Today’s daf isn’t for the squeamish; the bulk of it focuses on defecation. Finally, a page of Talmud it was easy to interest my nine-year-old daughter in learning!
And speaking of kids, on today’s daf we find ourselves in the middle of another parent-child conversation about educational choices:
Rav Huna said to his son Rabba: What is the reason that you are not to be found among those who study before Rav Hisda, whose halachot are incisive?
Rabba said to him: For what purpose should I go to him? When I go to him, he sits me down and occupies me in mundane matters not related to Torah.
What are those “mundane matters”? Turns out, it’s guidance about, well, pooping. And not hurting yourself in the process. And rectal teeth (which, frankly, sound absolutely terrifying — more on the subject below).
Rather than sympathize with his progeny, Rav Huna calls out his son’s distaste for the topic of conversation and disdain for its relevance:
Rav Huna said to his son Rabba: He is dealing with matters crucial to human life, and you say that he is dealing with mundane matters? Now that I know what you meant, all the more so go before him.
The Gemara then launches into a discourse on the anatomy of rear ends and recommendations for wiping implements. But let’s stay with Rav Huna and Rabba for a moment. Where do the talmudic commentators side in this family squabble?
The question might be phrased as: how do we distinguish between “mundane matters” and “matters related to Torah”? Rashi suggests that “mundane matters” are “purposeless words [divrei hinam] that are not Torah.” This is not entirely helpful, but perhaps Rashi knew better than to intrude on a family feud.
Taking a different approach, the 19th-century commentator Rabbi Yosef Chaim of Baghdad, also known as Ben Yehoyada, joined Rav Huna’s side of the argument over that of his son. Words of health and healing, according to Rabbi Yosef Chaim, like those offered by the teacher Rav Hisda, hint at or are allegories for Torah-related matters.
For example, Rav Hisda provides the following talmudic anatomical lesson:
One who enters a bathroom should not sit down immediately and should not exert himself excessively because the rectum rests upon three teeth, and there is concern lest the teeth of the rectum dislocate through exertion and he come to danger.
Rabbi Yosef Chaim takes this difficult-to-picture image of the rectum resting on three teeth, and connects it to Simon the Righteous’ famous adage: The world rests upon three things: Torah, [Temple] service, and acts of loving kindness (Pirke Avot 2:1). In his interpretation, the rectum represents our material worldly existence while the teeth stand for these three principles. Overzealousness in either defecating or serving God increases the risk of damage and injury.
Rav Yosef Chaim shows us how an apparently mundane discussion is actually Torah in more than one way. On his reading, the daf provides instruction on human physiology and at the same time reminds us of the importance of patience and care in pursuing Torah. There’s such a thing as, ahem, bearing down too hard on one’s studies.