haredim bathroom 298.
(photo credit: Channel 2)
We might expect that certain subjects are beyond the purview of talmudic discussion. Thus we might be surprised to discover that the Talmud offers advice about bathroom conduct, though it hardly seems appropriate for our hallowed texts to deal with such an unsanctified, mundane place.
In this vein, our sages tell us that there are three things which lengthen a person's life: Praying for a long time, spending extended periods at the dinner table and taking one's time in the privy (B. Brachot 54b-55a).
Focusing on the third item, the Talmud queries whether it is really such a good idea to sit for lengthy periods on the toilet. Quoting an early tradition, it notes that according to some, squatting too much in the lavatory can be a cause of hemorrhoids. An explanation for the contradictory sources is offered: Spending significant time in the toilet does have health benefits, though lengthy squatting can be harmful.
A story is recounted corroborating the contention that visits to the lavatory are encouraged. A certain noblewoman commented to Rabbi Yehuda ben Ilai about his appearance: "Your radiant countenance resembles that of pig breeders and usurers." The noblewoman referred to two professions that were not labor-intensive, but rather profitable. Pig breeders and usurers were generally happy with their lot - an easy, comfortable living - and their faces would consequently shine. The woman had intended to offer the sage a compliment.
Rabbi Yehuda ben Ilai, who was no pig breeder or usurer, protested determinedly: "Faith! Both of these occupations are prohibited to me!" Indeed, usury is a biblical prohibition (see Leviticus 25: 36-37) and raising pigs is proscribed in the Talmud (B. Bava Kama 82b).
Why then did Rabbi Yehuda ben Ilai have such a luminous countenance? He explained: "There are 24 privies between my lodgings and the beit midrash [house of study]. When I go from one location to the other, I check myself in all of them to see if I need to use the toilet!" The sum of the talmudic passage is that lengthy and frequent toilet visits can produce a shining countenance and may lengthen life.
Reading this passage we are immediately confounded by the apparent contradiction between the Talmud's advice and common knowledge. Could the Talmud truly be recommending that on our daily journey to work we stop at 24 public facilities?
The hassidic master, Rabbi Nahman of Breslov (1772-1810) urged people to diligently pray early in the morning without delay, adding a comment about excessive toilet use before the spiritual practices of prayer and studying Torah: "Don't make the mistake of those who are particular about cleanliness and spend much time on the matter and waste most of their days from Torah and prayer because of it. Moreover, they actively destroy their bodies and bring sickness upon themselves, as is well-known. For it is all futility and foolishness, and it is the handiwork of the evil urge who clothes himself in these stringencies. In truth, as long as a person doesn't really need to go to the toilet, he is permitted to pray."
Dismissing authorities who suggested otherwise, Rabbi Nahman wrote: "Pay no attention to the opinions of those who are stringent in this matter, for they have greatly erred. Even if you find in some halachic work a stringency in this matter, the law does not follow this opinion; rather the law accords with the majority of halachic decisors who are extremely lenient about this matter."
Alas, Rabbi Nahman did not relate to our talmudic passage and we are left wondering what he thought of Rabbi Yehuda ben Ilai's 24 toilet stops on the way to the beit midrash. Clearly Rabbi Nahman was not one to advocate such frequent visits to the privy. In comparison to the Talmud, the codes advocate a somewhat tempered approach to bathroom visits. Maimonides (12th century, Cairo) encouraged a bathroom visit before and after each meal. The Shulhan Aruch (16th century, Safed) merely urged people to consider if they need to go to the restroom, and the Remah (16th century, Krakow) added that a person should make a habit of going to the facilities in the morning and in the evening.
The halachist and hassidic master, Rabbi Haim Elazar Shapiro of Munkatch (1871-1937), boldly tackled this issue in his commentary to the Shulhan Aruch. Throughout his writings it is apparent that the Munkatcher Rebbe saw himself as a protector of tradition and for him to query a talmudic dictum and the classic codes was unusual.
Even the formula offered by Maimonides - before and after every meal - together with a visit to the restroom upon waking and before going to sleep as advocated by the Remah, would result in a person going to the bathroom eight times a day, which the Munkatcher Rebbe felt was still excessive.
He further noted that his father and predecessor in Munkatch had already respectfully dismissed this medical advice of Maimonides: "Even though Maimonides is the light of our eyes in Torah matters, the father of wise people and the head of doctors," if a person uses the facilities with the frequency recommended by Maimonides, hemorrhoids will result.
Thus the Munkatcher Rebbe did not advocate such frequent visits to the privy. Nevertheless, how should the talmudic dicta be understood? He adopted a line that had been suggested by others with regard to medical advice of the Talmud and the codes: Human physiology has changed since talmudic times. While frequent visits to the lavatory may have been advantageous for the sages, we should limit our time in the bathroom.
Indeed, changes of all types occur over time: changes in nature, in knowledge, in society, in perceptions, in priorities and many more. The challenge, of course, is to be able to discern between changes of different stripes; to have the wisdom to know which changes justify a change in our ever-evolving tradition and before which changes the fortress of our tradition must stand strong.
The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.
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