Praying In a Tank

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by R. Gil Student

I. Where to Pray

Soldiers, like all professionals, use their extensive training and experience to inform their behavior in the field but ultimately they must improvise based on real-life circumstances. Tanks offer limited room for personal movement. They do not have sleeping quarters. However, during war a soldier may not have the option to leave the tank and sleep on the ground. He may have to stay in the tank for days at a time.

Tanks not only lack sleeping quarters but also toilet facilities. When you must remain inside your tank, you need to improvise. From what I understand, standard practice is to use old water bottles and a metal box to hold the waste until they can empty and clean them. While this solves the logistical problem for soldiers, it creates a halakhic problem.

You are not allowed to pray in the presence of tzo’ah (excrement). The Gemara (Berakhos 25a) says that you must distance yourself at least four amos from tzo’ah before reciting Shema. Shulchan Arukh (Orach Chaim 79:1) says that you must be four amos not only from the tzo’ah but also from the reach of its smell, and you must not be able to see it. How do you pray inside a tank when you are not allowed to pray near tzo’ah?

During or after Operation Cast Lead, known as the 2008-2009 Gaza War, Rav Yosef Tzvi Rimon was asked by a soldier this question. The soldier said that he had not let the tank for a week and a half. How was he supposed to pray?(Halakhah Mi-Mkorah, Tzava, vol. 1, pp. 327-331) Rav Rimon notes that on a trip to the US, he had been asked whether soldiers during battle are exempt from the obligation to pray. He replied that he had never been asked by a soldier about not praying. He is only asked about how a soldier can pray because soldiers want to do so.

II. Hospital Curtain

As mentioned above, you have to distance yourself four amos from the tzo’ah before praying, even when it is hidden from view. There is not enough room inside a tank for that. However, there are other options. The Gemara (ibid., 25b) says that if the tzo’ah is in another domain, you can pray without any significant distance as long as you do not smell the tzo’ah. Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach was asked about a patient in a hospital in which near his bed is a container with tzo’ah in it (Halikhos Shlomo, Tefillah 20:6). He replied that the patient can close his curtains and pray if he does not smell the tzo’ah. He points out (ibid., n. 10) that while Mishnah Berurah (Bi’ur Halakhah 87:3 s.v. mutar) requires a full mechitzah, i.e. an actual divider from wall to wall, here the curtain suffices because it hides the tzo’ah from view. Since the verse says “and cover your refuse” (Deut. 23:14), a curtain that covers sight of the offending material is sufficient. This assumes that the patient does not smell the tzo’ah.

The same question applies when a hospital roommate has a bed pan. Rav Moshe Stern argues at length that a curtain constitutes a sufficient separation for these purposes even if it is not a halakhic wall (Be’er Moshe, vol. 1, no. 3). Rav Eliezer Waldenburg quotes Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv as disagreeing but argues in favor of Rav Auerbach’s view (Tzitz Eliezer, vol. 12, no. 11). Rav Waldenburg adds that if the curtain serves as a wall, then any smell is coming from another domain and does not prevent prayer. However, if the curtain serves only as a covering and not as a wall, then you need to do something to disperse the smell. Rav Waldenburg follows the view that spices or incense that mask the smell suffice. Others require a fan or air filter to remove the smell.

III. Boxed In

Unlike a hospital, a tank does not allow room for a curtain. However, there is another reason to permit prayer in close proximity to the tzo’ah. The Gemara (Berakhos 25b) says that you may recite Shema facing tzo’ah that is in a glass container. Even though you can see the tzo’ah through the glass, it is covered and covering is the key element. Based on this, Rambam (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhos Keri’as Shema 3:9) rules that any utensil that covers the tzo’ah suffices as long as you do not smell the tzo’ah. Mishnah Berurah (87:10) and Bi’ur Halakhah (87:3 s.v. ve-khen) discuss different kinds of utensils which do not work. However, if the utensil fully seals in the tzo’ah, it definitely serves as a covering for this purpose.

Based on the above, Rav Rimon writes that the box used as a toilet in the tank suffices to cover the tzo’ah. Since the box is completely closed, the tzo’ah is covered. If there is any smell then the soldiers should turn on the air filter to remove the smell. In that way, the soldier may pray inside the tank without concern for the tzo’ah.

While this is sufficient, Rav Rimon offers an additional thought regarding the smell. When is the smell of tzo’ah so bad that it prohibits prayer and Torah learning? Some places smell nice and others have various odors. Is a farmer never allowed to pray because there is a smell of manure throughout the area? Are you never allowed to pray on a kibbutz? Rav Rimon notes that Shulchan Arukh (Orach Chaim 86:1) forbids reciting Shema near foul-smelling water. Mishnha Berurah (ad loc., no. 1) says that the smell must be one that it is the way to (i.e. most people) find it offensive. Rav Rimon suggests that if that is the smell that residents normally smell and are used to, then it is permitted for everyone to pray there. Perhaps that also applies to the smell inside a tank to which soldiers are accustomed. However, whenever possible, they should put on the air filter during prayer.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Editor of, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student currently is serving his third term on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and also serves as the Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He serves on the Editorial Board of Jewish Action magazineand the Board of OU Press. He has published four English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

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