Eretz 7). After the experience, Rabbi Akiva declared that from observing his master he had learned three lessons about bathroom conduct. Leaving nothing to the imagination, Rabbi Akiva boldly recounted the three lessons: First, when we use the facilities in Judea, we should not face east or west in deference to the sanctity of the Temple. Facing north or south means that we would present the side of our bodies to the Temple, rather than our private parts. Second, when entering the privy we should not expose ourselves while standing, rather we should sit first. Thus modest conduct is called for even in the bathroom (Shulhan Aruch OH 3:2). Third, after finishing we should wipe ourselves with the left hand not the right hand. It appears that Rabbi Akiva had heretofore not been privy to such lessons: His teachers had never discussed appropriate bathroom conduct, only upon daringly, or perhaps audaciously, following his master into the bathroom did he learn these new lessons (Rabbi Yosef Haim, 19th-20th centuries, Baghdad). Upon hearing Rabbi Akiva's account, one of his colleagues, Ben Azzai, was taken aback and questioned Rabbi Akiva: "How could you act so brazenly towards your teacher as to investigate his intimate personal behavior!?" Rabbi Akiva replied nonchalantly: "It is a matter of Torah and I must study it." Rabbi Akiva's words must have made an impression on Ben Azzai for the Talmud immediately quotes Ben Azzai's account of when he followed Rabbi Akiva into the bathroom to observe the lessons. Apparently, for Ben Azzai, hearing the lessons did not suffice; he needed to see Rabbi Akiva's conduct in practice. Rather than being stunned by these accounts, the Talmud examines the traditions reported, asking why indeed must we wipe ourselves with the left hand and not the right? Five explanations are offered, each highlighting the unique status of the right hand that disqualifies it from being used in the bathroom for such base purposes: First, the Torah was given with the Almighty's right hand, as indicated by the biblical verse, "From His right hand, the fire of the law was given to them" (Deuteronomy 33:2). A second reason is suggested: The right hand is generally used for eating and a hand used in the bathroom is likely to make the food it then touches repugnant (see Shulhan Aruch OH 171). Third, the right hand is used to fasten the tefillin; using the same hand in the bathroom would dishonor the hand used for such a lofty purpose. A fourth suggestion is offered: The right hand is used to follow the cantillation notes of the Torah, or to indicate to the reader which notes are to be sung; a hand used for a holy purpose should not be then used for a profane purpose. Finally, the right hand is used for writing holy scrolls - Torah, tefillin and mezuzot - and should be reserved for such noble tasks. It should be noted that later codifiers qualify the entire discussion, noting that it predates the widespread introduction of toilet paper. According to these authorities, the use of toilet paper renders this aspect of bathroom conduct academic rather than practical (Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Lyady, 18th-19th century, Byelorussia; cf. Rabbi Shlomo Ganzfried, 19th century, Hungary). At first glance the whole discussion is rather unsavory and certainly not what we would expect to find when we open the tomes of Talmud. For some of us it may be challenging to be motivated by sages who follow others into the bathroom, or by those who seek to explain which hand should be used in the bathroom. Yet perhaps the five explanations offered in the Talmud should be read as more than mere commentaries to the bathroom conduct of Rabbi Yehoshua and of Rabbi Akiva. In their explanations the sages may be offering lessons about life and about priorities. The first explanation - the Torah was given by the Almighty's right hand - indicates that we should seek to mirror God's conduct. This is not merely a directive for the bathroom; in every aspect of our lives we should try to imitate God. The second explanation - the right hand is used for eating - bespeaks of the value of health consciousness and demonstrates a more holistic outlook of our sages. The third explanation - the tefillin are tied by the right hand - suggests the importance of action: Even though tefillin are donned on the weaker left hand, this hand is passive and therefore less important than the right hand, the hand that actively fulfills the commandment. The fourth explanation - the right hand indicates the cantillation notes for Torah reading - attests to the importance of explaining our customs to others. Indeed on commentator, explains that the hands are used to animatedly elucidate points of Torah (Rabbi Moshe Tzuriel). In a similar vein, the fifth explanation - the right hand writes holy scrolls - reminds us of the importance of recording the tradition and thereby facilitating the learning of others. The study of Talmud can be an inspiring enterprise. As we open the tomes of our tradition, seeking lessons that are relevant to our lives, we embark upon an exciting quest. As with any adventure, the journey may be fraught with obstacles. The challenge of Talmud study is to first understand the texts before us, and then to plumb their depths as we seek the pearls hidden within that continue to guide us in our quest for fidelity to our heritage. The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.