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.

Friday, July 22, 2005

Shabbat 81 – How to Wipe Yourself

Warning – it is advised not to read this entry immediately before or after eating. . .

Early in tractate Berakhot, we saw how preoccupied the Rabbis became with rules concerning outhouses [in Hebrew, beit kisay – house of “the chair”]. The Talmud again returns to the subject in the context of stones – one is prohibited from carrying out a chip or a stone large enough to throw at a bird, and this is the tangent to leap to privy procedures. Why? Because in Talmudic times it was evidently customary to clean oneself after “evacuating” with small stones – paper being tremendously more scarce and thus expensive at the time! And there are special considerations to carrying stones on Shabbat, of course.

Initially, the standard of stones used in a privy was to use three of specific sizes, but an authority points out that one is hardly inclined to weigh them on a scale to find out, so the standard is changed to “maleh ha-yad - a handful.” One is not supposed to “evacuate” on a ploughed field on Shabbat, lest it cause a clod of dirt to fall in a hole and qualify as the forbidden action of ploughing; nor should one cleanse with a potsherd – not because of any danger or suspicion of witchcraft, nor because it might unintentionally tear out hair, but because Rabbi Yokhanan said it lest you think that as a utensil, a shard would be permitted. In other words, they can’t find a real reason, but because a famous rabbi said it, they have to at least find a reason for why he said it even if not for the rule itself.

We also find Rabbinic advice for avoiding takhtoniot, or hemorrhoids – do not eat leaves of vines or reeds, the spine of a fish, or drink the lees of wine; and do not wipe yourself with lime, clay, or [read on at your own risk!] a chip one’s neighbor has already used. Now Rabbi Sheshet would allow this last case, since the stone would be evidently of a size permissible to handle on Shabbat since a previous user had already done so.

This entire question brings two thoughts to my mind. First, there has to be a limit to reusing items in the bathroom. When, a few years ago, my wife suggested that we start buying recycled toilet paper, I stared at her aghast until she quickly clarified that we should buy toilet paper made from recycled paper – I had obviously understood her very differently. Second, knowing how to wipe yourself is one of the basic steps to independence – at first you’re taught by a parent, but you soon figure out how to do it best for yourself. If we didn’t think the Talmud’s rabbis were a little anal retentive before now, it is certainly more plausible than ever before.

Rabbi Adam Chalom