On yesterday’s daf we learned of the Sages’ concern with private interactions between men and women lest they lead to sexual impropriety, and the laws of yihud – of forbidding a man and woman from being alone in a secluded place. Our Gemara clarifies that in circumstances where the likelihood of impropriety is small – e.g. ba’alah ba’ir (the woman’s husband is nearby) or petah patu’ah le-reshut ha-rabim (there is an open entrance to a public place) – the prohibition of yihud does not exist.
Those exceptions notwithstanding, the Sages were well aware of the power of sexual drives, and tell stories about upstanding members of the community who were saved from sinning only at the last moment. Some of the examples include:
A group of women who had been held captive were redeemed by the community of Neharda’a and were lodged in the home of Rav Amram Ḥasida (“the pious”). He arranged for them to sleep in his attic and had the ladder leading to the attic removed at night so that no one would disturb them. One of them passed by the opening to the attic, and seeing her, Rav Amram was so overwhelmed with desire for her that he lifted the heavy ladder on his own and began to climb towards the attic. Halfway up Rav Amram realized what he was doing and began to shout “there is a fire in Rav Amram’s house.” In response to his shouts, the Sages came running to help and found him in his bedclothes climbing up towards the women. Upon bringing him down he was accused of embarrassing them before the community that could plainly see what Rav Amram’s intentions were. Rav Amram responded that it is better that the members of his household should be embarrassed in this world rather than in the next world.
The Maharsha writes that aside from the embarrassment involved, Rav Amram could not be accused of lying. When he shouted that there was a fire in Rav Amram’s house, he was telling the truth – not a fire that threatened the house physically, but the fire of his evil desire that threatened him spiritually. Rav Amram made use of the simple meaning of his shout to attract the crowd who thought that there was a “real” fire, and who would thereby “save” him from the spiritual “fire” that was burning.