It is often difficult for us to imagine a community where the laws of ritual purity were kept, creating situations where individuals needed to be keenly aware of their status as ritually pure or unclean. The Gemara on today’s daf tells a story that shows the concern and sensitivity that people had during those times.
The Gemara relates:
There was an incident involving the maidservant of Rabban Gamliel who was baking loaves of teruma bread. In between each one she washed her hands with water and examined herself. After the last one when she held the examination she found herself to be impure due to menstrual blood and she came and asked Rabban Gamliel about the status of the loaves. He told her that they were all impure. ‘My teacher,’ she said to him, ‘didn’t I perform an examination in between each one?’ ‘If so,’ he told her, ‘the last is impure while all the others are pure.’
There are a number of explanations offered to clarify what happened in this story. Why did Rabban Gamliel first rule that the maid had made all of the teruma loaves impure, only to change his mind and disqualify only the last loaf?
The Me’il Shmu’el suggests that the maid most likely neglected to mention her practice of examining herself between each batch of loaves, and only raised the issue when she realized that Rabban Gamliel did not realize that was her practice. Her surprise expression of ‘didn’t I perform an examination in between each one?’ stems from her assumption that since it was her ordinary practice, surely it was known to all, but, in fact, Rabban Gamliel was unaware that she did so. The Ḥatam Sofer argues that the maid must have included in her story the fact that she washed her hands and examined herself regularly. Rabban Gamliel did not understand, however, that she did so with the specific intention to check that she was clean for the purposes of keeping the teruma ritually pure. Once she clarified that she did so for the purpose of ritual purity, Rabban Gamliel changed his ruling.
The Gemara does not indicate which Rabban Gamliel offered this ruling. According to the Rashbam it is Rabban Gamliel HaZaken who lived while the Temple was still standing, when these laws were still practiced by all. Tosafot suggests that it might be his son, Rabban Gamliel of Yavne.