We ended the previous daf with the declaration that physical acts like washing your hands can lead to respect for prayers. Today’s daf goes even further by asserting that even acts as humble as relieving one’s self can create an atmosphere of holiness:
Rabbi Ḥiyya bar Abba said that Rabbi Yoḥanan said: Anyone who relieves himself, washes his hands, dons tefillin, recites Shema, and prays, the verse ascribes credit to him as if he built an altar and offered a sacrifice upon it, as it is written: I will wash in purity my hands, and I will encircle the altar of the Lord. (Psalms 26:6)
So going to the bathroom and washing one’s hands, far from being things to be ashamed of, are in fact acts of holy preparation that turn the body into an altar for God.
The daf pushes this idea further by emphasizing that there should be no excuses for failing to perform such sacred tasks. If there is no water to wash, use dust or rocks. Even the lowliest of materials can prepare the person as an altar for God.
The idea of elevating the human being to the level of an altar propels the rabbis into a discussion that basically takes up the entire daf: Do you have to move your mouth to say prayers properly? Does that physical requirement belittle the holy words or raise them?
The rabbis disagree, and that disagreement in turn leads to another discussion, over whether a deaf person who can speak but cannot hear their own prayers can lead the congregation in prayer. How important are physical sound waves to someone who is praying and feels the power of the prayer in their heart? How far must we go in requiring physical effort to bring about a holy experience?
This basic question remains an essential balancing act for all of Jewish religious history. Rituals — the actions themselves, and the effort needed to prepare for them (think of Passover!) — can be a gateway to opening the heart and mind towards the essentials of Judaism. But they can also be a barrier and a distraction, turning us away from what Judaism is all about.
Read all of Berakhot 15 on Sefaria.
This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on January 18, 2020. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.