Not Your Father's Talmud

Rabbi Adam Chalom of Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in suburban Chicago explores the Talmud from a Humanistic perspective, one page a day.

Location: Highland Park, Illinois, United States

Rabbi Adam Chalom is the Rabbi of Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in suburban Chicago. He is also the Assistant Dean for the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism.

Sunday, May 01, 2005

Bathroom Manners - Berakhot 62

Today’s page begins with odd behavior from an eminent rabbi – Rabbi Akiva claims that he followed another rabbi into a privy [beit kisay – “house of the chair”] and learned three lessons: to use a privy facing north or south but not east or west, to sit rather than stand for “evacuating,” and that one should wipe with the left and not the right hand. And another rabbi claims to have learned the same from watching Rabbi Akiva! Why is this information important for rabbis to learn by personal experience? Rabbi Akiva explains: “it is Torah and I needed to learn.” In other words, the very personal behavior of a teacher could be a model for halakha [religious law], even in that most personal of acts. The same rationale (“it is Torah”) is given for hiding under another rabbi’s bed while he was with his wife, but that’s not the central discussion here.

Why north and south? To avoid facing Israel while creating something universally unclean. Why wipe with the left and not the right? Three alternatives are given: because the Torah was given with the right hand, because it is read with the right hand, or because one binds tefillin [prayer boxes] with it. In my opinion, the rabbis here are actually following a common human standard: what is common (i.e. right-handedness) is better or holy, and what is less common (i.e. left-handedness) is worse and even evil. Berakhot 61a claimed that it was natural to assume that good inclinations came from the right side and evil from the left; similarly, the English word “sinister” derives directly from the Latin for “left side” – “left” in Italian is still sinistra. And the practice of eating with the right hand and wiping with the left is the dominant cultural practice in many parts of the world, including India (as I learned from talking with a college roommate).

In today’s page, we also find why the rabbis are so concerned about what we would call bathroom behavior, both here and earlier in Berakhot – because “modesty” is important even in private. Thus one cannot be called modest with immodest bathroom behavior, even after death; one should evacuate oneself at night as one would during the day (i.e. not uncovering private parts); and one should be alone to do one’s business. And there are still more recommendations: Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel claimed that holding back can cause disease; modesty in a privy protects from bad dreams, scorpions, or evil spirits; and it’s better to do one’s business early in the morning or late at night so as not to have to travel too far. Interesting historical details, but not what one would expect to find for timeless revelation.

Rabbi Adam Chalom