One of the most challenging aspects of Gemora study today is being able to step into the environment in which Chazal lived – the agricultural and pre medieval jargon often feels irrelevant to us and makes it harder to internalize the timeless laws and values that they teach us.
As hard as it is to identify with an ox goring a cow, or share cropping, it is even harder to identify with areas of halacha that seem to assume an extremely primitive lifestyle .
For example, so much Talmudic discussion assumes that nighttime was a time without good lighting, and unsuitable for many activities, and candlelight was often an unreliable luxury.
When the Gemara (Brachos 2) assumes that poor people eat dinner early, due to not being able to afford candles to eat by, or discusses what to do when the candles go out during the Shabbos meal ( Pesachim 101a ) , it is kind of hard to identify in an era where electric light is taken for granted in all but the most undeveloped regions .
Yet sometimes, Hashem puts us in situations, where we suddenly able to identify with the sugya- the regular power outages in today’s South Africa, for example, which seem to love shabbos evening in particular, or those experienced even in modern New York in the aftermath of hurricane Sandy , suddenly showed us how we cannot and shouldn’t take it for granted – I am not saying this was Hashem’s reason, chalila, but there is no doubt that we are expected to learn whatever logical lessons we can from situations he puts us in .
One of the ” lighter” though still depressing moments during the horror of the Corona outbreak was the pictures of shoppers from Australia to Israel hoarding toilet paper, often leaving the shelves bare .
The prospect of running short of such an essential commodity in modern times in a modern country was incomprehensible prior to this pandemic, but we soon realised that nothing is to be taken for granted .
The truth is that for most of our history, toilet paper of the modern kind did not exist, and we seem to have managed just fine.
In fact , until recently, having one’s own built in toilet in the house was not the norm, and people used to set aside a demarcated area as an ablution spot, sometimes in ones courtyard and sometimes out in the fields .
This was often fraught with embarrassment and sometimes danger, and we were faced with all kinds of questions regarding davening near a “toilet”, where to leave one’s Tefillin ( which people wore all day), how to ensure modesty, protect against the many demons that were believed to hang out in such places, and of course, on our daf, how to use one on Shabbos.
Finding a suitable toilet was often such a challenge , that in searching for the meaning of the biblical phrase “לעת מצא” – a Eureka moment , one of the Amoraim applies it to the moment one finds a suitable toilet (Brachos 8a) – something hard to appreciate today, but that those of us who have spent hours on safari or driving through India, can certainly identify with more easily .
On our daf, there is a halachik discussion as to how to carry stones on shabbos required for use as “toilet paper.”
In the absence of that most essential of household commodities, the norm was indeed to use a stone, or perhaps a reed, for cleaning oneself .
Although such a discussion might have seemed mundane or even comical to us “moderns”, it is incredible how this suddenly seems more understandable after the events of this year.
Issues discussed include how to carry below the minimum amount required to become liable for punishment , how to avoid the concern of tearing out grass, how to bypass the problem of Muktza, and of course the very important factor of כבוד הבריות ( human dignity ) and how it can push aside rabbinical prohibitions
We daven that we shall merit to appreciate the daily things we take for granted, as well as the wisdom of every word of the Torah, without having to be put in difficult and unimaginable circumstances chalila in order to do so!