In The Privy
‘Rav Quotes Elazar ben Rabbi Shimon’
Raba on our daf cites a long halachic discussion by Rabbi Elazar ben Rabbi Shimon regarding various laws, noting that this discussion took place in a bathroom. The Gemara wonders how he was allowed to discuss Torah in such a place. It answers that “unwillingly is different.” Rashi comments (s.v. “le’onso“): “His learning was constantly flowing on his lips, and his thinking in these matters was beyond his control.”
But even if Rabbi Elazar ben Rabbi Shimon was so involved in Torah matters that he thought Torah thoughts unwillingly, why did he have to verbalize them? Since the Gemara doesn’t ask this question, the Perishah (Orach Chayim 85, cited by Pri Megadim, ibid.) argues that thinking Torah thoughts is just as bad as articulating Torah thoughts, and since Rabbi Elazar ben Rabbi Shimon was already thinking words of Torah unwillingly, he was permitted to verbalize them.
Compare Thought To Speech
This chidush is strongly rejected by the Chida (in his Birkei Yosef) and other Acharonim as it is a clear halacha that in the “middle room” – a room before a bathhouse – one may not speak words of Torah but one may think them! Obviously, then, the two prohibitions are not of the same level of severity. It is also evident from other halachos, such as those concerning birkas haTorah, that thought and speech are not halachically equivalent. Therefore, the question remains: Why did Rabbi Elazar ben Rabbi Shimon verbalize Torah thoughts in the bathroom if he could have limited himself to thinking them?
The author of Tzon Kodoshim explains that Rabbi Elazar ben Rabbi Shimon actually did not verbalize any Torah thoughts in the bathroom. He thought them in the bathroom and later articulated them in the beis midrash (Mishnah Berurah, 85, s.k. 8, and see Sefas Emes on our sugya).
Even with this answer, though, we must still understand how Rabbi Elazar ben Rabbi Shimon even thought Torah thoughts in a bathroom if doing so is forbidden. Surely he could have controlled himself.
To answer this question, HaGaon Rav Efrayim Burdianski, zt”l, examines the essential nature of thought. When we think about our thoughts, we discover that many of them are like dreams; we imagine events without putting them into words. A person will think about a house, for example, contemplating all sides of it, but does not necessarily “talk to himself” about it.
We thus have two types of thought: thought in words and thought in images. It is possible that the prohibition to think in an unclean place applies only to thoughts that resemble speech – i.e., thought in words – not thoughts that resemble pictures. And Rabbi Elazar ben Rabbi Shimon perhaps was thinking Torah thoughts in “pictures,” or concepts, which is only rabbinically forbidden.
When the Gemara states that “unwillingly is different,” it means that Chazal did not prohibit thinking Torah thoughts in pictures for people so deeply involved in Torah that they cannot detach themselves from Torah thoughts (Mishkenos Efrayim 18, and see Mishnah Berurah, ibid, and Chazon Ish, Orach Chayim, s.k. 18; on whether thinking Torah in unclean places is forbidden midoraysa. See also Nishmas Adam, kelal 3, os 2, and Pri Megadim in the general preface, end of cheilek 5).