The Body, Sex, and Holiness - Berakhot 24
We even see a detailed description of the appropriate way to pass gas while in the midst of prayer – the original says l’hit'atesh, “sneezed,” but context indicates this is a euphemism. Rabbi Abba snuck from Babylon back to Israel to learn by eavesdropping from Rabbi Judah, since Rabbi Judah had forbidden any to return from Babylon as a contradiction of the divine will to exile the Jews there. While listening, he learns that one is supposed to either wait for the “wind” (ruakh) to dissipate, or others say he should step back four cubits (the same distance from a privy at which one should remove tefillin) before release and say a special explanatory prayer, part of which today is the traditional prayer on leaving a bathroom.
The general theme of this section is the relationship of the body to prayer – keeping ordinary and “base” bodily functions and material world separate from the elevated words and content of the prayers. In a dirty alley, one covers their mouth to say the Shema. In a bed with others, he must turn away from them and separate himself from his children by a garment. If he is naked in his own bed, he must make a partition between his heart and his “nakedness” (erva) to recite his prayer. Erva in Biblical law is a shameful nakedness that shames the observer as well as the exposed one.
Many examples of Rabbinic bodily anxieties are here mapped onto women – seeing your wife’s finger during a personal Shema, or seeing a woman’s leg, or hearing her voice, or seeing her hair are all erva. From this emerged traditional Jewish prohibitions on women singing or praying with or in front of men, covering their natural hair with wigs, and wearing modest clothing – several steps away from imposing Islamic purda (head to toe covering), but emerging from a similar impulse.
While we today object to the restrictions on personal freedom and dignity this approach imposes, when seeing the latest fashions for teen girls makes you wonder if there isn’t a middle ground that could leave something to the imagination, and to privacy as well. Your body is your own, but that doesn’t mean that privacy, discretion, and consideration are irrelevant to your choices.
Rabbi Adam Chalom