Berakhot 25 takes up a theme that occupies so much of the Talmud: the rabbis’ seemingly endless need to categorize every aspect of Jewish life. They struggle repeatedly with items and ideas that challenge neat categorization. The very beginning of Berakhot (pages 2–3) attempted to pin down the precise time for reciting the Shema, aiming to define specific periods of time in the night. On page 13, the rabbis debated exactly which sections of the Shema and its blessings must be recited with clear intent or kavanah. Their need to delineate can be altogether dizzying.
On today’s daf, the need to categorize will take itself once again to the bathroom of all places. Here we consider whether tefillin, the small black boxes worn on the forehead and arm for prayer which contain scriptural passages including the name of God, may be worn into the restroom. (Spoiler alert: No.) What happens, however, if someone inadvertently wears tefillin to the toilet?
Rav Huna said: One who forgot and entered the bathroom while wearing tefillin places his hand on them until he finishes.
Is it really possible that he can do so before finishing eliminating?
Rav Nahman bar Yitzhak said: Until he finishes discharging the first mass, then he steps out and removes his tefillin.
Let him stop immediately (i.e. not wait to discharge) and stand and step out.
No, he cannot do this, as Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel taught: A mass of feces that is held back without having been discharged causes a person to suffer from dropsy, while a stream of urine that is held back causes a person to suffer from jaundice.
Rav Huna teaches that someone who finds himself in the bathroom wearing tefillin should use his hand to cover them, out of respect, though the anonymous voice of the Gemara points out that this would be a difficult maneuver (remember that tefillin are two boxes, not one). Rav Nahman bar Yitzhak thinks that one should eliminate partially, ridding himself of the most urgent need, and then step out to remove his tefillin. The anonymous voice of the Gemara wonders if this suggestion is too lenient and potentially disrespectful of the divine name inscribed within the tefillin. Shimon ben Gamliel quiets this objection with a serious point: to withhold one’s … stuff … is medically unsound and potentially dangerous to one’s health.
For Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel, physical wellbeing trumps ritual punctiliousness, a principle repeated in discussions of who may fast on Yom Kippur and the halakhic status of pregnant women. While there are human bounds to ritual obligation, these obligations must be respected, even when not observed in a traditional sense.
Though their hearts are pointed to heaven, the rabbis of the Talmud live in the real world.