Daf 20. Summary. What is the obligation toward a met mitzva–a corpse with no one to bury it? One must bury it, even if one is a High Priest who is otherwise prohibited from handling or coming into contact with a corpse. From this obligation, the gemara attempts to derive a general principle about the precedence of human dignity over Scriptural obligations but concludes that this is a unique case.
Rav Pappa asks Abaye why miracles no longer occur as they did in the time of their ancestors. Were their ancestors different in some way? Abaye replies that the ancestors were “totally dedicated to the sanctification of God’s name.” Examples are offered where human dignity is sacrificed to fulfill Scriptural mitzvot.
Mishnah. Women, slaves, and minors are exempt from Shema and tefillin, but obliged to pray, affix a mezuzah to their doorpost, and recite grace after meals.
Gemara. Women are exempt from time-bound mitzvot except for recitation of kiddush on Shabbat. The gemara seeks to determine which obligations are from Torah and which are rabbinic ordinances because one whose obligation is imposed rabbinically cannot fulfill an obligation for one who is obliged by Torah.
Mishnah. One who has had a seminal emission may “contemplate Shema in his heart” but should not recite it aloud. Rabbi Yehuda disagrees.
Gemara. Ravina says, “contemplation is tantamount to speech.” Rav Hisda disagrees.
Comments. The rabbis from the “age of miracles,” who were “totally dedicated” to sanctifying God’s name, were buffoons when it came to “supervision” of women. In this daf the first proof of their total “dedication” is an incident in which Rav Adda bar Ahava sees a gentile woman in the marketplace wearing the forbidden combination of wool and linen and, mistaking her for a Jewish woman, rips off her dress. He is arrested and fined 400 zuz. (Some miracle!)
Next we have Rav Giddel, sitting at the gate of the women’s mikvah, instructing the women how to immerse themselves. When asked if he does not “fear the evil inclination,” he replies, “In my eyes, they are comparable to white geese.”
And last, but not least, we have Rabbi Yohanan, another self-appointed guard of the women’s mikvah. He is reputed to be extraordinarily good looking and brags to his colleagues, “When the daughters of Israel emerge from their immersion, they will look at me and will have children as beautiful as I.” He, too, does not”fear the evil inclination,” because he is a descendant of Joseph– a line that transcends the influence of the “inclination.”
In the context of the bookends of this prologue and the epilogue on seminal emissions, the rabbis’ pronouncements on the exemptions and obligations of women lack credibility to this modern reader. In fact, one wonders how they ever managed to be taken seriously.
This daf is especially timely in the shadow of remarks this week by Todd Akin of Missouri. As Representative Akin sat outside the women’s mikvah telling women how to immerse themselves and imagining how handsome their sons would be, he was not alone. Among those who chose to prioritize their own understanding of Scripture over human dignity was one who said of a rape that resulted in pregnancy, “If God has chosen to bless this person with a life, you don’t kill it.” To which another (who currently happens to be our President) replied, “What I think these comments underscore is why we shouldn’t have a bunch of politicians, a majority of whom are men, making health care decisions on behalf of women.” Likewise, rabbis.