Berakhot 22

My word is like fire.

Today’s daf is about ejaculation and how it affects Torah study. In the world of the rabbis, contact with bodily fluids like semen could render one impure, such that one couldn’t bring an offering to the Temple. The rabbis wonder, “Does the impurity caused by a seminal emission also preclude one from learning Torah?”

To answer that question, the Talmud connects two verses that appear back-to-back in Deuteronomy. In one verse, Deuteronomy 4:9, the Torah teaches, “And you shall impart them to your children and your children’s children” — that is, teach them Torah. Immediately after, in Deuteronomy 4:10, the Torah says, “The day that you stood before the Lord your God at Horeb” — referring to the terrifying experience of receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai.

From the juxtaposition of these verses, the rabbis draw this conclusion:

Just as the revelation at Sinai was in reverence, fear, quaking, and trembling, so too here, in every generation, Torah must be studied with a sense of reverence, fear, quaking, and trembling.

In other words, someone who has experienced a seminal emission cannot learn Torah because they are presumed not to be in the appropriate state of fear and reverence.

But then a real life case emerges. A young student who had experienced a seminal emission enters the study hall and is asked to recite a mishnah. Hesitantly, and doubtful with embarrassment, he stumbles through the words, afraid to say them explicitly. Surely he had learned that his all-too-human emission had rendered him impure and no longer a proper vessel for Torah.

His rabbi sees his hesitation and he encourages him: “My son, open your mouth and let your words illuminate, as matters of Torah do not become ritually impure.” The rabbi then cites Jeremiah 23:29: “Behold, My word is like fire—declares the LORD—and like a hammer that shatters rock!” Since Torah is like fire, the rabbi asserts, just as fire cannot become ritually impure, neither can Torah.

The rabbi here seems to go against the earlier teaching of the Gemara that one must learn Torah in a state of heightened reverence. Torah, he says, is stronger than both of us. It’s like fire, which cannot be rendered impure.

So how do we approach Torah? We must hold both parts of this Gemara. When we open our books to learn, we must do so with awe and reverence. But we must also do so in the fullness of our humanity, bodily fluids and all, at once both imperfect and perfect vessels for Torah.

Read all of Berakhot 22 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on January 25, 2020. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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