A living being carries itself.”
Today’s Daf Yomi is a journey through the underbelly of the Talmud, literally warts and all. It is not for the squeamish, of which I am one. The portion is a continuation from yesterday when the recovery of a fallen bandage was analyzed. Today, the discussion turns to the removal of warts. Previously, I was convinced that the Rabbis had medicinal concerns, but that is not the case with today’s reading which has led me to believe that hygiene and public health were less of a concern than following Torah and Rabbinic laws.
We are reminded that the priests in the Temple were trusted to follow Torah laws and as a result the Rabbinic guardrails that were developed to bolster compliance with Torah laws did not apply to them. The refrain returns from the previous day’s reading that allowed certain actions in the Temple but not outside its doors or anywhere else in the country. A comparison is made between a priest who has a troubling wart that disqualifies him from his duties and a sacrificial animal that has the same affliction. If the priest and the animal are both in the Temple, it is allowed to cut off the wart by hand. But this action is not allowed elsewhere. We are also told that the wart may not be cut off with an instrument anywhere. I am already uneasy with this text. But there is more.
We are told that there is some sort of distinction between a wet and dry wart. Removing a wet wart by hand is prohibited for reasons I can only imagine, while a dry wart would simply crumble and fall away. There is some disagreement, among what is permissible in the case of moist and dry warts. Everyone seems to agree that the dry wart can be removed by hand, but if you are selective with who you listen to, you may be allowed to also remove it with an instrument.
And if the image of removing a wart by hand is not horrible enough, we are provided with another option. One can bite the wart off. I am convinced that the Rabbis were experimenting with magic mushrooms when they wrote this portion, or perhaps were delirious from the desert sun. We are told that “if a priest grew a wart, which temporarily disqualifies him from performing the service, his fellow priest may cut it off for him on Shabbat with his teeth.” A priest can ask his colleague to bite off a wart from his body with his teeth, while the more hygienic method of using a sterilized instrument is prohibited.
Today’s discussion of warts reminded me of the odd fascination some people have with a doctor who is famous for popping pimples that yield impressive discharge that resembles egg salad. I am too squeamish to watch the online videos all the way through, but there is a fascination with the extraction of pus and blackheads from someone’s pores. It must be a type of satisfaction associated with watching the cleansing of something deep and unknowable, like the illumination of a dark secret. Or maybe it’s the horrified effect associated with watching something truly frightening, like a scream movie. We are scared for a moment, but then in the end, we walk away a little shaken but unscathed.