Bodily Cleanliness for Prayer

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Parshat Terumah

Let’s stipulate we are all in close enough contact with our inner child to make bathroom jokes, then set aside the temptation. Siman 76 of Orach Chayim discuss the problems with the presence of feces or urine for prayer and how we can alleviate the issues.

Manure Is Like Ervah, Except Where It’s Not

Ervah, the presence of nakedness of various sorts, provides a good point of comparison for tzo’ah, manure. Similar to ervah, a Jew may not recite Shema, the Amidah (what we more commonly call Shemoneh Esrei), any blessings, or words of Torah, in proximity to tzo’ah. More stringently, in the presence of feces, a Jew must avoid thinking about any of these topics, AH had already told us in siman 74.

Se’if three expands on the idea of presence. If someone is carrying manure and passes by a Jew reciting Shema, s/he must stop until the tzo’ah is out of range (we might have thought its motion negated our need to pay attention to it). For matter to the side or behind the Jew, four amot is enough, as long as there is no foul odor; if the fecal matter is in front of the person, AH knows a view that also allows, but he disagrees, thinks the person saying Shema would either have to move so as not to see it anymore, or wait until the person holding it travels out of eyeshot.

Covers, Not Visibility

Our focus on sight might mislead us, because Devarim 23;14 requires Jews to cover their waste after relieving themselves, where seeing the ervah is the whole problem. Covering manure with glass suffices, despite our being able to see it, where it would not do so for ervah. [I could have imagined questioning this inference, since the verse speaks of covering the waste with sand or dirt, not transparent, but I do not know of anyone who disagrees with AH on this.]

Along the same lines, a Jew may place his/her shoe over a pit or hole with manure in it; as long as no odor exudes from the hole, the Jew could recite Shema, etc. (smell is the other problem of tzo’ah; AH does note a view that allowed reciting Shema/ prayer as long as a mechitzah separated the person from the tzo’ah even if there is a foul smell, but a shoe is a cover, not a divider).

Water does not count as a cover, se’if four tells us (I think because it is not solid), unless it is sufficiently muddy such that the tzo’ah cannot be detected (including, of course, lack of smell). In an addendum largely no longer relevant to us, the mouth of a pig was considered to always have tzo’ah, meaning that Jews could not wear tefillin, recite blessings, etc., in the presence of a pig or where pigs are usually found. The pig might be right out of a river (where it ostensibly was cleaned), and it has all the rules of tzo’ah.

Se’if eleven accepts thick spit as a cover, for as long as it is thick enough to fully hide the feces from sight.

Manure on the Body

In se’if two, AH did not accept one’s shoe as cover for manure if the shoe would have contact with the material, because it would be as if on the person’s body. AH paired it with a reminder to wipe one’s shoes when leaving a bathroom, to ensure no fecal matter had gotten on it.

Where such matter might be on the body, but covered and with no odor (there are memes about the difficulty of cleaning after eliminating waste), R. Huna and R. Hisda disagreed, Berachot 25a. R. Huna cited the verse kol ha-neshama tehallel Kah (the very end of Tehillim), every soul (or, all of the soul) shall praise Hashem. For him, neshama means the mouth, nose, and respiratory organs (I think because breath is life).

R. Hisda countered withTehillim35;10, kol atzmotai tomarna, all my bones/body parts says God, Who is like You? [the source for the idea of shukkling, moving one’s body in prayer, to incorporate as much of the body as one can]. According to this verse, the entire body contributes to the praise, and must be completely clean.

Remnants, Rishum, and Rectum

Se’ifim six through ten take us through a bunch of concerns I choose to summarize even more briefly than usual. AH accepts Shulchan Aruch’s stringency in se’if four to only ignore tzo’ah on the body if on a body part generally covered by skin (such as the folds of the elbows, he says), not clothing. For this view, AH explains, feces on the body stops our camp from being sanctified, and clothing on top of it does not help. If it is in a place where it is generally not seen, that will be different.

Rambam had another leniency, actual feces differs from remnants. Especially where a Jew does not have water to wash one’s body or hands, s/he might have cleaned off as much manure as possible, but still see the color of it in some spots (without any odor). Rambam held the Jew could ignore those remnants, although he knew the view of the Geonim that the hands must be actually clean. When possible, he recommended adhering to that view.

Magen Avraham 76;6 allowed one to pray even if there is tzo’ah on a piece of clothing, as long as that clothing is covered by another piece of clothing. With a shoe, since the manure will be visible as the person walks, it must be removed, not just covered.

The last example I take up here is the rectum, from which the feces is expelled. It can be difficult to fully clean the area, leading AH to invoke the principle lo nitnah Torah le-mal’achei ha-sharet, the Torah was not given to angels (and therefore we are not always required to accomplish the ideal). A person who cleans him/herself so that no feces will be visible when standing or sitting has done enough.

However, someone with a proctological illness that leads to constant (I assume he means near-constant) seepage of disgusting matter will have to refrain from prayers of any sort until the problem is solved. If it happens periodically, the person can clean him/herself carefully and pray/ read Shema right away, need not assume the leak will happen again immediately.

Places of Tzo’ah

Se’ifim 12-17 grapple with issues we largely can ignore because of our improved lavatory and diaper facilities. While an ashpah, a place for collecting refuse, is always considered likely to have tzo’ah, such that a Jew could only pray/read Shema there if it was carefully checked, houses had a less clear status.

A house with toddlers who are not yet toilet trained, for example, might be more likely to obligate us to suspect/expect they have left their mark in various places, create a responsibility to check such places before praying. On the other hand, we might be allowed to rely on the general tendency to be vigilant about cleaning up after them.

As I said before, with diapers, these problems crop up much less often (although when I had younger children, they didn’t never arise, including in public places), so I will leave this for now. One last quick point is that animal droppings do not have these same rules; while a foul odor is still a problem, the droppings themselves do not preclude reciting Shema (because the verse of covering tzo’ah addressed only human waste).

Urine and Other Disgusting Secretions

Our discussion thus far spoke of manure because the Biblical prohibition for urine, the other major bathroom experience, includes only reciting Shema near someone in the act of urination. There is a derabbanan, a Rabbinic prohibition, elaborated in the next siman (fortunately for me, we skip around, so it might be awhile before we return to this). For our purposes, the fact of its being derabbanan means that we can ignore cases of doubt, need not worry there is urine there.

The Rabbinic rule does complicate our lives in other ways, because AH thinks it extends to anything disgusting, vomit, snot, mucus, phlegm, they being no less disgusting than urine (he says; people in my experience do not always treat them the same. Vomit, definitely, the others…).

Amos 4;12 tells Jews to prepare when greeting God, including the cleanliness of our bodies and our surroundings. Only some of which we have reviewed this week.

About Gidon Rothstein

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