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, June 12, 2005

Naked Etiquette and Hygiene - Shabbat 41

We saw in tractate Berakhot [blessings] that a not-insubstantial number of rabbinic discussions concerned etiquette in bathing and toilet situations – should one wear tefillin [prayer boxes] into a privy, or recite the Amida [standing prayer], if one is, shall we say, less than modestly attired? A similar set of questions is raised in today’s page, as the rabbis consider the appropriate etiquette for entering or leaving a river for bathing.

Rabbi Zera claims to have seen Abbahu covering his privates in such a setting but is not certain whether he touched himself or not. The Talmud immediately (almost indignantly) asserts that of course he did not, since Rabbi Eliezer clearly taught, “the one who holds his member and urinates is as if he brought a Flood upon the world.” A piece of graffiti I once saw over a urinal dealt with the same issue: “if you shake it more than three times, it’s masturbating.” Abaye defends Abbahu’s behavior, saying there was no risk of impure thoughts because his concern was the river. Others wonder whether he was covering up because he was shamed of his circumcision, but again alternative circumstances explain both position – if one descends towards the river, one need not cover for modesty reasons, but ascending could require discretion. The scholars of Rabbi Ashi did just that – going to the river they stood upright, proud of the covenant of Abraham (i.e. circumcision), but ascending they bent over out of modesty. Note that this entire discussion does not concern holy behavior like reciting blessings, but rather everyday interactions with one’s own body. So while in some areas Judaism can be seen to affirm human sexuality, in others it clearly sees the naked human body as shameful.

We also see here more rabbinic recommendations for healthy living, examples of which we also saw in Berakhot. Eating without drinking leads to stomach trouble, eating without walking at least 4 cubits creates bad breath, having to defecate but still eating is like an oven heated on its ashes and leads to perspiration. And several suggestions concerning bathing are simply argued by analogy: bathing in hot water without drinking any, or bathing hot without a cold shower after, or bathing without anointing afterwards are all frowned upon. Will breaking these rules lead to the consequences described? Probably not – but you’re welcome to experiment!

Rabbi Adam Chalom