He Who Smelt It, Dealt It

Daf 24. Summary. Store tefillin where they will be most protected “even at the cost of deprecation.” Rava once instructed Rav Hamnuna to fetch his tefillin. Hamnuna found them in Rav’s bed between the pillow and the mattress, not aligned with his head. Hamnuna knew this was the day Rava’s wife went to the bath following menstruation and inferred that Rava had sent him on this errand to teach him a “practical halakha.”

Is it permissible to recite Shema while in bed with another person? Does it matter with whom he is sharing the bed (e.g., his wife, his children, strangers)? What constitutes nakedness? “Anyone who gazes upon a woman’s little finger is considered as if he gazed upon her naked genitals.” Shmuel said, “A woman’s singing voice is considered nakedness.” Rav Sheshet said, “Even a woman’s hair is considered nakedness.”

Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi’s apparently boorish behavior while reciting Amida is an occasion for making distinctions between voluntary and involuntary (e.g., belches and yawns), and distinctions between openings (“sneezing” is a bad omen “from below”– i.e., farts). Rav Yehuda taught, “One who was standing in prayer when he felt the need to sneeze from below, retreats four cubits, sneezes, waits until the odor dissipates and resumes praying.”

Rav Huna and Rav Hisda debate the proper way to recite Shema in a filthy alley.

Comment. This daf balances two concepts, holding one in passing and the other under a microscope. The first is the matter of potential arousal in the presence of another. This text comes from a culture in which people slept in the nude; sometimes an entire family in the same bed, and sometimes strangers or house guests. When it comes time to recite Shema, one in bed with others must position himself to avoid distractions. (The benign lesson in “practical halakha” in this daf echoes the more vivid example of the students who conceal themselves in their teacher’s privy or under their teacher’s bed because there is “Torah” that they need to learn.) So, here, when the entire world lies naked in the dark, we learn that the mere glance at a woman’s finger, the sound of her voice, or the sight of her hair are equivalent to beholding her nakedness. Is it on this sliver of aggada that orthodox women are bound and silenced? Could this possibly have been the intent of the Sages, who go on to examine in minute detail the protocol for a man to break wind while praying? Is it possible that contemporary orthodox people who routinely dismiss aggadic texts as having no substance have built a mansion with no foundation?

If I break wind while praying, I know the remedy is to wait until the odor dissipates before resuming my prayer. Likewise, if I am aroused, is not the same remedy available to me?

I am blessed to study Talmud every day with a woman. The first organ that gets aroused is my mind. Her response to this daf moves me.

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One Response to He Who Smelt It, Dealt It

  1. Charles Hollander says:

    I am struck in this daf by the passage about Rabina spitting behind him, being asked about the dictum of covering it in his scarf, and answering, “I am rather squeamish.” (Koren, “delicate”.) The Talmud is making allowances for personal differences, though mostly, it seems, in the direction of greater strictness.

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