Berakhot 23

Our physical selves.

If you like bathroom humor, you will enjoy today’s daf.

In this page, our sages address your most pressing questions: Can I pray if I have to pee? How long before pooping must I remove my tefillin? How soon after can I put them back on? What if I accidentally fart with tefillin on my head?

If these questions don’t immediately strike you as befitting Judaism’s greatest wisdom text, let’s explore the considerations behind them.

As the well-known modern children’s book tells us, everybody poops. We are all humans, and humans have bodies. Berakhot focuses primarily on matters of the spirit and the soul, on the prayers and blessings that draw our attention to the spiritual realm and help us explore our relationship with the divine. But we do not, and cannot, live exclusively in the world of the soul. We have physical bodies that cannot be ignored.

On today’s daf, the rabbis acknowledge the most mundane, and perhaps even profane, aspect of our physical selves. Rather than keeping these two very different aspects of our lives separate, the Talmud holds them side by side and directly asks: Are these compatible? How can we maintain a spiritual connection to God when our physical body is calling us into an “unclean” place?

Let’s take a closer look at question one.

Our Sages taught: One who needs to relieve himself may not pray, and if he prayed, his prayer is an abomination.

Rav Zevid and some say Rav Yehuda said: They only taught this law in a case where one cannot restrain himself. But, if he can restrain himself, his prayer is a valid prayer. 

The question reflects the rabbis’ real life experience. Even when you want to be totally focused on communicating with God, there are times when your body won’t cooperate. With this question, the rabbis affirm that it is normal for our physical needs to pull our attention and focus.

The statement that this prayer is an “abomination” is perhaps not a critique telling us what not to do, but rather a statement of permission. We do our best not to let our bodies disrupt our prayer, but sometimes we have to take a break and take care of our physical needs. The qualification offered — that it is indeed OK to pray if you can “hold it” — offers you the agency to determine for yourself what to prioritize in the moment.

Read all of Berakhot 23 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on January 26, 2020. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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